Signed and Sealed
JGB, featuring Melvin Seals, helps keep Jerry Garcia’s legacy alive at Fernwood’s Earth Day celebration in Big Sur.
Thursday, April 19, 2012
Keyboardist Melvin Seals recalls an interview in which Jerry Garcia was asked, “What do you think will happen to the music when you’re no longer here?”
“Jerry said, ‘I would like to believe the music will live on, that it’s larger than me,’” Seals says.
Shortly after Garcia’s death, the remaining members of the Dead announced publicly that they were going on hiatus indefinitely.
“I thought ‘Man, that’s the opposite of what Jerry said,’” Seals says.
That was the beginning of JGB, which initially featured all original members of the Jerry Garcia Band.
Seals met Garcia in 1980 when he was invited to audition. Garcia’s bassist John Kahn, who was working with Kahn’s vocalist girlfriend on another project, tabbed Seals for the opportunity.
“I only knew the name Grateful Dead from living in San Francisco,” Seals says. “I didn’t know when I got called to do this semi-rehearsal that Jerry was going to be there, but I didn’t know who he was anyway so it didn’t matter.”
Seals says he unleashed rocking chops with his Hammond B3. While the band was taking a break, Seals told Garcia, who he referred to at the time as the “guitarist,” “Man, you play some great guitar.” The other musicians who overheard erupted in laughter.
“Then the ‘guitarist’ said, ‘You play some pretty nice organ yourself,’” Seals says. “It seemed like my sound was something [Garcia] really endorsed and wanted. I guess he didn’t get that from other keyboard players so he welcomed it.”
The counterculture scene was something completely foreign to Seals, who grew up playing in church and has a gospel background, though he had played big-time shows with greats like Elvin Bishop and Chuck Berry.
But after three gigs as the new keyboardist – playing smaller clubs like the Keystone in Berkeley – the significance of Garcia, his music and the scene hit him like a ton of tie-dye shirts.
“I was actually a little freaked out at first,” Seals says. “Then I quickly learned [Deadheads] are some of the most loving people in the world.”
JGB featuring Seals – headlining Fernwood’s Earth Day Celebration on Sunday with openers Harry & The Hit Men and Birdhouse – have been actively carrying on Garcia’s legacy for more than 15 years. The outfit sticks strictly to a repertoire it feels is authentic to the Jerry Garcia Band’s original set lists. From funkafied renditions of The Miracles’ “Second That Emotion” to a slowed down, soulful cover of Eric Clapton’s “After Midnight,” its interpretations of the tunes are played as Garcia originally arranged them, though there is always room for a little improvisation.
It took some time, but Seals now lives by Garcia’s advice: “It’s not about being clean and concise,” he says. “It’s about being soulful and heartfelt. Jerry would say, ‘Play what you feel and it will be alright. What comes from the heart reaches the heart.’”
THE EARTH DAY CELEBRATION begins noon Sunday, April 22, at Fernwood, 47200 Highway 1, Big Sur. $32.64. 667-2422, www.fernwoodbigsur.com/music