This 1980 Jerry Garcia Band version of “Mission in the Rain,” recorded at Kean College, is a worthy example of both Jerry at his vocal and arpeggiated best and the JGB unit playing as a practiced ensemble. Actually there is a reservation to that latter point, but let’s start with the exemplary. For one, there’s the song: “Mission” was a mid-’70s gem that offered some of the strongest aspects of Garcia’s intuitive preferences in song craft. The tune also provided a vehicle for Jerry’s remarkable vocal abilities.
Robert Hunter’s lyrics are evocative of a working man’s melancholy. The protagonist looks back ten years to a time when he was bursting with confidence, dreams and ambition. Unfortunately, things have not worked out. He only partially followed through on his life plans and his dreams now lie shattered. He walks San Francisco’s Mission district in the dark and the rain, each reflecting his downcast reality. He encounters someone and converses with them, declining a proposition. This being midnight in a sketchy neighborhood, one can’t help recall Hunter’s sympathetic portrait of Sugaree. Are these two souls down on their luck, each scratching for whatever they can? The song is unclear but the suggestion is strong.
“Mission” was a classic JGB composition though the band played it progressively less after 1980. Whether this decline was due to the tune’s vocal challenges or some other fatigue we can’t know. But it has a time capsule quality because its early prominence in the JGB rotation happened to overlap with Garcia’s musical apotheosis before the gremlins of the early ’80s started to bite.
This recorded version, five years after its creation, shows the maturation and peak development of the original idea. The band is playing well as a band and, though aficionados will quibble about the optimal lineup in the 20 year JGB history, this recording showcases a group of exceptional musicians who are playing beautifully together. The sound is balanced and well-produced with arguably the best sonic contribution from John Kahn on offer. Garcia’s guitar tone is excellent, with the woody timbre of “Tiger” creating a depth he couldn’t get with either the Bean or Wolf guitars. But importantly, Jerry’s guitar sound is well slotted into the overall mix – clear but not overly dominant – another tribute to solid sound engineering.
More important though is Jerry’s playing, which shows him at his apex. Garcia’s preferred approach of restating the melody through improvised arpeggios around the chord structure is a musical high wire act at all times. It is musically difficult to develop the arpeggios in the moment; difficult to play them accurately as the stream of consciousness calls them out; and difficult in such a complex musical environment to hold all the threads together without getting lost. Doing all this stoned and in front of 10,000 people while rarely looking at the fretboard defies imagination. When he did it and soared, people lost their minds. Of course there were plenty of stumbles too, but the audience palpably rooted for him to nail it and when he did, it was communal ecstasy, in part because people could viscerally feel the undertaken challenge. In this case, Jerry delivers a master class in the approach. His first two solo runs – the band took an indulgent six (common for JGB, but my God, six??) – work the higher registers to awesome effect. But the third run in the lower register in support of Kahn’s highlight is equally impressive as demonstration of both guitar prowess as well as Jerry’s ability to drive the band’s sound rather than just his own.
Jerry’s tenor here is strong and solid, and the tune showcases his vocal gifts well. He is near the end of his sweet tenor vocal abilities and knowing the vocal challenges that arise in the coming years makes his vocal strength here more powerful. This is a sunset performance of one of the great natural tenors of rock and roll.
So what’s not to love? Besides a minor lack of tightness towards the end, the fly in the ointment here is the keyboard tone from Ozzie Ahlers. Ahlers is a tremendous keyboard player as a quick YouTube search will reveal. He does an excellent job in the early part of this track, with tasteful keys in accompaniment, both in terms of tone and playing. But in the solo he switches on his Moog (or some such) keyboard monstrosity. This was a recurring if inexplicable choice for him throughout the ’79-80 period that he was with JGB. Why, Ozzie? For God’s sake, why? This proto-robo, nonsensical sonic choice drains a huge amount of pathos from the song. That he goes on for two full runs through the progression induces a cringe.
But time blesses this choice as too it blesses the decision to forego practice in an effort to preserve spontaneity. JGB – really Jerry – was all about spontaneity and absence of centralized control when he easily could have insisted on another way. Perhaps that is what made him so compelling. The risks he took and the depth of his sincerity were clear to anyone who listened carefully. This version of “Mission” exemplifies Jerry as a gifted songwriter, vocalist and improvisational guitarist, and showcases his hands-off band leadership. It’s is a trip back through time and a snapshot of Jerry at his peak both musically and vocally. It is a shot of beautiful nostalgia in a song that is itself about nostalgia – a mirror in a mirror inspiring awe.
— John Britton (Contributor-at-large)