Jerry Garcia: Garcia (1972)

Jerry Garcia (and lyricist Robert Hunter) enjoyed an incredibly prolific run from around '69 to '73, coming up with the lion's share of the Dead's most memorable tracks, as documented on '69's Aoxomoxoa through '70's Workingman's Dead and American Beauty through '73's Wake of the Flood, not to mention a slew of non-studio tracks captured on the Grateful Dead and Europe '72 live albums.  And in the midst of this, Garcia released a solo album, which added another six numbers, all of which became mainstays of the Dead's live shows for the remainder of their career and beyond.

Unlike the equally excellent Reflections from '76 (and Bob Weir's 1972 solo album Ace), both of which were in large part Dead albums in all but name, Garcia is truly a solo album, with Jerry playing most of the instruments (joined by Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann).  As a result, at least for anyone more familiar with the live versions, this sounds a little thin, more like a collection of demos -- which isn't to say it's lo-fi, just that it lacks the fullness of the band's work.  Of course, with more timeless Garcia/Hunter tracks than you'll find on most proper Dead albums, it's still pretty damn great and an essential part of any Dead fan's studio collection.

"Sugaree," "Bird Song," "Loser," "Deal" and "To Lay Me Down" (the latter of which was also recorded with the full band and showed up on a later box set retrospective) are all classic Dead, among the best songwriting efforts Garcia/Hunter ever offered; of these, I'd say "Sugaree" is the one I enjoy most in its studio incarnation, though like the others it benefits from the full band's onstage efforts.  But my personal favorite is "The Wheel," one of Jerry's finest moments in the studio, a gorgeous melody and terrific Hunter lyrics coupled with some fabulous pedal steel guitar work, an underappreciated Americana classic.  It's got a magical spark I don't think the band was ever quite able to recreate onstage, making the studio version, in contrast to the others, far preferable to anything they recorded live.  (Personally, I think the currently touring Dead & Company do a better job than the Dead ever did; while Garcia's vocals on the album are fantastic, he never seemed able to hit the notes when performing it live.)

Those tracks are interspersed with some experimental instrumental pieces, most of which are completely dispensable filler which one can comfortably edit out when listening (though "Eep Hour" is pretty enough, with a musical motif that cropped up in some of the band's more extended jams from the era).  Still, even with only a half dozen proper tracks, it's as worthy as nearly anything else in the band's vast canon.

Here's a video for "The Wheel":
 And here's a terrific, concise "Sugaree" from the Dead circa '74: