Bill Cutler's Collaboration with Jerry Garcia

October 17, 2008

IT’S A STORY REMINISCENT OF THE ODYSSEY, where the Greek king Odysseus was bedeviled by sirens, a Cyclops, and various gods, goddesses, and demi-gods throughout a ten-year voyage home after the Trojan War. Well, except that Bill Cutler’s journey to release Crossing the Line [Magna Carta] took 33 years. Cutler’s epic musical journey started in 1975, when the San Francisco-based guitarist/producer stepped into Wally Heider Studios to track some of his songs. But this wasn’t your typical singer/ songwriter session. As the San Francisco music scene of that era was communal and loose, Cutler had knocked around with the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia, and both guitarists offered to come down and play on the tracks.

“The first time I played with Jerry was on Matthew Kelley’s Wing and a Prayer in 1973,” says Cutler. “Bobby Weir and I were playing acoustic guitars, and when Matthew asked me who I wanted to play lead guitar, I said, ‘I’d love to have Jerry Garcia.’ Weir said, ‘Well, I don’t know. I’ll call him.’ So Jerry showed up at the studio right on time at noon, and I started playing the song for him. Right away, our relationship was very collaborative. He asked me what I had in mind, and I said, ‘Well, I’d like some Steve Cropper-style backstrokes right here, and I would love you to play a long solo on the ride out.’ He had a lot of great ideas, and by the time the rest of the band got to the studio, we had worked everything out, and we started assigning parts to people. So when we got back together to work on my album, we already had a very collaborative process in place.”

The playing turned out to be the easy part. About half the album was cut before the Grateful Dead returned to the road in 1976, and Cutler planned to write some more songs and finish the project when Garcia was available again. That never happened, and Cutler stored the valuable analog tapes in a closet at his apartment. In 1993, he reconnected with Garcia at a Jerry Garcia Band show at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater.

“Jerry said to me, ‘Hey man, those tapes we made are like 18 years old. Where are they?’” remembers Cutler. “I said, ‘They’re in my closet.’ He said, ‘Well, we have to go bake and restore them, and then let’s go make the other half of the record.’ He was finally ready to slow down in 1993, but it took months to go in and bake the tapes[Ed. Note: Old magnetic tapes often start to “shed” oxide, and baking the tapes in a convection oven at a low temperature can restore them so they can be played back and transferred to another medium.]. Then, Jerry got sick, and then he died, and that was the end of that. I didn’t go back to work on the tapes until ’98, because Jerry was a good friend, and his death was devastating to me. I just wasn’t in the mood to go back to it.”

Around 2000, Cutler had culled through his material to find appropriate songs to finish the album, found some backing to re-enter the studio, and connected with old friends such as Weir, Jorma Kaukonen, and Jerry Miller to play on the “second half” of the project.

“I took a look at my repertoire of songs from that era, and I went, ‘This one doesn’t fit, that one doesn’t fit, this one is okay,’” says Cutler. “Then, I wrote a few new songs specifically for the record—such as ‘Crossing the Line’—because I wanted something that talked about more contemporary things, but still fit in with the feel of the original tracks. It was a real struggle in a way, because I realized there were some good things that weren’t going to be cohesive no matter how hard I tried to fit them in.”

Crossing the Line was finally mixed in 2001, but there was one more Greek tragedy waiting to derail the album’s release: Getting the “sideman” clearance for Garcia’s tracks.

“That took seven years,” says Cutler. “It was a long, horrible, and torturous story, but at least it got settled. The process was helped by people like Deborah Koons Garcia, and it was hurt by other people along the way. Jerry was a very active sideman on the project, but he was not a writer, and he was not a singer, so I really didn’t owe the estate a dime. I was willing to cut them in, but money was never the issue. It was more about a control thing. Some people just did not want to have anything released by Jerry that they didn’t control.”

Here, Cutler discusses some of the methods he used to produce a unified-sounding album from sessions conducted 25 years apart.

How difficult was it to sonically match up the tracks recorded in 1975 with the material recorded around 2000?
The original stuff had been done on a Neve console and a 2" 16-track deck by Steve Barncard—who is a great engineer—so it sounded great once it had been restored. To capture the same feel for the second half of the album, I decided to use a Neve console, a Studer analog deck for the basic tracks, and a lot of the same sidemen from the original sessions. Of course, they were a lot more expensive the second time around [laughs].

The basic tracks for the new sessions were done at Coast Recorders in San Francisco— which was an old-school-style facility much the same as Heider’s was—with Gary Mankin engineering. Gary and I listened very carefully to the sound of the old tracks to ensure that everything we recorded would fit in seamlessly with what was laid down in 1975. But the real hero of making the album cohesive was Russell Bond, who tracked the vocals and mixed the album. He’s a Pro Tools guru, and he did a magical job at ensuring all the tracks shared a common sonic space.

So hard-disk recording did make the scene?
All the basics were tracked on analog tape in 1975 and 2000, and were then transferred to Pro Tools for some overdubs, editing, and mixing. The lead vocals were recorded completely on Pro Tools, because I didn’t want to introduce any more noise to the tracks.

You didn’t keep any of your original analog vocals?
There were only scratch vocals on those tapes, because I was directing everyone in the studio as we played. Let me tell you, that was enough of a struggle! I was expecting to cut more tracks and do my lead vocals later on, but, as you know, nothing else was done until 2000.

What was the recording process like back in 1975?
Jerry and I would play basic tracks together—sometimes with Scotty [Quik, guitarist]— along with bass and drums. Usually, Jerry would stop and play his solo on the basic track, as well. Later on, if we needed the rhythm part underneath his solo—for example, if the track seemed empty without it—we’d overdub the part we were missing. Jerry liked the idea of playing in a more continuous mode, as opposed to overdubbing his solos. He’d typically choose to overdub the rhythm part rather than come up with a solo in a situation that wasn’t organic. For the harmony solos on “Slow Glider,” for example, Jerry and Scotty played their lines live—Allman Brothers-style—where they literally jumped into the solos on the basic track. Jerry was really comfortable doing that. Or, in the case of “Delta Nightingale,” he’d just rip a solo for three or four minutes at the end of the song all by himself. Of course, every time we did one of those takes, he would do something different and really creative. Some were more liquid, and some were more angular, and he would just leave it to me to pick the one I wanted.

What gear was Garcia using during the sessions?
He had his first Doug Irwin guitar—I think it was called Wolf. He also brought his Travis Bean, but he did most of the tracks with the Irwin. His main amp was a soupedup Fender Twin.

Even with transferring stuff to Pro Tools—and cutting tracks in two different decades—you really did manage to produce something that sounds like an organic ’70s recording.

I didn’t want to make a digital-sounding record with Jerry Garcia on it. I thought that would be a disappointment to everybody. I wanted it to sound contemporary—in that there are no noises or buzzes to distract a listener from enjoying the music—but I also didn’t want to change or modernize the sound, and have it be some phony thing it was never intended to be.

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