Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog - The Keyboardist Question

By Blair Jackson

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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Mike Edwards's picture
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Joined: Jun 17 2007
Discussion string theory

> let's get back to the keyboard discussion!

With all those SGs flying around, I was thinking we might have shifted to guitars...

Anna rRxia's picture
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Joined: Dec 25 2009
Uhhhm, Jonapi, Dan R?

Could you please move this to the religion thread?

jonapi (not verified)
never mind

Thanks for your reply.
I would kindly like to remind you that my message did not rubbish or make light of the positive effect that Soka Gakkai had/has on you and many others. I made that quite clear. I also made no comparison between SG and Aum; i merely used that as an example, highlighting that while these organisations can have a positive influence on individuals, the group as a whole can be fare less beneficial. I could have used Christianity, Islam, Scientology etc. Scientology being a pretty good comparison actually.
I could also have used as an analogy, the way huge corporations have influence over government and local decision making, sometimes to damning detrimental effect. You might believe it is all harmless but it leeds to wealth, greed, power and manipulation.
The quickest of glances at history will prove that when religions or "spiritual" movements get involved in politics or huge corporations it will only lead to negativity; thats to say nothing of intimidation, corruption and extortion.

Secondly, you wrote - "To criticize Soka Gakkai for getting involved in modern Japanese democracy shows how little you know about your own culture."

That is a really silly, embarrassing thing to say my friend; an attempt at being patronising or the age-old defense mechanisms of those who can't stand their "religion" being discussed?
I would advise learning Japanese, exploring it's culture you're so quick to mention and looking further into a subject (since when did you become an authority on the country, it's customs and it's history? don't be stupid, man).
If you decide to jump into something or be vocal about belonging to something, you have to accept certain responsibilities. You don't live there, you don't see, sometimes on a minor, sometimes on a major level, the unhealthy influence SG has on local areas. That is not to say that some involved aren't doing wonderful things for their community or their own self-esteem, and i never suggested that they did not; but it's important to have all the facts and as much information as possible. Whether you choose to agree or disagree with what you find is of course up to you.
But not taking the time to check isn't wise. It's important to proceed in these matters with caution.

Buy hey, if you consider SG to be spiritual in some way or truly connected to Buddhism, then go for it.
One thing i would suggest though, is it is better to discuss things with an open mind, rather than stick rigidly to one's beliefs. You don't know who i am, how old i am, what i'm involved in or what i do for a living. To immediately label someone "profoundly misguided" or "knowing little about their own culture" just because they brought up some points on an important subject is rather sad. Sadly laughable even.
You also don't have to give me a potted history of SG; i know. It's that "Japanese language" thing i mentioned earlier.

But one thing i am in agreement with is yes, let's get back to the keyboard discussion!

Gr8fulTed's picture
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Joined: Jul 9 2007
to each his own

Interesting discussions folks! I'll throw in my support into the fray for Keith Godchaux and his tingling of the ivory keys on that Steinway. The fall of 1971 really shines.
Bruce Hornsby is right there too, except he preferred a Baldwin back in 1990-1992. His vocals and stage skills are still outstanding. Pigpen is legendary with his stage antics and soulful singing. Wish I could have seen him perform before 1972. Brent 's piano and organ skills were very good. Wish he would've lightened up and had more fun. Vince? His tenure was short, yet he caught on quick and had many good performances and a good vocals, however, I wasn't a big fan of his songs. Maybe I'll go listen to Samba in the Rain and reconsider...

Dan R.'s picture
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Joined: Jun 9 2007
ridiculous

I am blown away that you would fall into the age old argument about the Soka Gakkai being comparable to a group that attacked the Japanese subway system with toxic chemicals. The founders of Soka Gakkai went to prison for opposing a militarist government that forced a religious movement on a tiny island country leading to the country's destruction in WW2. Your criticisms are profoundly misguided.

Second, the Buddhism Soka Gakkai follows is absolutely true to Buddhism. Nichiren's greatness is that no matter how many enemies he had, nobody could defray him in debate on the matters pertaining to Buddhism. He was a true master of the teaching, and he clarified where all other forms of Japanese Buddhism had lost the spirit of the founder, or just straight-up contradicted the Buddha. Nichiren clarified that if you place an inferior teaching above a superior teaching, then people will suffer as a matter of course. In this case, people followed teachings based on the discriminations of a society from 500 bce, rather than the Buddha's conclusion of the university of enlightenment.

Third, religion had been involved in Japanese politics since the beginning of modern Japanese society. To criticize Soka Gakkai for getting involved in modern Japanese democracy shows how little you know about your own culture.

And finally, the concerns about Soka Gakkai members being involved in big business enterprises is a matter that you should consider deeply. The Buddhism Soka Gakkai is based upon the principle that 'faith equals daily life.' I first learned of this principle, incidentally and intuitively, through listening to the music of the Grateful Dead. What this means is that we don't have professional religionists who go off to monasteries to attain enlightenment by separating themselves from society. Instead, Soka Gakkai members live in the real world, have real world problems, do real world work, and they carry out their Buddhist practice in society.

I beg you to consider the superficiality of your concerns. There are millions of Soka Gakkai members in Japan. We are real people in the real world just trying to become happy, and have found that the community of Soka Gakkai members is one of the finest diverse gatherings of people in the world. We are not perfect Buddhas who claim to be above you. Instead, we are a bunch of people who have found that the practice greatly contributes to the improvement of our quality of life.

Now, can we please get back to the keyboard discussion?

jonapi (not verified)
Dan R.

just a quick reply to Dan R. regarding the SG matter;
i'm truly happy for you and Herbie if you benefit from belonging to this group. we're all on our own path and must follow what we feel is right.
however, i must make a few corrections; Sokka Gakai has NOTHING to do with Buddhism.
i am half Japanese and my wife is Japanese. this has nothing to do with "foreign propaganda", i'm afraid.
i can send you many links, news reports, journals, documents and facts, but they are in Japanese; obviously these texts are quite big but if i can find the time i will translate some points or articles for you so you can investigate further should you wish to do so.
please note that i am not trying to change your mind on the matter; i am not dismissing any worth you may find from this group. and i am certainly not into a conspiracy theories or the like.
but in only being able to speak English (unless you speak Japanese of course), you are only getting a fraction of the information and understanding. it is important to have as much information about certain organisations as you can before one aligns oneself wholeheartedly.
they are involved in many businesses, companies and politics that you probably don't realise; the substantial effects on a local level, i dare say you aren't even aware of.
some of these, SG themselves are quite open about. this isn't supposition and gossip; buying shares in businesses and being involved in the police and officialdom and then providing a outlet to entice Westerners who buy into Eastern exoticism and mysticism without full understanding, can be dangerous.
what involvement in companies like Uniqlo and Doutour amongst many, many others, and influence in local councils on a whole host of subjects from planning permission to prosecutions has got to with spirituality is beyond me and any moral thinking individual.
as i'm sure you can appreciate, a person themselves can view something in a certain way that benefits them greatly on an individual level without realising the greater picture and the damage done by the group as a whole.
it's well known that some people who joined the Aum Shrinrikyo sect benefited greatly in all manner of ways on a personal basis, but the end results were devastating (not a comparison necessarily, just making a point).
but as i said, i'm not criticising you personally, just want to inform on a serious level. PM me if you'd like to chat further.

sorry to drift from the keyboard point.

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Joined: Dec 2 2009
Brent

One thing you can say about him was he was the glue that held the band together in the 80s and the band was never the same after he was gone. I will most certainly give him that.

Mr.TheEleven's picture
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Joined: Nov 28 2010
P.S. - Pig

While not exactly technically proficient, I still do love Pig's keyboard work, especially his fills in 68/69-era Dark Stars. They just evoke a certain spacy 2 a.m. late 60s vibe that I love.

Mr.TheEleven's picture
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Joined: Nov 28 2010
Keith

Clearly Keith. No question.
I want to like Brent, but he never impresses me; just seems to be doodling around.
If someone can suggest some inspired Brent recordings that might change my mind, please do.
Brent was, however, the Dead's best-ever vocalist.

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Joined: Dec 2 2009
Brent

God Bless you Blair for having the courage to post your personal feelings on Brent. Often times no criticism of any members of the Dead are allowed or you are deemed a hater and negative. I never liked the dinky sounds Brent would come up with specially the bell chimes. I didn't mind his piano sound that much and felt he was best playing it. His organ I found too compressed. I never felt it breathed enough like Melvin Seals organ tone.
As for his sonic palette, I remember saying when he died that "Thank god I will never have to hear his cheesy sounds again." I understand this is not a nice thing to say but it was really how I felt at the time. No one beat Keith in my opinion.

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