One of the greatest gifts Jerry Gacria continues to give to generations of music fans is an entry point into music they might not have discovered on their own. Old-timey folk, bluegrass, jazz — a simple mention in an interview or a live cover version of a song is all you need to start your search engines.
With the Jerry Garcia Band, Garcia was able to shed some of the psychedelic trappings of his day job with the Grateful Dead and narrow in on his proclivities, like gospel music, which is the subject of “Spirit,” the new tribute album by The Garcia Project, a band dedicated to keeping alive the spirit of the JGB.
Core members Mik Bondy (guitar and vocals), Dan Crea (bass), Tommy Nagy (drums) and Kat Walkerson (vocals) have created a loving tribute to an important if not famed part of Garcia’s songbook, treating Garcia/Robert Hunter originals like “Gomorrah” with fervor and tenderness, imbuing the opening track, the disco hit “Mighty High,” with just enough rolling funk and the ballads the reverence they need to feel right. Like with the JGB, the origin of the songs — mostly covers and traditionals, with only three penned by Garcia — matters less than the delivery.
Former JGB singer Maria Muldaur, known for her Bob Dylan proximity, produced the 12 songs and sings lead or harmony on most of the 12 tracks. Other notable guests include Peter Rowan, from Garcia’s bluegrass band Old and in the Way, and former JGB members Jacklyn LaBranch (vocals) and Buzz Buchanan (drums). Jason Crosby, known for playing with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, and Jacob Jolliff of Yonder Mountain String Band, add multi-generational juice.
Bondy on guitar and vocals, who founded The Garcia Project, is the anchor of the album, providing, along with his bandmates and Muldaur, a sense of continuity from track to track. Crosby is key as well, with piano and organ being calling cards of gospel music. The slinky “Who Was John” (dedicated to late JGB bassist John Kahn) benefits from Crosby’s subtle Hammond work, while the bluegrass ballad “Drifting Too Far From The Shore” showcases his stately grand piano, as well as Jolliff’s mandolin and right-as-rain harmony vocals by Muldaur and Walkerson.
The Garcia Project and friends close “Spirit” with “Palm Sunday” from the JGB’s 1978 album “Cats Under The Stars” and played only twice in concert by the JGB. It’s a stripped-down band now, just Bondy and Walkerson singing, abetted by Bondy’s acoustic guitar and Crosby’s fiddle. Just over two minutes long with one short verse by Hunter, it’s barely there and a fitting and ethereal conclusion.