Revisiting RECONSTRUCTION, Jerry Garcia’s Short-Lived Bay Area Jazz-Funk Squad From 1979 [B.Getz on L4LM]

originally appears at Live for Live Music on Aug.9, 2020

Among the more underrated projects in Jerry Garcia lore is Reconstruction, a Bay Area jazz-funk sextet formed by bassist John Kahn in early 1979. The squad included keyboardist/vocalist Merl Saunders and featured Garcia on guitar and occasional vocals. The hastily-arranged collective drafted renowned Oakland drummer Gaylord Birch, “Reverend” Ron Stallings on saxophone and vocals, plus local hotshot Ed Neumeister on trombone. The feverishly funky crew only existed for a smattering of gigs; their hazy resume is limited to (roughly) 57 shows with Garcia, plus a token few without him.

Historians often categorize Reconstruction as an iteration of the ever-fluid Jerry Garcia Band, rather than stand-alone ensemble. Anecdotal evidence points to the notion that Jerry was more of a sideman or special guest in this particular instance and capacity, relegating Reconstruction to outlier status in the annals of the Garciaverse.

Forty-plus years on down the golden road to unlimited devotion—and a quarter-century since the Fat Man forever left this rock—Reconstruction remains a riveting, criminally-underrated band whose performances have maintained replay value. Their unicorn moment in time would have been buried forever, but thanks to the blessed tapers of yesteryear, the music has deftly transitioned from traded cassettes to compact discs by post, onward to the subculture of torrenting, and now the era of streaming services and apps.

Unfortunately, in all the voluminous Garcia historical documentation, the details of Reconstruction are rarely discussed nor opined on; the project is most often referenced off-hand as a stop-gap between JGB lineups. That sort of flippant regard does the funktastic magic of Reconstruction a disservice.

In honor of the 25th anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death, here are the cliff notes on the formation and jubilation of this over-in-a-flash funk/soul project from 1979—an essential, if breviloquent, element of the late, great guitarist/vocalist’s kaleidoscopic musical journey.

[1979 concert poster via JGMF]

Drummer Bill Vitt and organist Howard Wales hosted Monday night jams at The Matrix in San Francisco back in early 1970. Jerry Garcia and John Kahn swiftly and serendipitously became regulars. In spite of their inspired early jam sessions, Wales had hesitation about the popularity associated with playing with Garcia, so Kahn brought Merl Saunders into the jams at The Matrix. From those experiences, a connection was born between these three kindred musicians as they planted firm roots at Bay Area venues and gigged on the Grateful Dead’s down time.

Garcia, Saunders, and Kahn would go on to create some pretty phenomenal music in various combinations over the early part of the decade, accompanied by Vitt, Bill KreutzmanMartin FierroTom FogertyThe Hawkins FamilyTower of Power horns, and a variety of others. The trio also helped lay down a pair of Merl Saunders solo albums, released on the Fantasy Records imprint; Fire Up and Heavy Turbulence would provide a couple of songs for the Reconstruction repertoire a few years down the road.

Due to his reputation with the Grateful Dead, Garcia was a viewed as a “rock” musician, and Saunders-Garcia Band was considered a “rock group,” though in actuality they were anything but the core of a typical rock n’roll ensemble. Garcia, Kahn and Saunders’ embryonic creative flow and performance partnership were first built upon and solidified through a jazz improvisational foundation, no matter what song or style they would tackle in the early 1970s. The modus operandi was adventure, and the vehicle was groove.

[3/12/79 local press clip via JGMF]

In 1975, the trio was working within the short-lived, much-revered Legion of Mary band. Then, without much in the way of rhyme, reason, or even an explanation, Garcia abruptly decided to move on from Saunders. In his customary, often frustrating, non-confrontational approach, Garcia chose to just shift gears and band members. Enter the Jerry Garcia Band, with nary a word for his friend Saunders. Kahn was forced to unceremoniously fire Merl from the ranks of the Garciaverse.

Then, seemingly years of silence.

How did John Kahn, Merl Saunders, and Jerry Garcia end up together again a half-decade later on some of the very same Bay Area stages as part of a jazz-funk band called Reconstruction?

Prior to 1979, after fiascos from a pair of legendary-yet-mercurial pianists, British stalwart Nicky Hopkins and New Orleans madman James Booker, Jerry took comfort in the relative predictability of Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux in the Jerry Garcia Band, easily porting them over from the Grateful Dead with a more prominent role in his side project. At first, this iteration of JGB was mostly chill, somewhat typical bar-room band music, though things evolved and heated up with some jazzier, gospel leanings over time.

In 1977 and 1978, Garcia and Kahn put a tremendous amount of focus, energy and intention into the Jerry Garcia Band album Cats Under the Stars, which included contributions from the Godchauxs, and for one song, Saunders on Hammond organ. A labor of love, Garcia repeatedly referred to this LP as his “baby” or “favorite”, with a blueprint aimed at FM rock radio airplay. Instead of finding long-sought commercial success, Cats Under the Stars bricked right out of the gates, hardly charting nor making a dent in the zeitgeist. The discouragement caused by the commercial failure troubled both Garcia and Kahn for the rest of their days.

Then, with neither fanfare nor announcement, Garcia sat in with Merl Saunders and his band for two nights, on October 2 and 3, 1978 at the aptly-named Shady Grove. Meanwhile, the Godchauxs were unraveling personally and professionally; the couple flamed out of both JGB and the Grateful Dead within the same month, January 1979. Rather cosmically, the stage was set for a reunion of sorts, yet this new situation wouldn’t require Garcia to be in the captain’s chair—quite possibly for the only time in his career.

Reconstruction Live at Rancho Nicasio, San Rafael, CA – 3/7/1979 – Full Show SBD

[Audio: Copperdomebodhi, acetboy, greendude via Chris from Jam Buzz]

While Garcia was fighting laryngitis towards the end of 1978, John Kahn was making some crafty plans. For the first time since meeting and partnering with the Grateful Dead’s deified leader, he finally conceived and created his own band in early 1979. Reconstruction, a jazz-funk-soul-disco-R&B outfit featuring brazen horns and groove-tight arrangements, sprung into action to funkify lives of Bay Area fans just as quickly as Cats, Keith, and Donna had faded away into relative obscurity.

Kahn initially hoped he could maintain this new group regardless of whether or not Jerry Garcia was available to gig. However, as soon as the guitarist played with Merl Saunders again, then showed up at a few Reconstruction rehearsals, he wanted all the way in.

Shortly before his death in 1996, John Kahn told Garcia biographer extraordinaire Blair Jackson this aside, published in the thorough Garcia: An American Life:

“Reconstruction was going to be a band that would do more jazz, explore that avenue on a deeper level than the old Merl and Jerry thing,” Kahn recalled. “It was supposed to be a thing where if Jerry was going to play in the band, which he ended up doing, we could still work when he was out of town with the Grateful Dead, which seemed to be more and more of the time. That was the point. In which case we’d have another guitar player. I actually did it a few times—I did some gigs with Jerry Miller of Moby Grape. He was a really good guy and a great player. I wasn’t really planning on Jerry [Garcia] being in the band originally, and then when he was in the band it sort of changed everything from what the plan was.”

With the undeniable mastery of East Bay funk drummer Gaylord Birch behind the kit, Reconstruction played what one newspaper writer termed “sophisticated improvisational jazz with a funky beat.” The iconic Birch had gigged with Saunders/Garcia some years ago; he manned the skins for The Pointer SistersCold Blood, and other local Oakland funk mavens. The man carried quite the esteemed Bay Area reputation. Birch favored fast tempos and lyrical breaks, and his forceful undercurrent of intoxicating groove and thunderclap dynamics provided the Black, buoyant backbone of the Reconstruction sound. He even returned for a short run with JGB for a handful of local gigs from October 1985 through February 1986.

[Photo: CJ Stone – Gaylord Birch]

The charismatic frontman in the pearly-white suit was “Reverend” Ron Stallings, a tenor man and suave vocalist who trafficked in the playalistic traditions of the day. Ravishing, rough, and rugged, the “Rev” was a veteran of the Tits & Ass Rhythm & Blues Band with Kahn some years ago, and would go on to become a beloved member of Huey Lewis & The News. Stallings’ unmitigated swerve steadily mesmerized and captivated audiences, while Garcia’s lysergic fretwork gymnastics and nimble pickin’ narratives electrified them with a psychedelic kool-aid to which they were intimately acquainted.

Up front, Stallings and Garcia were flanked by the jazz-trained Ed Neumeister, an in-demand trombonist who was happy to dig in and show out whenever the circumstances called for such behaviors. Now a highly-respected educator, in the final year of the 1970s, Neumeister’s regular gig was with the Sacramento Symphony, plus the Circle Star Theater house band. The sum of these parts was a sometimes-reckless, always-enthralling ensemble of very capable cats, collectively exploring groove-based Black music of all types.

Neumeister, the last living Reconstruction band member, told Paste Magazine in 2012:

I think they rehearsed once or twice and they decided they would get another horn player, so Stallings recommended me, and actually Ron called me. He said, “Yeah, we’ve got a gig on Saturday and we’re rehearsing Thursday. It’s just a door gig… I had no idea to be honest the following that Jerry had. I showed up for that first gig and there were wall-to-wall people. It was at Keystone Berkeley.”

“Garcia never gave the aura of superiority in any kind of way even though he was the one drawing the crowd. There was no doubt about that…there was no ego involved. None of that superstar, whatever comes with being a superstar. I only noticed it when we showed up to the gigs. Jerry was just one of the cast. That’s what he wanted to be.”

Reconstruction played all over the Bay Area at the usual Jerry Garcia haunts like The Stone, the Keystones, as well as Palo Alto, Santa Cruz, Santa Monica, Hayward, Fairfax, Nicasio, Cotati, and other NorCal cowboy towns way out there between ganja fields. They once traveled out of state to Denver, Colorado, but their short existence stunted their reach, and Reconstruction’s real-time impact in 1979 was relegated to regional rooms. Word really never had a chance to spread beyond the Front Range. Small crowds of West Coast Deadheads in-the-know, and select local jazz-funk scenesters were treated to a very specialized song selection, and a multi-racial, uber-funky and all-too-brief band of gypsies.

Reconstruction – Denver, CO – 4/13/79

[Audio: Whoaduderighteous]

Reconstruction saw bassist Kahn deliver arguably his most adventurous and electrifying performances, over a quarter century backing Garcia’s various side trips. He took vibrant bass solos, and really channeled his inner Stax and Funk Brothers when holding down the low end with Gaylord Birch. Back in the fold and riding the wave once again, Merl Saunders unleashed all his talents on Hammond B3 organ, various space-age analog synths, and Fender Rhodes. Merl growled on the microphone, his whiskey-soaked croon never sounding grittier than when he unveiled Nina Simone’s “Do I Move You”, or funkified Bill Withers‘ “Get Up & Dance” and “Don’t It Make It Better” with reckless abandon.

Merl Saunders reflected on Reconstruction with journalist Blair Jackson:

“The approach was to play jazz and rock together but still be danceable, It was a great band for a while. Jerry liked that it gave him a totally new structure to work with, with these great horn players and a different set of tunes. These were really excellent musicians. And because they came from outside the Grateful Dead world, they related to Jerry as just another player, not a ‘star.’

Their performances were pretty wild, occasionally loose, and always carried swaggering vibe—think super-fresh, free-wheeling jams spilling out from the disco-era jukebox. Reconstruction’s material was initially grounded in Merl’s arrangements of his working repertoire, plus a number of 70’s funk, soul, and groove cuts steeped in Black musical traditions. Ironically, highlights included some blue-eyed soul in Gino Vanelli’s syrupy “I Just Wanna Stop” and Bobby Caldwell’s timeless “What You Won’t Do For Love” (the latter eventually immortalized by another Bay Area prodigal son, Tupac Shakur). Both numbers were fronted by the suave and sultry Stallings, the reverend perpetually killin’ folks softly and with gusto. Meanwhile, Garcia hung out on the wing, offering choice comp licks as was his custom with Reconstruction. Naturally, Jerry shined on serenity, like the R&B reggae of Jimmy Cliff’s “Strugglin’ Man”, which showcased his always-tender vocal and trademark knack for living inside the protagonist.

“Nessa” was an obscure number they got from Willie Bobo; Stevie Wonder’s supernatural “Another Star” was given a grandiose, whirlwind instrumental treatment, the same for the hard-charging “Long Train Runnin’”, then a major cut for the mainstream FM rockers The Doobie Brothers. Each of these familiar cultural touchstones offered Reconstruction a chance to really sizzle and soar, more jazz re-imaginations than cover band imitations, defying limitations as a band beyond prescription.

As far as instrumental excursions go, Saunders’ own “Welcome to the Basement” would be Reconstruction’s highest art; a throwback to the Fantasy Records era when Merl, Garcia and Kahn first hit the studio at the dawn of the decade. Only this time, Gaylord Birch is protecting the pocket and driving the lane, steering a high-octane breakbeat night-train that comes for the jugular. Everybody responds to the drummer’s intensity; on “Basement”, Birch pushes this libidinous conglomerate to their flyest heights and darkest heart, before strapping in and tunneling all the way down the below the bassline .

Some JGB chestnuts found their way to the Reconstruction setlist as well, including Little Milton’s “That’s What Love Will Make You Do”, Allen Toussaint’s “I’ll Take a Melody”, and John Lennon’s endearing “Dear Prudence”. For a couple of lucky audiences, Garcia reached back for Smokey Robinson deep cut “When The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game”, found on his own 1974 solo LP, Compliments. The horn section added a certain pizzazz, and Birch’s unflappable verve lent these numbers characteristics unique to the Reconstruction period of the Jerry Garcia career arc.

Reconstruction – 6/22/1979 –  Berkeley, CA

[Audio: nognuisagoodgnu]

Then, just as swiftly as they’d come to vibrant life, Reconstruction —for all intents and purposes—abruptly vanished that autumn. From January through September, this awesome assembly had shaken things up in the Garciaverse with a new brand of old-school groove; but beginning in October 1979, Jerry Garcia Band was gigging the Bay Area once again. This time they materialized as a four-piece, with the ever-loyal Kahn plus newcomers Ozzie Ahlers (keys) and drummer Johnny DeFonseca. Just as unceremoniously as they had when Legion of Mary was shuttered back in 1975, Garcia and Kahn cut bait with Saunders once again – leaving much of the jazz-funk and disco vibes behind with the Bay Area brothers that remained in their wake.

From a “side trips” perspective, Reconstruction provided Jerry Garcia with some greater musical challenges than many solo jaunts that had preceded or followed. Forty-one years on down the line, the uniquely quirky, irresistibly funky stylings remain confounding. Their special sauce is still celebrated, their lost potential continually pontificated; we revel in the fantasy they left behind, while forever wondering what might have been yet to come. For a few brief months back in ’79, those Reconstruction boys sure did make it better.

I came back to let you know
Got a thing for you, and I can’t let go

Words: B.Getz

Big thanks to JGMF blog, LostLiveDead, and The Jake Feinberg Show for the historical references and flashback perspectives.