Keepers of the flame |

Keepers of the flame

Wren Wertin

Garcia first met Seals when Seals was playing with the Elvin Bishop Band. Garcia later described his first impressions of Seals:

“This big guy, he was just playing a Fender Rhodes. But he was playing so tasty, I’m just standing behind him. It’s a pretty thick band, so figuring out just how to get in there was, I thought, the work of a good musician. He was just playing the tastiest little stuff. I thought, “This guy is just too much.’ I asked him what his name was. He said, “Melvin Seals. Melvin Seals.'”

Seals is best known as the former keyboardist for the Jerry Garcia Band, having joined them in 1980 and continuing up until Garcia’s death.

“I had no idea what was going on,” said Seals. “I was fresh out of the church and suddenly I was in a strange place where all the locals had skeletons with flowers in their hair. I didn’t talk much. I was shy, playing the organ and getting out of there as soon as I could.”

Eventually Seals talked over his apprehension with Garcia, who showed the bemused keyboardist that Deadheads were “peaceful people.”

Seals was always looking for what he called the “church vibe” in his music. Rooted deep in gospel soil, spirit and music had to meld in Seals’ body. Playing with Garcia, he found that synergy. With the new JGB, as they call themselves, he’s found it again. Seals is joined on stage by Jimmy Saluzzi (guitar), Ron Penque (bass) and Johnny Markowski (drums). All four musicians contribute to vocals.

It’s fitting Seals plays Vail’s free concert, as he discovered his new bandmates in the Rockies last summer. It was the first time he’d heard the New Jersey-based Grateful Dead tribute band Ripple. Something clicked. After Garcia died, Seals lost some of his love of the music. It didn’t fit right – he felt like a cover band. But Ripple made him turn his head.

“These guys are different,” he said. “Ron Penque has a voice just like Jerry – you close your eyes and it’s Jerry. Jimmy Saluzzi plays the guitar identical to Jerry, right down to the mistakes, right chord, right timing, it’s the church vibe.”

“Every Jerry band, they play the same rock scale,” said Saluzzi. “They don’t play that intricate walkdown, updown, triplets. You don’t stay in one scale, you got to work it, start off low at the bottom of the scale, bring it up the middle of the neck, then at the last fret, you can’t overplay your notes, you’ve got to tease it. If you jumped into a high note, where are you going to be?”

Saluzzi and Penque discovered the Jerry Garcia Band together in 1978. For the past 25 years, they’ve worked at perfecting that Jerry style ever since. When Markowski joined them less than a year ago, he worked for one goal: to get the group the chance to play with Seals.

“Jerry Garcia Band was my absolute favorite band in the world, and I’m honored to be able to carry on the torch and play homage to the heart and feel and tones,” he said. “I’m honored to be playing with Melvin Seals who blew me away at every concert I went to. We’re all honored to be keepers of the flame.”

Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at or phone at 949-0555 ext. 618.

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