I can’t believe Jerry Garcia has been gone for twenty-five years. And after all this time, I still miss seeing him. Those days of traveling to see the Grateful Dead perform were some of the best times of my life. In the years since then, many artists have kept the music alive with tributes and concert performances of the Dead’s material. It seems the Dead’s music has been played in every possible musical style, from punk to bluegrass, from full orchestral renditions to children’s lullabies. Guitarist Damià Timoner, from Mallorca, a Spanish island in the Mediterranean, offers his personal take on some Grateful Dead material on his new release, Jerry’s Smilin’: A Guitar Tribute To The Grateful Dead. He makes some interesting and unusual choices of material to cover here, offering versions of songs like “Built To Last,” Blow Away” and “Operator,” which aren’t often performed. That’s exciting for those of us who are big Dead fans. But you don’t have to be a Grateful Dead fan to enjoy this beautiful album. You just need to be able to appreciate excellent and passionate guitar playing.
This disc opens with a sweet, gentle rendition of “Brown-Eyed Women,” a song written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, and one that tells a sad tale of the Great Depression. Damià Timoner lets his guitar express that story, and the results are wonderful and moving. He follows that with another Garcia/Hunter composition, “Ramble On Rose.” This one has a bright, cheerful vibe, a song to get the spirits high. The Dead usually performed it in the first set, and everyone would cheer the line “Take you to the leader of the band,” which people took to be a reference to Jerry himself. Both of these first two tracks were audience favorites in concert, and in fact neither was ever included on a Grateful Dead studio release. Both first appeared on Europe ‘72. We then get a really nice rendition of “Cassidy,” a song written by Bob Weir and John Perry Barlow. This is one of my favorite Grateful Dead songs, and when I had a chance to meet Barlow, it was the song I chose to talk to him about. Turns out it was one of his favorites too. It was originally included on Ace, which is sort of a Bob Weir solo album (sort of, because, apart from Pigpen, the entire band performs on it), but the version that Damià Timoner takes his inspiration from is that on the live acoustic album Reckoning, recorded in 1980 and released in 1981. His guitar work is particularly pretty here, and this is one of my favorite tracks.
As I mentioned, there are some surprising choices of songs on this album. The first of those is “Built To Last,” the song chosen as the title track for the band’s final studio album, but one they played live for only a short time (approximately a year and a half). I have to admit, it’s not one I listen to, or even think of, all that often. But this rendition by Damià Timoner is giving me a fresh appreciation of it, and I’m going to have to go back and seek out some of the Dead’s performances of it. There is something both comforting and uplifting about this track. That’s followed by “Terrapin Station,” a song that never failed to please the audience, one that, even from its very inception, had an almost magical sense about it. On the studio release, this song, titled “Terrapin Part 1,” takes up an entire album side, and includes pieces that weren’t performed in concert. The Dead basically played the “Lady With A Fan” and “Terrapin Station” sections, and those are what Damià Timoner presents here. On tapes we usually just called it “Terrapin Station” (sort of how that one section from “That’s It For The Other One” – “The Faster We Go, The Rounder We Get” – just became known as “The Other One”). This song is a somewhat surprising choice here, not because it’s rare – it’s not – but because you might not think it would work in a solo guitar setting, being so intricate, with lots of parts. Yet it ends up working extremely well, moving us on the “Inspiration” part just as we would hope.
Another of the disc’s surprises is “Blow Away,” a song written by Brent Mydland and John Perry Barlow, and originally included on Built To Last. I don’t listen to that album very often, but I do listen to live versions of this song, because Brent would often do some wild and delightful vocal riffing toward the end, and the song would take on a fantastic energy. Listen to the version from July 7, 1989 for a great example of that. Damià Timoner’s rendition highlights the song’s beauty, something that you might overlook during the Dead’s more rowdy versions. That’s followed by “Loser,” one of the first songs I remember hearing covered by more mainstream rock acts. Cracker included a version of it on the 1993 album Kerosene Hat. “Loser” was originally included on Jerry Garcia’s first solo album, and later included on the live Dead album Dead Set (released the same year as Reckoning). In the liner notes for Jerry’s Smilin’ it is mentioned that is the Dead Set version that influenced Damià’s rendition.
My favorite album of all time is the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty, and from that album Damià Timoner makes another unusual choice, presenting a rendition of “Operator,” written by Ron McKernan, better known as Pigpen. This is a bluesy folk number that the Dead played only four times in concert, all in 1970, and it’s wonderful that Damià Timoner has chosen to include it here. He delivers a good rendition. That’s followed by “Dark Star.” One thing that was sure to get an entire audience excited was the Dead playing those opening notes of “Dark Star.” I saw my first “Dark Star” in Washington D.C. in 1990, and it was a thrilling moment. A more playful time was when the Dead sprinkled “Dark Star” teases throughout a show, yet never played the actual song. That was in New Jersey in 1991. We were loving it. This is one of the band’s most psychedelic numbers, so it is another interesting choice for a solo acoustic guitar performance, and I love the way Damià handles it. This is certainly one of the disc’s best tracks. The album concludes with “Touch Of Grey,” the band’s hit. This was the first song I ever saw the Dead perform, so it remains special to me. Damià Timoner’s version captures the cheerful, bouncy, optimistic sense of this song incredibly well. And these days we need the optimism of the closing lines “We will get by, we will survive,” perhaps more than ever before.
CD Track List
- Brown-Eyed Women
- Ramble On Rose
- Built To Last
- Lady With A Fan/Terrapin Station
- Blow Away
- Dark Star
- Touch Of Grey
Jerry’s Smilin’: A Guitar Tribute To The Grateful Dead was released on October 9, 2020.