Had Jerry Garcia been alive, he would have turned 76 in August. But the legendary guitarist, singer and de facto leader of the Grateful Dead died, at 53, in the August of 1995. In the nearly 23 years since, his legacy has grown. In part, it is because even after he’s gone the remaining members of the band have been active, reuniting, adding new members, and playing their vast repertoire of songs, many of them composed by Garcia and his long-time collaborator and lyricist, Robert Hunter. But also because more recordings of his work—with the band, with his other side projects, and his solo performances—have been published since he died than were available when he lived. The latest is a box set: five LPs (or four CDs) titled Jerry Garcia Before The Dead, extensive recordings of songs that Garcia played in the early 1960s, much before the formation of the band that made him famous.

Before The Dead is an exhaustive project that has been more than 20 years in the making. Produced by the Grateful Dead’s biographer and publicist, Dennis McNally, and an audio engineer and archivist, Brian Miksis, the box set delves deep into the past, unearthing recordings that date back to when Garcia was still in his teens, teaching himself the guitar and the banjo and reviving old American folk and bluegrass songs. It opens with a set of songs at a hootenanny, an informal folk music performance, organized in California’s Menlo Park in 1961 on the 16th birthday of Garcia’s then girlfriend, Barbara Meier. Garcia, then 18, played a set of eight songs as a duo with Hunter. Strumming on the guitar, he seems aeons away from the virtuoso he would become later. The songs are sea shanties; traditional spiritual compositions; and old folk songs.

Later on in the box set, there are sets of old Americana tunes that Garcia plays with an unknown musician; with early bands called Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers, the Hart Valley Drifters, The Wildwood Boys; and a set with his first wife, Sara. On many of the songs on Before The Dead, Garcia, who would later become a guitar genius and cult-spawning icon of the psychedelic rock of the late 1960s, preferred to play the banjo, and, once, in between songs, when someone shouted out a request, he countered it by saying: “Me, play rock ‘n’ roll? That never happened." As any Deadhead knows, those were famous last words.

But Before The Dead is from an era that predates the long, strange and magical trip that Garcia embarked upon after the Grateful Dead were formed in 1965. It’s a prequel that covers a short three-year span (1961-64) during which he immersed himself in what became a movement to resurrect old American folk and bluegrass music. The bands he played with were revivalists intent on resurrecting traditional music in what may have been a reaction against the state of popular music of the day—a genre that had then become studio-polished and chart-ready to meet radio and commercial objectives.

In contrast, Before The Dead’s set lists are raw and uncompromising—the songs, rendered in traditional style by musicians who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying what they were doing for audiences, whether at Barbara Meier’s birthday party, or at the tiny and intimate bars and coffee-houses where the other recordings were made.

On all the box set’s records, you can hear a lot of banter—with Garcia (usually) talking between songs about this and that and cracking jokes or taking friendly jibes at his fellow musicians. There is obvious rapport between everyone present. There is also the unmistakably personable impression that the young Garcia makes, an attribute that would grow and influence the personality of the iconic band that he would form a few years later with the other founding members, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan and Bill Kreutzmann.

Then there is the music. A disclaimer is necessary, though. Before The Dead may not deeply engage those who are not hard-core fans of the Grateful Dead and of Garcia. If Garcia’s mainly acoustic side projects, such as the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band, Old And In The Way, and Garcia and Grisman, excite you, Before The Dead should be mandatory listening. But even if they do not, it’s a great entry point towards exploring bluegrass, folk and traditional American music.

Deadheads, both newbies as well as the hard-core variety, will exult over a set from 1963 on which Garcia and his newly-wed wife Sara do an early version of an old traditional, Deep Elem Blues, a song that the Grateful Dead would perform nearly 50 times and one that would feature on Reckoning, an album of acoustic live recordings by the band released in 1981. But many of the other songs on the records that make up Before The Dead may be unfamiliar, although some of them, in poorer quality recordings, have been floating around for a while. Listeners will recognize another sung by the husband and wife duo, Long Black Veil, an old ballad about a man wrongly accused of murder. And will undoubtedly marvel at Garcia’s a capella rendition of a traditional song, The Wagoner’s Lad.

Producers McNally and Miksis have painstakingly retrieved master-tapes and restored old recordings, which were often made on equipment that would be technologically ancient today, to create a set of records that not only have great historical value but further add to the rich legacy of Garcia, a musician who was not only respected, admired and loved for his virtuosity but also considered to be among the most influential.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

firstbeat@livemint.com

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