Living legacy

When Melvin Seals, the longtime keyboardist for the Jerry Garcia Band, formed a tribute group honoring Garcia after his death, it wasn’t the apparition of the late, Grateful one himself that spurred Seals’ efforts — but the haunting notion that Garcia’s most deeply felt wish might otherwise go ungranted.

“I kept going back and looking at this one interview, where at one point [the interviewer] asked Jerry, ‘So what happens when it’s all over?’, and Jerry was laughing, saying, ‘You mean when I’m dead and gone?’ … and then there was this serious moment,” Seals remembers. “And Jerry said, ‘I’d like to believe that the music is bigger than me, that it would continue on.'”

That sentiment echoed uncomfortably in Seals’ conscience for a whole year after Garcia’s August 1995 death.

“When Jerry passed, I wondered what would happen,” he remembers quietly. He says he feared that those closest to Garcia would begin to drift (understandably, perhaps) down other avenues.

“And that’s exactly what happened,” reports Seals. “Bob Weir started changing his style, and all the people involved with Jerry moved toward different styles of music.”

It was then that Seals grew determined to “go out and honor Jerry’s [legacy], keep it alive.”

Though JGB (as a matter of respect, Seals stresses using only the initials) forged ahead with the express purpose of performing Garcia’s music, the group is more a genetic offshoot than an empty clone of the original Jerry Garcia Band.

“It’s different with us,” Seals insists. “We’re not just another cover band, like the rest of them. I stayed with Jerry for over 10 years; I worked with the man.”

In fact, Seals, a long-established musician and executive producer on the gospel scene, toured with the Jerry Garcia Band for the better part of 20 years. And fellow JGB memer Gloria Jones was a backup singer for Garcia since the early ’80s. The two are joined by new lead singer Shirley Starks (who’s quickly cracking the mold with her own unmistakable style), guitarist Peter Harris, guitarist Judah Gold, drummer Steve Stephens and bassist Elgin Seals.

JGB’s own publicists are wont to observe that the band has been breaching the confines of Jerry’s kingdom lately, stepping tentatively into an ever-widening realm of their own — but it’s a claim Seals immediately disputes, voicing his insistence that originality be quarantined from the band’s unwavering mission.

“I’m committed to keeping JGB a Jerry band,” he declares. “We do play some Hendrix, some Dylan, but the other songs stay basically the same. I have explored new avenues with my [upcoming] solo album, but I don’t want [that work] to sound like JGB.”

Seals recalls JGB’s first performance, in 1996. “I think I knew it would be good,” he remembers. “Some Deadheads came out; people’s eyes teared up, and they hollered out certain songs. So [we] gave the people what they wanted.”

But there were many concertgoers whose grieving hearts came escorted by closed minds.

“It was about 50/50,” he admits with a wry laugh. “Some folks were smiling, while some folks just shook their heads. They were the ones who came to make sure not to have a good time — standing at the front of the stage with their arms crossed, [determined to] glare at you and not crack a smile, while people all around them were dancing.”

Since that fateful evening, says the keyboardist, “I’ve refined the band. Now, I’ve got the right combination of people. I wish I had a chance for those who saw us first to see us now that we’ve perfected our sound.”

But a strong ripple of skepticism persists where JGB is concerned.

“I think it sucks,” was the instant response of one local ex-Jerry-ite, who declined to be identified. “I mean, the name says it all. It was the Jerry Garcia Band,” was his grudging elaboration — paired with the cynical hint that the group’s aims may well be more mercenary than missionary.

Still, the band is hardly keeping the faith by force. In other words, as long as the fans are carrying on, the band will too:

“When we play songs like “Wharf Rat,” I still see tears in the audience,” affirms Seals. “The fans are the ones who determine how long we’ll keep playing.”

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