Over the decades, a diverse array of musicians sat in with the Grateful Dead — everyone from Bob Dylan and Neil Young to Ornette Coleman and Daryl Hall and John Oates found themselves on the same stage with the band, attempting to fit in as best they could. But even in light of that list, Clarence Clemons remains one of their more surprising jam pals.
When the E Street Band went on hiatus at the end of the Eighties, Clemons, who by then had moved to the Bay Area, went in search of work and new musical experiences. In 1989, he toured with the first version of Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band, cut an album with producer Narada Michael Walden, and — not surprisingly, given his new home base — befriended members of the Dead.
Starting in early 1989, Clemons sat in with both the Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band (JGB) at several shows. With the Dead, he joined in on songs like “Estimated Prophet” and “Eyes of the World” and partook of the overall Dead vibe. “Clarence was an old pal, a soulful bro,” Bob Weir told RS in 2011, right after Clemons’ death from complications of a stroke. “He was a good hang. Back in the late Eighties and early Nineties, he was living out here in Marin County. He was in moving-on mode, and he, Jerry, and I mixed it up a bit. We were dropping by clubs like Sweetwater and sitting in with various bands.”
The association wasn’t just musical. “Jerry and I were both single at that time, and Clarence suggested the three of us move in together and have a bachelor pad,” Weir recalled bemusedly. “Jerry and I almost went for it. It would’ve been a lot of fun, but I don’t think anyone would have survived. Jerry was in good shape, but we were doing a little drinking.”
During one concentrated period that fall, Clemons took the musical bond one step further. Starting at the Meadowlands Arena in New Jersey, Clemons joined the JGB for five straight gigs, ending with a show at the now-demolished Poplar Creek Music Theatre outside of Chicago. On April 24th, that latter show will be released as the Jerry Garcia Band’s GarciaLive Volume 13: September 16th, 1989 Poplar Creek Music Theatre, marking the first time any of the Garcia-Clemons collaborations have been officially unveiled.
As Garcia biographer and Dead scholar Blair Jackson notes in the liner notes of the collection, Clemons sounds more at home with Garcia’s unit than the Dead. “Much of the JGB’s material was steeped in R&B, gospel, and rock & roll — more in the relatively straight-ahead Springsteen mold than so many of the Dead’s more complex, open-ended, and stylistically difficult-to-categorize explorations, which were often hard for ‘outsiders’ to join in on because of the highly idiosyncratic, improvisation-based styles of the Dead’s front line,” Jackson writes.
That’s apparent on the album, which presents a typically eclectic range of covers of songs by Dylan (“Tangled Up in Blue,” “I Shall Be Released,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”), the Rolling Stones (“Let’s Spend the Night Together,” which Garcia had cut on his second solo album 15 years earlier), Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn (“Waiting on a Miracle”), the Band (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”), and the Beatles (“Dear Prudence”), along with some blues (the Lightnin’ Hopkins–associated “Someday Baby”), and Garcia and Robert Hunter originals like “Cats Under the Stars.”
Leaping into that repertoire with Garcia and his band (which included keyboardist Melvin Seals, bassist John Kahn, drummer David Kemper, and backup singers Gloria Jones and Jackie LaBranch) clearly drew out new sides of Clemons’ playing. That’s particularly true on Garcia and Robert Hunter’s “They Love Each Other,” first heard on Garcia’s Reflections. When the time comes for Clemons to step up, he starts with some slow, slinky R&B swagger before slowly loosening up; by the end of his spotlight, his tone is closer to free jazz, an approach rarely heard during his E Street Band tenure. The album can be preordered at GarciaFamilyProvisions.com.
Clemons’ association with the Dead world didn’t continue much longer than these shows, although Weir said he felt the Big Man was open to actually joining the Dead at one point. “I have a feeling he was shooting for a role in that band,” Weir told RS in 2013. “Jerry and I would’ve gone for it, but I’m not sure everyone else would. In the Dead back then, anyone had veto power, and a couple of the guys hated saxophones. Had it not been for a couple of objections, Clarence might’ve ended up in the Dead.”