Words by Autumn Walden. Photos by Steven Philips and Autumn Walden.
All manner of music-loving, earth children are hanging out on a school night in University City, Philadelphia, packed outside and inside The Blockley to see the legendary Melvin Seals and the JGB (Jerry Garcia Band). Melvin Seals is the organist from the original Jerry Garcia Band, formed by Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, which Melvin joined in 1980. Melvin and the JGB “Keepers of the Flame” have been going strong, playing music to preserve the dead after Jerry’s death in 1995. To quote Melvin from my interview with him last year:
“I met Jerry through John Kahn, who played bass for Jerry at that time. John heard me through Maria Muldaur and asked me would I be willing to play in another band he was in, and asked me to a rehearsal where I met Jerry. He liked my work and the rest is history.”
As Devon Allman (son of Gregg) and his band finish their opening set and the stage crew is prepping for the JGB, my eyes and ears are comforted by the familiar faces and smiles of the Philly Deadhead community. “What do you think they’ll open with?” asks a friend standing next to me on the dance floor. “I can’t even begin to imagine,” I answer, lost in a sea of heads and hearts, shakedown goods and flowing tie-dyes, in the pulsing darkness of The Blockley. “What about Cats [Under the Stars]?” my friend offers. “Oh, wow, that would be awesome,” I coo in agreement. You can guess what happened next…
“Cats down under the stars. Cats down under the stars. Cats on the blacktop, birdies in the treetop. Someone plays guitar that sounds like a clarinet…”- Robert Hunter (lyrics)/Jerry Garcia (music)
When Melvin Seals (organ), Dave Hebert (lead guitar/vocals), Jimmy Tebeau (bass), Pete Lavezzoli (drums), and the lovely voices of Cheryl Rucker and Shirley Starks come to life, the crowd answers with a swell of bodies, the spill of beer, the smell of human musk, and the spirit of love. AND WE DANCE, DANCE, DANCE!!!
Each song is its own shining City of Light: from “They Love Each Other” to Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” to The Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me” to my beloved “Reuben and Cerise”—each note fills a crack, every chord bridges a void, and the singing voices tell us that Jerry is watching over us, leading the way home. We’re even treated to a guest on bass, as Michael Morrow of the Pure Jerry Band sits in for “Like A Road”.
Melvin’s masterful hands grace the Dream Machine—a Hammond organ—and the room rings with the glory and the truth told in the words of Charles Johnson’s “My Sisters and Brothers”: “If we walk together, little children, we don’t ever have to worry. Through this world of trouble we gotta love one another…” Dave Hebert sings with the voice of an old soul while he commands Wally—his Walnut-made guitar—picking and fretting in an intense, faithful tribute.
The room breathes and sweats with the young and the old, new and familiar faces, drunk and sober spirits, and the legacy of the music that never stops. The night ends “Tangled Up in Blue”—some of us looking to find the afterparty, some of us heading home to face the work/school routine another day. As for the band, Dylan’s words couldn’t be more true: “…I’m still on the road, headin’ for another joint…” JGB heads out West next week. See their tour schedule here.
The Memory of Jerry Will NOT FADE AWAY…
I’m all about preserving the dead and celebrating the music and memory of Jerry Garcia. And “How Sweet It Is” that three of my favorite Jerry’s were caught hanging out at The Blockley.
I asked each “Jerry” if they had any special words for or comments on the influence of the man who gave us our “U.S. Blues.” What would you say or do if Jerry visited from beyond?
Michael: I would first say “Thank You” and maybe ask if he had an extra high E or if he wanted to puff a bit. Except for the thanks, probably deal with him just like everybody else…what he would have wanted. I met every member of GD [Grateful Dead] except him so I guess I might be a little starstruck. Might ask a few chord questions if he hung around. Once I saw him backstage for a second and he smiled and waved. Jerry was one of those people that you would treasure any interaction.
Butchy: If that happened I would simply say “Thank You!” I met Jerry 3 times, and one time I asked him about how he uses the pick and then hides it in his stump in his middle finger. I was always amazed how he went from fingerpicking to flatpicking so quickly! Later I learned how to tuck the pick in my middle finger, and fingerpick with my Thumb, index, and ring finger.
Dave: I’m am also a [pick] tucker. 😉