Keith and Donna Godchaux met Jerry Garcia at a critical turning point in the Grateful Dead's history. The group's original front man, lead vocalist and keyboardist, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, had taken seriously ill in 1971 and the band had months of tour dates planned. At the time, Keith Godchaux had been appearing with ex-Traffic guitarist Dave Mason, who was promoting his landmark Alone Together album, a huge underground radio hit in San Francisco. Donna Jean Godchaux had a wealth of experience and would be the only woman to ever be recruited into the Grateful Dead. Born in Sheffield, Alabama, Donna had worked as a Muscle Shoals session singer, appearing on recordings by Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and even Elvis Presley. Her voice sweet and pure would go on to grace Bob Weir's first solo album, Ace, as well as landmark Dead albums like Wake Of The Flood, Mars Hotel, and Blues For Allah. Keith Godchaux added provocative, jazz-influenced piano to the Dead's core sound, spurring renewed interest in group improvisations. The match was initially made in heaven, with Keith's relentlessly creative acoustic piano work matching Garcia's own knack for spontaneous improvisation.
When the Grateful Dead officially retired from the road in late 1974, all the musicians were free to pursue outside projects. The Dead's organization also ran their own label, Round Records, so the musicians could essentially produce and release solo project albums, free of record industry interference. It became a lot more complicated as this in-house record company experiment progressed, but all the musicians eagerly pursued new projects, including Keith and Donna, who began recording an album at their Stinson Beach home. The resulting album, Keith & Donna emphasized their soulful roots, with a big nod toward the music of Motown, Memphis, and Muscle Shoals.
Keith and Donna planned to take their music to live audiences, so they assembled a band that included a supremely talented local guitarist, Ray Scott, and versatile bass player Mike Larshied. Dead drummer Bill Kruetzman signed on as did Steve Schuster, one of the Bay Area's most talented reed players, who had worked with Quicksilver Messenger Service and was a veteran of the San Francisco music scene.
This performance, recorded at Winterland, captures the Keith & Donna Band performing between openers The Sons of Champlin and headliners, Kingfish, which included Bob Weir during this time. Needless to say, this was a fine night for Deadheads, who got to experience four members of the Grateful Dead performing on the same bill, but outside the familiar musical context. Surprisingly, Keith and Donna only perform two songs from their album, although the do choose two of the most enjoyable. Otherwise, this set features a wealth of classic covers that reveal their deepest influences.
Following the introduction, the set kicks off Marvin Gaye's "Ain't That Peculiar." With a heavy Stax feel, this features Donna on lead vocals and is a nice warm-up exercise for Schuster and Scott, who both take solos. Keith takes over on lead vocal for a unique take on the Motown classic, "Come See About Me," a 1964 hit for The Supremes and a hit for Motown again in 1967 when Jr. Walker & the All Stars recorded a much funkier sax-fueled version. This leans more toward the latter funkier version and although Keith isn't a strong vocalist, the instrumental end of things more than makes up for it. Donna fronts the band again for the bluesy "Strange Man," a song that she would soon bring to the Jerry Garcia Band's repertoire the following year. This is a strong showing, but Donna really hits her stride on "Sweet Baby," one of the most delightful tracks on their album. Sweet and sultry, her voice is most compelling here. The band provides a nice reggae-tinged groove with Schuster adding a lovely flute throughout.
The instrumental centerpiece of the set is next. This jazzy untitled (as far as we know) composition allows the group stretch out and jam. Featuring outstanding sax work from Schuster and endlessly inventive Fender Rhodes/guitar interplay from Godchaux and Scott, this approaches jazz-rock fusion territory. At times Ray Scott sounds very Jerry Garcia-esque in his phrasing and with Schuster playing freer as the piece progresses, this is an impressive performance. Clocking in at nearly 12 minutes, this is the group at their most adventurous.
Bob Dylan's "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry" is a far more relaxed affair, with the group establishing a nice relaxed groove, again featuring Keith on vocals. A horn driven take on Otis Redding's classic "I Can't Turn You Loose" follows, which many will recognize as the opening theme song for The Blues Brothers several years later. Here both Keith and Donna share vocal duties before the set concludes with the bouncy shuffle of "Showboat." A Godchaux family original that was a highlight of their album, this again features nice harmony vocal arrangements, impressive solos from Scott, Godchaux and Schuster and concludes with a soulful vocal from Donna.
The Winterland audience can clearly be heard stomping for more and although the tape stock runs out shortly after the encore begins, the group performs a catchy reading of soul star Eddie Floyd's "Knock On Wood" to conclude their portion of the show, preparing the audience for Kingfish.