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Four-Disc 'Keystone Companions' Box Set by Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders Coming September 25

Fantasy Records has announced plans for a four-disc box set by Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders, Keystone Companions/The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings.

The album, which was recorded live in July 1973 at the Keystone Club in Berkeley, California, will be released September 25, part of the celebration surrounding the late Garcia's 70th birthday (August 1).

The box set will include vintage photos, extensive liner notes by Grateful Dead expert David Gans, a poster, coaster, button and “scratchbook” (replicating the design of the original album’s promotional matchbooks).

The band featured Saunders on keyboards; Garcia, guitar and vocals; John Kahn, bass; and Bill Vitt, drums. David Grisman added mandolin to Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street.” The mix of songs ranged from Saunders originals to covers of songs by Jimmy Cliff, Junior Parker, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Rodgers & Hart, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Don Nix and Dan Penn and Dylan.

San Francisco-born keyboardist Merl Saunders had been writing and performing in New York before returning to the West Coast. Producer Nick Gravenites offered him studio work that included playing with Garcia, already at the helm of the Grateful Dead. “Garcia reminded me of [jazz guitarist] Eric Gale,” Saunders said. “Anything he played was very musical. He knew how to do a rhythm on any kind of tune — gospel, blues, jazz. I was amazed.”

Saunders also helped Garcia expand his harmonic knowledge and even showed him some Art Tatum runs. “He taught me music,” Garcia said of his friend.

By December 1970, a weekly jam session featuring Saunders, Garcia, Kahn, and Vitt had become a weekly gig at San Francisco’s Matrix. Garcia was already a major figure in the musical counterculture as lead guitarist for the Dead, so he kept this new band low-key — so much that it never really had a name (although it was referred to as The Group at times.) As Garcia said, “I couldn’t take the pressure of being a double celebrity. It’s a drag just being it once.” (That didn’t stop the itinerant Garcia from having a third band as well, Old and In the Way, with David Grisman, Peter Rowan and Vassar Clements.)

Live at Keystone, originally released as a double LP, was recorded by Grateful Dead associates Betty Cantor and Rex Jackson; all four artists are credited as producers. Additional material was released as Live at Keystone, Volumes 1 & 2 in 1988. This new box set assembles the original recordings and presents them, remastered, in the order in which the songs were performed at those two shows.

Also on September 25, Fantasy Records will reissue the first Saunders/Garcia album, Live at Keystone.

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Damian Fanelli
Damian Fanelli

Damian is Editor-in-Chief of Guitar World magazine. In past lives, he was GW’s managing editor and online managing editor. He's written liner notes for major-label releases, including Stevie Ray Vaughan's 'The Complete Epic Recordings Collection' (Sony Legacy) and has interviewed everyone from Yngwie Malmsteen to Kevin Bacon (with a few memorable Eric Clapton chats thrown into the mix). Damian, a former member of Brooklyn's The Gas House Gorillas (opens in new tab), was the sole guitarist in Mister Neutron (opens in new tab), a trio that toured the U.S. and released three albums (opens in new tab). He now plays in two NYC-area bands.