By Michael Malone
Jerry Garcia died way back in 1995, but the Grateful Dead icon’s music continues to play, thanks to Melvin Seals, bandleader and organist for JGB, as the Jerry Garcia Band became known after his death. Melvin Seals & JGB are now on tour. Seals, a lifelong resident of the Bayview District, and his band are playing Oct. 15-17 at Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael, which was founded by Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh in 2011. Also in the band are John Kadlecik on guitar and lead vocals, John-Paul McLean on bass and Jeremy Hoenig on drums. Seals shared his thoughts about performing after a pandemic-induced hiatus, how he met Garcia and what he was like offstage.
After so much time off, is the band in the groove right away, or does it take time to get the rust off?
It takes a little while. I became a couch potato [during COVID]. I got sucked in, watching TV. There was no motivation to go practice, to just get on the keyboard. There was none. I was a zombie. Our first date, I was rusty. The first show, I said, “Oh gosh, I gotta work on this.” But now we’re back to 100% and plus!
How does it feel to play in front of crowds again?
Fans seem like they want this so bad. It feels really good to hear them screaming and roaring.
Tell me about your set list.
I have started mixing it up. It was pretty much Jerry Garcia Band songs. I started doing two Grateful Dead songs, maybe three on a good night. I stick in a few songs that everybody likes, the Meters or Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones. I throw a few monkey wrenches into the set.
We have one or two originals that I wrote. It broadens the music horizon. When you go see our show you get all the way from here to all the way over there. It’s covering a big territory.
Which Dead songs are you playing?
I try not to do the songs that all the Grateful Dead cover bands do. I’ll never do “Touch of Grey” or “Fire on the Mountain.” I try to grab one or two that are not done as much. “The Other One,” “Scarlet [Begonias],” “Let the Good Times Roll” and “Shakedown” every now and then. “Going Down the Road, Feeling Bad” I’ve done it twice. “If I Had the World to Give,” “Stella Blue.”
How did you first meet Jerry?
I was playing with [blues singer] Elvin Bishop and we opened up for the Jerry Garcia Band in San Diego. I didn’t know much about who he was — I was not a Deadhead. I knew the name Grateful Dead because it was a big name here in the Bay Area. But I didn’t know the members because I didn’t follow their music.
I was doing work with [singer] Maria Muldaur. Her boyfriend was John Kahn, the bassist for the Jerry Garcia Band. When she didn’t have a bass player, John would sit in. He noticed me. After quite a few gigs, he asked me if I was interested in playing in another band. As a musician, you leave those doors open for something good. He never told me who it was or anything about it. He said we may try to have some rehearsals, a couple local gigs. One day I got a call: We’ve got some gigs coming up, can we have a rehearsal? He gave me a date and time, and I was there, at Front Street, which was the Grateful Dead warehouse. [Seals became JGB bandleader after Kahn’s death in 1996.]
When I met Jerry, he reminded me of that day in San Diego and told me he had asked his people, who was that on the organ? That was a great honor of my life — for a person like that to notice the organ. He never came out of the dressing room, but he heard it.
What was Jerry like?
You hear the phrase, this guy would give you the shirt off his back. Jerry would give you the shirt off his back. He did things for singers and band members who were struggling that he just didn’t have to do. It wasn’t publicized, no one knew it, but he did it. He really was that guy.
What about Garcia’s music still has people getting together and rocking out all these years later?
I thought, after Jerry was gone, it would be a few years and the scene would just slowly die down and everybody would look for what’s next. I was so wrong! It’s getting greater and bigger and huger. I look at 17-, 18-, 19-year-olds at the front of the stage, singing every word. It’s not going to die. It’s a scene, it’s a style. It just amazes me how it grows and grows. I work today because of that.
IF YOU GO: Melvin Seals & JGB
Where: Terrapin Crossroads, 100 Yacht Club Drive, San Rafael
When: 5 p.m. Oct. 15; 3 p.m. Oct. 16-17
Contact: (415) 524-2773, terrapincrossroads.net