• January 12, 2012
    http://www.dead.net/features/blair-jackson/blair%E2%80%99s-golden-road-blog-keyboardist-question
    Blair’s Golden Road Blog - The Keyboardist Question

    This could verge on the sacrilegious, but I’ve been thinking for some time that Jeff Chimenti may be the best all-around keyboardist to have played with the Grateful Dead or the post-GD bands. This guy can play anything: from raucous rock to convincing jazz to delicate melodic whispers. He is a magnificent pianist and a beast on the B-3. He’s assertive without being a hog. If he’s ever played a bad show, I’m not aware of it.

    The first few years I saw him with RatDog, he didn’t really register on my radar much for some reason. I could tell he was a good player and all, but he wasn’t leaping out of the mix at me. All that changed in 2004, when he became the sole keyboardist in The Dead (rather than sharing the job with Rob Barraco as he did on their 2003 tour). All of a sudden I was hearing his parts in a new light and was able to understand the depth of his diverse talents. He always seemed to have the right tone and the right part and he fearlessly went out on the edge with Phil, Bob, Warren and company. That, in turn, made me appreciate his role in RatDog more, and I’ve been a Jeff believer ever since. He’s perfect for Furthur because he knows the material inside and out but also brings his own strong musical personality to the party.

    “But wait a second, BJ. Better than Keith? Better than Brent?”

    I don’t know, man. It’s so hard to compare players and eras. Maybe I’m just being provocative.

    I have been asked many times through the years who my favorite Grateful Dead keyboardist was, and I usually answer “Keith Godchaux.” There was something about Keith’s playing that made it feel completely integral to the band’s sound—particularly from ’71 to ’74—in a way that no other GD keyboardist’s work did for me. Maybe it was the timbre of that grand piano and the way it slotted into the gestalt. There was an effortless quality to his playing, whether it was deep space or rollicking barrelhouse or rippin’ rock ’n’ roll that felt perfect to me for that band at that time.

    The downside, if you can call it that, is that piano can start to feel monochromatic after a while, and Keith wasn’t adept at providing other keyboard textures. I liked some of his Fender Rhodes work, but it seemed to limit him texturally rather than expanding his palette. Interestingly, he was very good on multiple keyboards in the studio (see Mars Hotel), but couldn’t translate that diverse attack to the stage. His playing in the Dead after 1976 is less interesting, though he continued to thrive for a while in the more intimate chamber music setting the Jerry Garcia Band provided for him. Don’t let his bland onstage disposition fool you. He had serious chops.

    The shift to Brent immediately brought bold new colors to the band’s sound (not to mention a fine harmony singer). Brent was the consummate B-3 player, one of the best I’ve heard. I was less taken with his piano tones, however. After Keith’s beefy grand, some of the rinky-tink piano sounds that came from Brent’s arsenal of electronic keyboards were lacking for me. His first year-plus in the band he played some cool synth parts on a few songs, but for some reason he then more or less dropped them.

    I never felt that Brent fully embraced the Dead’s spacier side; perhaps it’s because he was not from the hippie world and didn’t have that acid head. Maybe he just didn’t dig it. But his playing got better and more adventurous as the years went along, and I loved his first forays into MIDI—the “fiddle” he’d lay down on a country number, the cool combinations of instruments he’d conjure to decorate a tune. From ’87 through the spring of ’90, he played his best.

    Publicity shot of Brent taken
    by the great Herb Greene in 1987.
    © 2012

    Vince had the thankless job of coming into the band so quickly following Brent’s death and being told he wasn’t going to play either a real piano or a B-3. Instead, he was stuck behind a solitary MIDI electronic keyboard loaded with sounds supplied to him by Bob Bralove, some of which were, in his first tours with the group, frankly cheesy. I am not a Vince detractor. On the contrary, I really liked the light, positive vibe he brought to the band, which was such a welcome contrast to Brent’s occasional dark surliness. But he had not been a soloist or much of an improviser in The Tubes or with Todd Rundgren, and the learning curve when he came into the Dead was steep—not just the parts, but the feel and the flow. He definitely had his struggles early on.

    Bringing in Bruce Hornsby to share the keyboard duties with Vince was a bold move. Bruce was already a well-established star on his own and one of the strongest pianists working in rock at the time, so his dynamic and forceful musical personality instantly changed the way the Dead sounded—mostly for the better. I liked hearing acoustic piano again, and Jerry, especially, seemed buoyed by his presence. Vince went into the background more and now found himself looking for ways to stay out of the way of Bruce’s bright piano and to add broader flavors to what had become a very thick stew indeed. I do not mean it as any kind of put-down when I say that Bruce always seemed like Bruce to me when he was in the Grateful Dead—slightly apart from the others, never quite subsumed into the greater whole. After all, we knew from the start that he was—to use a term from the sports world—a “rental”; a temporary fix. That said, many of my favorite shows from the early ’90s are ones that featured both Bruce and Vince together. There’s a certain grandness and drama to that sound that I really loved, particularly from the summer of ’91.

    After Bruce’s departure, Vince started to come into his own more. It helped that he finally acquired some better organ tones (though they never matched the richness of a real B-3), and he became more confident as time went on. As with Brent, I appreciated the cover tunes he sang with the band more than his original songs, but I always liked his upbeat presence. Unfortunately, his rise in the band coincided with Jerry’s gradual physical decline, so his tenure with the group will always be tainted by that sad truth. Ironically, after Jerry died and Vince formed Missing Man Formation, we got to see what a nifty player he really was.

    No, I haven’t forgotten Pigpen and TC.

    Pigpen was not a great keyboardist, but he certainly was an important part of the group’s early sound. I like that wheedle-y Vox that dances across their songs in ’66 and ’67, and you’ll find some solid B-3 work from him here and there later on. His contributions, even when they were rudimentary, were always tasteful. And listen closely to the Europe ’72 box and you might be surprised at how much and how well he played on what turned out to be his last tour. I think we can all agree, however, that his vocals and his personality were his greatest contributions to the group.

    As for TC, well, he was obviously a highly accomplished player—a virtuoso—when he joined the band, but he was hampered by usually having to play a Vox organ onstage, with its limited range of sounds. I also sense a certain reluctance to break free in his playing, as if he never felt like he had the green light to really take off (in fact, he’s said as much). Still, the fact remains he was with the band for one of its greatest years—1969—and he was a key component in the sound of that group. Would he have been comfortable as the band increasingly turned toward country and more conventional rock ’n’ roll shadings after he left? We’ll never know. But I’ll always have that TC organ from some ’69 “Dark Star” floating through some part of my brain.

    In the post Grateful Dead-era we’ve been treated to a wide range of keyboardists, all of whom I’ve enjoyed on one level or another.

    OK, I thought Johnnie Johnson was wasted in RatDog for the most part. Yes, he was a legend, but that was not the best use of talents.

    Of the handful of players that have occupied the keyboard chair in Phil & Friends through the years, my favorite was Steve Molitz, who played in the last steady incarnation of the group (with Larry Campbell and Jackie Greene). Steve was extremely versatile (like Jeff C.), had tons of energy, and also used synths so creatively. I also liked Rob Barraco’s work both in the Phil Lesh Quintet (with Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring) and with The Dead. He had lots of good musical ideas, and as a veteran of Dead cover bands, he really understood the material. I also appreciated his always cheery demeanor onstage. I think he’s been underrated by fans.

    Billy Payne of Little Feat probably logged the third most shows at keyboards with Phil & Friends. I’ve been a huge fan of his forever and count him among the best keyboardists rock ever produced. However, the couple of times I saw him and his LF bandmate Paul Barrere in the group we affectionately called “Phil & Feat,” I felt that the music wasn’t as free as it needed to be, that it was being reined in somewhat by these great players who were not used to the loose jamming that is such a part of the Grateful Dead (and Phil) tradition. (But I still love Little Feat!)

    Then there were a couple of others who moved in and out of the keys slot in Phil’s band for relatively brief stints, including Phish’s Page McConnell and the David Nelson Band’s Mookie Siegel. Both good players, obviously. Neither was there long enough to make a strong impression. Forgive me if I’ve forgotten anyone!

    So, that’s my take on keyboards. What do you think?

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This could verge on the sacrilegious, but I’ve been thinking for some time that Jeff Chimenti may be the best all-around keyboardist to have played with the Grateful Dead or the post-GD bands. This guy can play anything: from raucous rock to convincing jazz to delicate melodic whispers. He is a magnificent pianist and a beast on the B-3. He’s assertive without being a hog. If he’s ever played a bad show, I’m not aware of it.

The first few years I saw him with RatDog, he didn’t really register on my radar much for some reason. I could tell he was a good player and all, but he wasn’t leaping out of the mix at me. All that changed in 2004, when he became the sole keyboardist in The Dead (rather than sharing the job with Rob Barraco as he did on their 2003 tour). All of a sudden I was hearing his parts in a new light and was able to understand the depth of his diverse talents. He always seemed to have the right tone and the right part and he fearlessly went out on the edge with Phil, Bob, Warren and company. That, in turn, made me appreciate his role in RatDog more, and I’ve been a Jeff believer ever since. He’s perfect for Furthur because he knows the material inside and out but also brings his own strong musical personality to the party.

“But wait a second, BJ. Better than Keith? Better than Brent?”

I don’t know, man. It’s so hard to compare players and eras. Maybe I’m just being provocative.

I have been asked many times through the years who my favorite Grateful Dead keyboardist was, and I usually answer “Keith Godchaux.” There was something about Keith’s playing that made it feel completely integral to the band’s sound—particularly from ’71 to ’74—in a way that no other GD keyboardist’s work did for me. Maybe it was the timbre of that grand piano and the way it slotted into the gestalt. There was an effortless quality to his playing, whether it was deep space or rollicking barrelhouse or rippin’ rock ’n’ roll that felt perfect to me for that band at that time.

The downside, if you can call it that, is that piano can start to feel monochromatic after a while, and Keith wasn’t adept at providing other keyboard textures. I liked some of his Fender Rhodes work, but it seemed to limit him texturally rather than expanding his palette. Interestingly, he was very good on multiple keyboards in the studio (see Mars Hotel), but couldn’t translate that diverse attack to the stage. His playing in the Dead after 1976 is less interesting, though he continued to thrive for a while in the more intimate chamber music setting the Jerry Garcia Band provided for him. Don’t let his bland onstage disposition fool you. He had serious chops.

The shift to Brent immediately brought bold new colors to the band’s sound (not to mention a fine harmony singer). Brent was the consummate B-3 player, one of the best I’ve heard. I was less taken with his piano tones, however. After Keith’s beefy grand, some of the rinky-tink piano sounds that came from Brent’s arsenal of electronic keyboards were lacking for me. His first year-plus in the band he played some cool synth parts on a few songs, but for some reason he then more or less dropped them.

I never felt that Brent fully embraced the Dead’s spacier side; perhaps it’s because he was not from the hippie world and didn’t have that acid head. Maybe he just didn’t dig it. But his playing got better and more adventurous as the years went along, and I loved his first forays into MIDI—the “fiddle” he’d lay down on a country number, the cool combinations of instruments he’d conjure to decorate a tune. From ’87 through the spring of ’90, he played his best.

Publicity shot of Brent taken
by the great Herb Greene in 1987.
© 2012

Vince had the thankless job of coming into the band so quickly following Brent’s death and being told he wasn’t going to play either a real piano or a B-3. Instead, he was stuck behind a solitary MIDI electronic keyboard loaded with sounds supplied to him by Bob Bralove, some of which were, in his first tours with the group, frankly cheesy. I am not a Vince detractor. On the contrary, I really liked the light, positive vibe he brought to the band, which was such a welcome contrast to Brent’s occasional dark surliness. But he had not been a soloist or much of an improviser in The Tubes or with Todd Rundgren, and the learning curve when he came into the Dead was steep—not just the parts, but the feel and the flow. He definitely had his struggles early on.

Bringing in Bruce Hornsby to share the keyboard duties with Vince was a bold move. Bruce was already a well-established star on his own and one of the strongest pianists working in rock at the time, so his dynamic and forceful musical personality instantly changed the way the Dead sounded—mostly for the better. I liked hearing acoustic piano again, and Jerry, especially, seemed buoyed by his presence. Vince went into the background more and now found himself looking for ways to stay out of the way of Bruce’s bright piano and to add broader flavors to what had become a very thick stew indeed. I do not mean it as any kind of put-down when I say that Bruce always seemed like Bruce to me when he was in the Grateful Dead—slightly apart from the others, never quite subsumed into the greater whole. After all, we knew from the start that he was—to use a term from the sports world—a “rental”; a temporary fix. That said, many of my favorite shows from the early ’90s are ones that featured both Bruce and Vince together. There’s a certain grandness and drama to that sound that I really loved, particularly from the summer of ’91.

After Bruce’s departure, Vince started to come into his own more. It helped that he finally acquired some better organ tones (though they never matched the richness of a real B-3), and he became more confident as time went on. As with Brent, I appreciated the cover tunes he sang with the band more than his original songs, but I always liked his upbeat presence. Unfortunately, his rise in the band coincided with Jerry’s gradual physical decline, so his tenure with the group will always be tainted by that sad truth. Ironically, after Jerry died and Vince formed Missing Man Formation, we got to see what a nifty player he really was.

No, I haven’t forgotten Pigpen and TC.

Pigpen was not a great keyboardist, but he certainly was an important part of the group’s early sound. I like that wheedle-y Vox that dances across their songs in ’66 and ’67, and you’ll find some solid B-3 work from him here and there later on. His contributions, even when they were rudimentary, were always tasteful. And listen closely to the Europe ’72 box and you might be surprised at how much and how well he played on what turned out to be his last tour. I think we can all agree, however, that his vocals and his personality were his greatest contributions to the group.

As for TC, well, he was obviously a highly accomplished player—a virtuoso—when he joined the band, but he was hampered by usually having to play a Vox organ onstage, with its limited range of sounds. I also sense a certain reluctance to break free in his playing, as if he never felt like he had the green light to really take off (in fact, he’s said as much). Still, the fact remains he was with the band for one of its greatest years—1969—and he was a key component in the sound of that group. Would he have been comfortable as the band increasingly turned toward country and more conventional rock ’n’ roll shadings after he left? We’ll never know. But I’ll always have that TC organ from some ’69 “Dark Star” floating through some part of my brain.

In the post Grateful Dead-era we’ve been treated to a wide range of keyboardists, all of whom I’ve enjoyed on one level or another.

OK, I thought Johnnie Johnson was wasted in RatDog for the most part. Yes, he was a legend, but that was not the best use of talents.

Of the handful of players that have occupied the keyboard chair in Phil & Friends through the years, my favorite was Steve Molitz, who played in the last steady incarnation of the group (with Larry Campbell and Jackie Greene). Steve was extremely versatile (like Jeff C.), had tons of energy, and also used synths so creatively. I also liked Rob Barraco’s work both in the Phil Lesh Quintet (with Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring) and with The Dead. He had lots of good musical ideas, and as a veteran of Dead cover bands, he really understood the material. I also appreciated his always cheery demeanor onstage. I think he’s been underrated by fans.

Billy Payne of Little Feat probably logged the third most shows at keyboards with Phil & Friends. I’ve been a huge fan of his forever and count him among the best keyboardists rock ever produced. However, the couple of times I saw him and his LF bandmate Paul Barrere in the group we affectionately called “Phil & Feat,” I felt that the music wasn’t as free as it needed to be, that it was being reined in somewhat by these great players who were not used to the loose jamming that is such a part of the Grateful Dead (and Phil) tradition. (But I still love Little Feat!)

Then there were a couple of others who moved in and out of the keys slot in Phil’s band for relatively brief stints, including Phish’s Page McConnell and the David Nelson Band’s Mookie Siegel. Both good players, obviously. Neither was there long enough to make a strong impression. Forgive me if I’ve forgotten anyone!

So, that’s my take on keyboards. What do you think?

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I have been asked many times through the years who my favorite Grateful Dead keyboardist was, and I usually answer “Keith Godchaux.” There was something about Keith’s playing that made it feel completely integral to the band’s sound—particularly from ’71 to ’74—in a way that no other GD keyboardist’s work did for me. Maybe it was the timbre of that grand piano and the way it slotted into the gestalt. There was an effortless quality to his playing, whether it was deep space or rollicking barrelhouse or rippin’ rock ’n’ roll that felt perfect to me for that band at that time.

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I have mentioned before that I stopped listening to all side bands after Jerry died, and that my first experience was this last Furthur New Year's Show. I am blown away by Furthur and can't believe it took me so long to catch on. My friend and I had a very heated debated as to whether Keith or Brent was the better Keyboardist. Hands down, I will swear on Brent until the day I die!!! Nobody will ever convince me that the Grateful Dead has ever had a better keyboardist than Brent. I don't care if you think that the Dead were a better band in the 70s, Brent was still the better keyboardist! That being said, I am so impressed with Jeff. I thought he was too low in the mix for my taste at the New Year's show, but what I heard was tasteful, soulful, and technically proficient. I am still new to his playing, so I'll say that the jury is still out, but man am I impressed with that guy!!
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Brent was by far the best. He played from his heart and sole like Jerry. I think Jeff is good but at times he is a little off.
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Blair,I agree with virtually all of your sentiments here. Interestingly, I posted on the FB part of this that I always felt that the Dead should have replaced Keith with Bill Payne in 79. Payne has been playing with my band Hooligans in Montana sporadically for the last couple of years between FEAT tours and I can assure you he has no fear of the "Great Unknown"- the guy thrives on space and improv.Paul Barrere was more likely the guy that like to have one hand on the ledge... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXqAQjyFpkE
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I'm going with Brent also.. but .. that was the height of my touring days. His soulful playing was stunning.he was the best Grateful Dead keyboardist ... Further is just, well... not the Grateful Dead... but awesome in concert
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I would not have wanted anyone in the dead, except Keith, from 72-74....it just worked, and a close listen to the era's open space will reveal why...many of the finest jams featured textural meanderings on the piano that have since become thematic for us repeated listeners...replace keith with jeff, in 74, and a different beast would have emerged...a great, but different beast. As for Brent, well, his is a sad story of slow decline, particularly technically speaking, on his instrument. His chops were most solid in his earliest years, and from my close inspection, he was at times quite rhythmically inconsistent in his solos from 83 onward...this is just plain old sad. Bless the man, he was a casualty of dark side of the scene. RIP TC is probably my fave, in so far as his participation in what can only be considered the most adventurous, spontaneous and free era of the dead. His work embodies the entire spirit of keyboard psychedelia from the 60's. He was a space traveller to the max with an amazing academic side to his free playing as well. His fills in the original Thats It for the Other One have never been repeated or matched! As a final note, this long time listener welcomes the creative and accomplished sound that Jeff brings. But this style of playing, this immense participation and at times improvisational leadership, could only be approached in a jerry-less era. Ultimately, Jerry led this band, and Jeff would never have grabbed up as much space and creative direction if the old man was still around. He would have been great for sure, working with Jerry, but Further desperately needs Chimenti's avant improvisational leadership and spirit to fill in the wide void that, well, only love can fill!
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I was listening closely to a spring 1990 show today and Jerry took just about every solo--that's a good thing. Brent was just filling in other spaces. Jerry really didn't particularly encourage the GD keyboardists to step and solo much. He was the man, obviously.
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Jeff's the all-around best by far, and getting better, but I still like Brent's B-3 (and MIDI), Keith's Steinway, TC and Pig's organ individually better. And Vince was just getting started. Some of the colors and textures he added were stunning. I thought Bruce was a bit too much of a solo artist to fit in well. OTOH check out the soundstage-filmed video of his of Barren Ground and Across the River which has some of his and Jerry's best licks ever. And Jerry in LA with a tan and spiffy clothes is a hoot. And I damn near died of laughter when he pulled out the accordion. A bumper sticker spotted on an old Microbus in Berkeley many years ago (from KSAN maybe): Use an accordion, go to prison. One thing of Jeff's I loved was the accompaniment to Terrapin on the TRI show. He played as fast as Jerry did on the original.
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I agree with Blair-you gotta love them all. I really am ejoying what Jeff is bringing to the party!
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Brent.
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BJ, glad to hear you come out for Jeff. Want proof he's the best? He's the lead instrumentalist in this band. When they play rounds, his is the featured one. When they go deep, John K locks into Jeff's eyes and sounds. He is the best keyboardist bar none. I witnessed shows from 77-94. Furthur plays night in and night out as Dead as any but Jerry's better outings. Maybe it's just such a treat to hear this music rejuvenated at this level and it obscures my judgment, but that's it for what it's worth. "One man gathers what another man spills" Van
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The Dead's spacy yearnings were best served by Keith's presence. Although I agree completely with Blair's take on TC's importance to the epochal 69'sound, it wasn't until I heard a 72' Dark Star than I knew I would be studying this band's effect on my psyche like a religion for the rest of my days. When I think back on my initial exposure to the Grateful Dead, I fondly remember the 'Dead Hour' with the 7/26/72 Dark Star>Comes A Time from the Paramount Theater in Portland, Oregon that I became a true believer. If I had just stuck with 'Skeletons' as my initial foray, then I would have never put Hendrix and Zeppelin on the back burner and dedicated every iota of my musical fancies to the 'boys'. The acid angle is extremely important (although I know T.C. abstained) to what the Dead's sound means to me. With the importance of John Coltrane firmly entrenched from their inception, once Miles and 'Bitches Brew' took over the Fillmore in 1970, the ripe, glistening seed of something completely original was awaiting a complementary voice to accompany Garcias foray into the ether of the Acid Rock sound. By 1970, country-rock had replaced the acid underpinnings of the 'Rock' sound, and it would have been understandable for this aspect of the genre to be assimilated completely into the fabric of the sound. But it took Keith completely matching Jerry's fluid chromatic runs in 'Playin, Truckin, Dark Star, and the Other One' to completely make the Grateful Dead as the weird entity we have come to love... It wasn't just Keith' jazz chops, it was his pairing of melodic ideas that melded so well with Garcia's continuation of the development of his sound...Basically, what i'm saying is that the placement of Keith's acid-jazz runs on the aforementioned examples was so integral to what the band was about, that it is almost irrelevant what the other fine players contributed, without Keith cementing the Deads sonic acid explorations, they would be a more traditional Rock and Roll outfit...
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Well said Blair...It's tough to say who my favorite is- I love them all. Each musician fits so well into the sound the band is creating for that particular time. Just one of many reasons why they are the finest band to ever walk on earth. A few of my favorite keyboard shows:5/26/73 9/29/89 9/22/91 5/16/93
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just because one imbibes, and improvises, an acid jazzer doth not make! Keith is so far from an acid jazz player...he was just a fine piano spaceman, with an ability to work well with jerry's leadership. To dismiss Kruetzman's Elvin jones reinforced sensibility during 73/74 is irresponsible listening! Tsk Tsk! And Phil was amazing during this era.....irrelevant is a poor choice of words...the entire sound is ensemble improvisation during the era you most cherish! For a reference to acid jazz piano playing, see Miles Davis ensemble that opened for the Dead at the Filmore...then compare that keys playing to keith, or any dead keyboardist for that matter...apples and oranges. As one further note, TC didn't need chemistry to enlighten his psychedelic soul...his playing was as tripped out as any in the band at the time...kudos that it 'came to him naturally'...we all wish for that, don't we?
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I pretty much agree with your summation of past GD keyboard players. I do think Brent was actually better with the funky electric piano from 1979-1986. To me Brent was an electric piano player/organist who, very occasionally, played the synthesizer in much the same way that Keith was primarily a pianist. When Brent switched to synth, I thought he lost a bit of "his sound". Vince, while his instrument of choice would've been a piano, already had a couple of decades working as a synthesizer player with The Tubes and Todd Rundgren. Being a fan of Todd's, I can tell you he was AWESOME with Todd quite often!!! He had a very upbeat rock and roll personality onstage. i also think that keyboard players were kept on a leash to some extent with Garcia being the lead.
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"Not to mention a pretty good harmony singer" is a pretty big not to mention. I love them both, but would give the nod to Brent because of the vocal dimension he brought to the band. That said, Chimenti just keeps getting better and better. I was surprised to read in this 2005 interview that he had listened very little to the Dead when he joined Rat Dog. http://www.concertlivewire.com/interviews/ratdog.htm Between his experience with Rat Dog and Furthur, Jeff C. has played longer with members of the Grateful Dead than any other keyboardist. oops, hope I didn't curse him.
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I loved Brent. The first show I saw featured New Minglewood Blues and I remember hearing that B-3 sound and seeing Brent throwing his head around and his long hair flyin and thinking that this dude has some serious Blues chops and knows what a B3 is for. I was a fan ever since. I love B3 organ and since none of the previous players or Vince could match that tone and energy there is no comparison in my book.
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I totally agree with your sentiments about Keith in 1971-74. To me, the band lost a lot after the hiatus. Most of the late '70s concerts I saw were wretched. Plodding tempos, Phil phoning it in. If only Donna weren't part of the Keith package, those '72-74 recordings would be perfect. I was privileged to see some very good Brent shows in the early '80s (including New Years 1981 and two years of Ventura shows), but that was short lived. By '85, Jerry could hardly sing. I jumped off the bus in '87 and nothing I've heard on record convinces me I missed much after that. But I stopped getting high after '84, so maybe that had something to do with it ;-) Just kidding. Sort of. Not really.
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I was not fortunate enough to witness TC nor Keith play. However, having done my share of listening, enough to form more than a quasi-opinion, I would say this: "I think Keith was way to inconsistent and when he was good he was only somehat good, not great." Having seen Brent, Bruce and Vince I say: "Bruce was without question the best piano player to play with any of them." As for the question who is the best all around keyboard player to have played with them, Brent is the best. Period! I do understand the thought that Jeff is accomplished, I hear moments of brilliance in things he does. However, in Jeff's playing I hear minor mistakes, missed opportunities, and some times just not enough extra notes enveloping the other musicians to put him in the same category as Brent. In other words, just like in college football or basketball, how can a team (player) slide down the rankings when he does not play any more? I cast my vote squarely on the dead man. Sandman
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Best Piano Chops - Keith no doubt. Best Organ Chops - Brent no doubt. But Pigpen was so much more. His contribution on the organ was insignificant compared to all the other stuff he brought to the table. I know you said this but you left out his harmonica which added a SHITLOAD. Can you even imagine what early GD would have sounded like without Pig wailing on the harp? I sure don't want to. If the question is about who is the best at playing the piano/organ/keys Pigpen isn't going to be winning. But if the question is about who added the most to what the Grateful Dead is. None of them even come CLOSE to Pigpen. If the question is about who contributed the most to the GD sound, That's all Pigpen, and to me, that makes him the best.
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It's a silly question. It's like asking who's the best Jerry Garcia? The 1968 version, the 1974 version, the 1986 version, or the 1994 version? The best keyboard player was the one who played with the band when they played with the band. The only ones I saw were Brent Mydland and Vince Welnick. I didn't stand there thinking "Oh, he's the best, or second best, or third best keyboard player of all Dead time." I was enjoying being there. For me, the experience was what mattered. The words, the melodies, the harmonies, the vocal quality, and the magic. The experience would be ruined if I stood there second-guessing my experience with meaningless prattle. The only reason I am even responding to this is that it came up on my Facebook page. If you have time on your hands enough to sit around generating such mental masturbation, you might want to consider getting a life.
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Keith and Jeff for the simple fact that both play/ed superb rock 'n roll piano - and I would (humbly) hazard that the piano is the bedrock keyboard for rock 'n roll - and after all, our boys were a rock 'n roll band, as amply demonstrated by the Europe '72 set. And one of the great things about the Europe '72 is that Keith is up in the mix, and you can really hear him properly for the first time.
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Keith and Jeff for the simple fact that both play/ed superb rock 'n roll piano - and I would (humbly) hazard that the piano is the bedrock keyboard for rock 'n roll - and after all, our boys were a rock 'n roll band, as amply demonstrated by the Europe '72 set. And one of the great things about the Europe '72 is that Keith is up in the mix, and you can really hear him properly for the first time.
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I have thought about this more now that Jeff has entered the mix and I'll tell you why. I always looked at the era's divided by the keyboardists. They each altered the overall sound enough in style and tone in their own ways that it noticeably changed the dynamic and overall timbre of the music. Each era had it's place for better or worse and I have my favorite moments in all. I lean towards the 71-74 Keith and Brent's overall vibe and definitely his B3 playing. Brent could bring the group right out of a disastrous show with the right vocal or rippin organ solo. Raise the energy enough to turn the ship around. Pig has his own place in the band that is beyond just keys. Jeff IMHO seems to have done his homework has studied all the eras and brings the best of all eras to the table. When I first started critical listening to him in the Dead, it was as if he incorporated a lot of the album version keyboard tracks and added his own jazzy influence. As time went on it seemed he probably studied the live recordings more and maybe discussing the key position with people who were close to the music. Heads included. His performances have increasingly encompassed what I feel is the best keyboard applications directed at each song. Rippin Brent organ, Keith style piano even notice Bruce influences. Pig sounding organ too on the bands very early material. It seems this last tour he has really wrapped his head around the songbook now and is more effortlessly contributing all these elements and using them as a platform now to take things to another keyboard level with his own developed albeit dead soaked influenced style. He makes all the keyboardists the best by offering the "best of" all the key parts over the years. Not sure if that makes him the best but sure gives newer generations an opportunity to experience all the eras in a live situation. I really dig that. Still a toss up for me. Depends on my mood. Currently it's been all Keith for me as I devoured the Europe 72 box set, but man a rippin Brent B3 solo or backing a wigged out ,edgy out on a limb, Jerry solo with Phil adding his own monster strings just really scratches that itch... but then again Keith...
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To one who said Jerry did not push keyboardists to solo, I am going to disagree. Not sure if anyone else has disagreed, but here's my 2 cents. I love all the keyboardists in their own eras. Keith brings a delicate feel to 72-74 that I love. I think Furthur needs to play smaller venues and try to bring these delicacies to their own show, IMO. Brent, Vince, and Bruce were ALWAYS given solo time by Jerry. There is a show from June 92, when I listened the other day I heard Jerry do his solo on a song (can't remember much, sorry)- but then he played this huge low E I believe to signal the end of his solo, and IMO, signal Vince to solo. Songs like "Rooster" and "Big River" and other first-set songs, Jerry definitely always gave the keyboardists their time to shine, after Keith left. I don't believe Jerry ever wanted the full spotlight. It even is apparent in JGB shows that Jerry gives Melvin plenty of space to do his own thing. Also when Marsalis or other sax's came in to play...Jerry gave them their times. /end rant
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I am pretty sure Blair Jackson gets paid for his contributions on this website, and any accusation that he need "get a life" should surely be recalculated.
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Brent, IMHO, was the BEST the Dead ever had..... BUT...... no one has impressed me more than Jeff Chimenti........if he played with the Grateful Dead....ohhh...the possibilities......Jerry woulda been ecstatic!
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a line in your musings said it best, blair: "...that felt perfect to me for that band at that time". for me, it's impossible to pick a favourite or even an overall preference. each era was so distinct that all of the players mattered; sometimes there a deep hankering for those gorgeous ripples from Keith, sometimes the expressive inner beauty, rage and sadness of Brent, sometimes that lightness you speak so rightly of from Vince. they're all so enmeshed in memories, visions and trips that apply directly to the time it was being made, and the subsequent re-visits and journeys that carry me still, that i cannot separate them and introduce logical evaluation and a pick and a choose. all indeed, seem "just exactly perfect"; even when things were stressful, straining in opposite directions and verging on the collapse. but that is why we still listen. why we HAVE to. there really aren't many bands where this applies; Miles Davis' & Frank Zappa's spring to mind. comparing early Mothers to the mid-seventies fusion of the George Duke era to the late-eighties abstractions......or the classic Miles Quartets of the '50's & '60's to the heart of darkness of Dark Magus to the funk of On The Corner. well.....that way madness lies. (i think a similar keyboard discussion is most apt for Miles Davis). you're definitely right about Jeff Chimenti; he is a wonderful musician. i was really pleased when he entered the Dead orbit. he just fits with Bobby & Phil in all their combinations. but i think to truly touch that "other"; to really connect with that pure spirit, in all it's manifestations, that poured from the Grateful Dead so brightly, so long; i really feel it takes someone filled with enlightenment, searching for that which is Higher, but soaked in a deeper, maybe more troubled, earthly soul. this could be because all the keyboard players had this vulnerability, this inner hurt, that makes me feel such a thing; the rich history influencing the present continuous? maybe so. interesting that you mentioned Jerry not encouraging them to step up and solo; always fills me with joy in those late eighties shows when you see the interplay between Jerry and Brent. maybe this was on days when Brent was wounded but those smiles when they faced each other are magical. and Raindep? "..the entire sound is ensemble improvisation during the era you most cherish!" that is just exactly right.
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Each keyboardist, Whether he is my favorite or not, has been an integral process of keeping the Grateful Dead flame glowing. At times the flame has not been as bright during each players tenure. While at other times it could be blinding. Whatever the case there was some light to be had. The great thing is......We don't have to pick just one. Since when has the Grateful Dead trip been about limiting the possiblities. Each incarnation has provided a wealth of material to choose from.
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in the right place at the right time. Thank the heavens for that. As he himself said "I'm here to add color". Which he did and then some. One moment that has always stuck with me was his solo on "Friend of the Devil' right before the boys broke out "Box of Rain" for the first time in eons (Philly '86?). Keith, Vince and Bruce combined could not touch his personal contributioin to that band. He understood, respected and delivered-on his part in/of Grateful Dead history. That being said, I think Vince could have done without Bruce Hornsby as chaperone. The band should have simply taken the rest of the year off out of respect if nothing else. It took a while but he really bloomed into a perfect replacement for Brent who seemed to be irreplaceable.
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I think Brent was the best keyboard player for The Grateful Dead. I did not appreciate Brent's vocals when he was alive and absolutely missed his vocals tremendously after he died! I did like Keith however I did not care at all for Donna. Vince.....
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I think Brent was the best keyboard player for The Grateful Dead. I did not appreciate Brent's vocals when he was alive and absolutely missed his vocals tremendously after he died! I did like Keith however I did not care at all for Donna. Vince.....
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I've been listening to some of the Europe 72 shows and other material from that time, and I think that Keith's piano really added something amazing to the band's sound. Why he sounded less inspired after the band's holiday, I don't know, although I don't think it was purely his own problems, as the band's sound changed after Mickey returned. The band was never so fluid when he was in it as it was when he was away in 1971-74 (that's not meant as a criticism of him as a drummer/percussionist). Also Phil's playing after 1975 never seemed to me to be as prominent as it was before. These aspects didn't change with Brent or Vince in the band. So it's difficult for me to state who was the 'best' keyboard player. Keith was brilliant in 1971-74; Brent was excellent on the Hammond, but how I wished he had played an acoustic piano on some songs at gigs. Bruce was excellent on piano, but he could at times clutter the sound by being too 'busy'. Vince had a hard job on his hands following Brent, and I think it's a shame that he didn't use a Hammond or Fender Rhodes, but I think he gets unfairly criticised by some people, as he was by no means a mediocre musician. One thing that has worried me was the way that Pigpen's contribution to the band was reduced in the live albums of 1971-72. Listening to the Dick's Picks and Vault releases of that time and comparing them with Skull and Roses or Europe 72, it seems that Pigpen's organ and percussion were edited out from some songs on the latter two albums. One clear example is 'Trucking' from London, 26 May 1972, where he plays throughout the long jam on the Complete Recordings CD, but only for a bit on Europe 72. His organ seems to have been removed from 'Saturday Night' at that gig as well, and from 'Tennessee Jed', Paris, 3 May 1972, when originally released.
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I think the decline and departure of Keith and the returm of Mickey coincided with the band pulling back from being an truly exploratory and innovative outfit with the power to do extraordinary things. But I don’t know what was cause and what was effect. Taking on Brent sort of placed a limit on where they could go…he did what he did very well indeed, but some places just became out of reach. I used to think that was his fault or perhaps Mickey's fault, but now I know I was wrong to think that. Maybe they had all flown a little too near the sun and had to learn to do things a little different. Still a great band , but….. I really wish they would have hired Bill Payne after Brent, Feat weren’t doing that much then, he can play just about anything and he does know how to jam. I too have been enjoying Pigpen's contributions to Europe 72, even getting involved in Dark Star on occasions.
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I think the decline and departure of Keith and the returm of Mickey coincided with the band pulling back from being an truly exploratory and innovative outfit with the power to do extraordinary things. But I don’t know what was cause and what was effect. Taking on Brent sort of placed a limit on where they could go…he did what he did very well indeed, but some places just became out of reach. I used to think that was his fault or perhaps Mickey's fault, but now I know I was wrong to think that. Maybe they had all flown a little too near the sun and had to learn to do things a little different. Still a great band , but….. I really wish they would have hired Bill Payne after Brent, Feat weren’t doing that much then, he can play just about anything and he does know how to jam. I too have been enjoying Pigpen's contributions to Europe 72, even getting involved in Dark Star on occasions.
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During Brent's days with the band, there was frequent change of his main keyboard which was an electric piano (he did play hammond organ frequently, and on rare occasions, a synthesizer). This is what I have noticed when listening to shows: 1979-81 Brent played a Fender Rhodes, which was popular in the 70s. However by the 80s this type of keyboard was losing its novelty in music. Actually '81 was rather late for musicians to be using the keyboard. 1982- Brent started playing this "artificial" sounding electric piano. He definitely had replaced his rhodes piano by then. Listen to a Brent solo during any "Friend of the Devil" from this period and you'll hear what I mean. This piano didn't last long. 1983-1986- Brent's electric piano had a distinct "staccato" sound to it. Used very extensively and can be heard at all of the shows from this era. What kind of piano was it? Still trying to figure out. 1987-90- Brent's modern sounding digital electric piano. Can be heard on all the late Arista albums such as "In The Dark" "Built To Last" and "Without A Net."
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Blair, this post reminds me of the interview that you and David Gans had with Garcia on April 28, 1981, which appears in Gans' Conversations with the Dead. In discussing the shift from Keith to Brent, Garcia notes that "the thing about having another percussion instrument in an all-percussion band was really too much of the same thing. The effect the piano had on the ensemble was something we could accomplish with guitars, so what we were really looking for was that sustain—you know, we were all hungry for color. Real hungry" (41). I'm not a musician, so when I first read this quote years ago, it helped me to think about music differently. Garcia's quote showed me that music can be seen as having two distinct properties, percussive beats and sustained tones, much like light is said to have the physical properties of both a particle and a wave. Keyboardists are able to produce both percussion and sustain—one in each hand if they want to—so it would seem to follow that the ideal GD keyboard player would be adept at that sort of dualism. In my opinion, Brent was the GD player best suited to the post because he had nimble access to both modes, much like Jeff Chimenti these days takes us effortlessly between the two.
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i think you're probably right badger; maybe they HAD flown to close to the burning shore.or maybe the wind just blew them in another direction (anthem to beauty?....). i think by their very inner definition, the band simply had to mutate; stasis negating their entire reason for existence. better to shine so brightly for less than we all wanted than repeat and go stale. also, i think we mustn't concentrate too deeply on the actual timbre of Brent's keyboard sounds; don't forget, the band were trying to introduce, apply and explore the newest sounds and technology available. this will undoubtedly place a limitation and a date on the tones. the advancements of synthesizers and midi, probably above any other instrument will always be rooted in the year/decade they were put on the market. let's face it, some of Jerry's midi applications, especially mimicking horn/brass sounds, sound terribly dated and weak sometimes. but that's not the point; it's the exploration and the ideas and intent behind the notes that mattered. clunkers and clams be damned!
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i was under the impression that the stacatto artificial piano sound of brent that he used extensively was a baby grand piano being processed through some kind of electronics, a synthesizer, MIDI etc. i like that sound because it is almost unique to brent, it was piano-esque but almost cartoon like, and its light whimsical qualities were more than balanced out by the weight of his B-3 explorations also during the brent years the keyboard sound and bob's gtr could really confuse ya as to who was playing what while brent was still with us i was prone to dismissing him as "no keith godchaux" the minute he was gone i realized how much i loved his contributions you really dont know what you got till it's gone sometimes
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Just listened to "Friend of the Devil" with Nicky Hopkins and Jerry...Nicky made that song sparkle! A rare talent on the piano. Peace, Michael
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Brent is my favorite, though I listen to more '70s Dead than any other era. He was a little sloppy toward the very end, but his playing during summer/fall of '89 is one of the reasons those tours are so heralded. Jerry's playing during those tours is great, but it's nothing compared to his earlier chops. Brent was finally stepping out a bit at this point and adding a graceful counterbalance to the other leads on the stage. And he could make a worn out first set blues number like Rooster come alive with his nasty organ chops (I'm thinking of the 7/7/89 show). IMO, this band had quite the cosmic luck or providence or whatever to always have what seemed like the right guy in the hot seat for the time. I know some wouldn't agree with applying that sentiment to Vince (or even to Brent), but I would. My appreciation for Keith's playing (particularly '72-4) has grown immensely over the years. Like Phil says, he played like a god during the Europe 72 tour. The right guy for that place and time, without doubt. It's just sad to hear his playing several years later. All I can hear when I listen to the 5/8/77 Scarlet/Fire is his annoying repetitive loops, like a video game soundtrack. I do like Vince's harmonies, especially on Ship of Fools.
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since people are mentioning keyboards in friend of the devil... i'd like to add that brent's "piano" solo in that song from richmond 83 is very beautiful after a bombastic stranger opener during which many people were not able to get through the bottle neck at the gate and i believe some gates were actually bashed open by the frenzied mob... the boys settled in to an exquisite FOTD with the above mentioned solo loved that dayjob 2nd set opener too, nobody walked out for that
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Of course this is a highly subjective matter, but for me, Phil's Friends finally took off when Rob joined up. He has a way of keeping even the most spacy places relevant and on the move to somewhere. He is the engine that keeps the ship moving and focused, allowing everyone else to do their thing. LONG LIVE ROB!!!
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71 through 74 is GREAT.75-77 is strong. 78-79 is acceptable. I will say that each keyboardist added their own personal touch. Yo, don't forget Vince. Listen to Here Comes Sunshine from 8/21/93. very pleasant keyboards.
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Bruce was cool, but I'll never forgive him for the squeezebox. Brent for me. Until Furthur. JC is amazing. But I like Keith and TC and Pig. Ah fuck it. I liked Jerry best.
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I dug the accordion on "Baby Blue" and "Uncle John's"!
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I've been talking about this very thing with friends. Keith has always been my favorite. Not only is it the Dead sound I initially fell in love with, Keith also allowed the band to find a delicacy that was forever lost when Brent joined the band. Not to bash Brent. He was immensely talented. But Keith brought a jazziness and a delicacy that goes straight to my heart. I do believe he was greatly undervalued due to his extremely shy presence on stage. But man-oh-man, that dude could play! The last couple of years has opened my eyes to Chimenti. Now I, like you, think he may well be the greatest keyboard player the Dead world has encountered. He finds the jazziness and the delicacy. But he can also bring the dark, wild enthusiasm that Brent was known for to the proceedings as well. What I've been noticing of late is that when Chimenti takes a solo, the music lifts, it soars! Following his playing note for note is --dare I say it?- almost as inspirational and uplifting as Garcia himself. Not that they even remotely have the same approach (nor do they play the same instrument :), but Chimenti, like Jerry, gets under my skin and carries me to great heights. It's one of the things I most love about Furthur. I did love Pig on the keys. Though he might not have been the world's best player, his flourishes were a thing of beauty. And yes, his keyboard presence on the Europe '72 recordings is nothing short of blissful. Alongside Keith, the two of them together may be my favorite combo. Brent, for all his talent, didn't bring a sound I particularly cared for. Don't get me wrong, I saw hundreds of incredible shows with Brent behind the keys, but his style (singing, playing and songwriting) were not what I most loved about this band. I wish I did. It's just a taste thing. I'm glad I discovered the Dead while Keith was still playing. Vince I actually liked insomuch as there was a return to some delicacy. He wasn't quite as intrusive as Brent had been (for me). Brent overwhelmed the Dead sound for me at times. In many ways, I wondered if the band hadn't gotten sloppy as a result of Brent offering such a full sound that others could simply drop out without being noticed. Or perhaps Brent was covering. Who knows? However, Vince was less aggressive. That said, I was never a fan of the midi, so his sound never got under my skin. And Bruce was a joy to behold, mostly because Jerry was having so much damn fun with him and it added a new sound that we knew wasn't going to be permanent. That allowed me to soak it up while it lasted. After that, it was hard to give Vince much of a chance as Jerry was failing quickly and miserably and just seeing the band was a mixed bag of emotions and experiences. But Chimenti has brought us something unique and boiling over with talent and inspiration. And the connection that man seems to have alongside Joe Russo on drums... What a sound it is...
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he gets off kilter sometimes, IMO, particularly the way he will hammer away at flat thirds when they simply don't fit, say in a jack straw jam on the E, you want to hear the G natural passing to the G#, but jeff will wail on the flat third, in octaves, and it does not work. he does it on other settings too, a bertha solo for instance, the flat third doesn't work but he leans on it ..... brent will never be equaled. what a sad shame that he put those needles in his arms like that. why anyone would ever need to get that high is beyond me. i also thought steve molitz was very, very good. beenWAYtoolongatsea.
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Maybe he wasn't the best keyboardist with the Grateful Dead and side projects, but he at least deserves a mention. With that said and after reading all these posts, I ask, why has no one mentioned Jerry Garcia? He played everything but drums on Garcia, played organ and synthesizer on three cuts on Reflections, and if that doesn't get him into this discussion, check out the credits and playing on 5/11, 5/18, 5/23 and 5/26/72 where Jerry plays organ on Good Lovin". Was Pig just out there on the mike killing it and Jerry thought "Someone's got to get the B-3 licks in here." There was just no end to Garcia's talent, was there?
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  • sffct
    6 years 9 months ago
    Keith, hands down (at the keyboard)
    Keith was the best they had, in terms of talent, flexibility (at the piano) and integration with the band.He established the piano in the group's sound. After Keith they couldn't NOT have a piano player. In that respect, Brent, Vince and Bruce follow in his footprints. Brent was simply not of the same musical generation and always seemed to be tagging along.
  • sffct
    6 years 9 months ago
    Keith, hands down (at the keyboard)
    Keith was the best they had, in terms of talent, flexibility (at the piano) and integration with the band.He established the piano in the group's sound. After Keith they couldn't NOT have a piano player. In that respect, Brent, Vince and Bruce follow in his footprints. Brent was simply not of the same musical generation and always seemed to be tagging along.
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    Anonymous (not verified)
    6 years 9 months ago
    love me some '70's
    yeah right, i believe ya! it's all just a conspiracy against me isn't it?!!!!!!!!
  • Mike Edwards
    6 years 9 months ago
    Woops.
    Sorry, jonapi. The image link went bad, so I fixed it. The website that I lifted it from (shroomery.org) says that it's from May 1970, but who knows about these things...
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    Anonymous (not verified)
    6 years 9 months ago
    what a tone
    you're trying to make me look even more stupid than usual Mr. Edwards!!!your first pic was of shroomery.org i swear!!!!!! now you've changed it, ha ha!!! this is the Fillmore days though, isn't it? great photo.