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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Keyboard debate

Interesting how peoples perceptions differ about music. People have opinions about who was the best but in the end they are just what your likes and dislikes are. I would have to say Brent hands down as the best keyboardist but the other guys all contributed to timeless music which fit in with what the band was playing at that time. TC was the right guy for Live Dead and Dark Star with his airy organ but probably would not have fit in down the road. It seemed to me like Keith was more a honky tonk type of player but was pretty one dimensional but this was before the Dead were getting into more electronic effects. I have to disagree with Blair about Brent not embracing the spacier side. Check out Ticket to New Years. Jerry is totally locked into Brent's playing and there is some great improv jazz stuff on Terrapin and the Other One. Also check his playing on the Other One from 87-90 with some really wild synth/electric piano. Don't think any of the other guys including Jeff could have come up with anything close to this. Also throw in the added bonus of his harmonies (sorry Donna). I would bet if Jerry was still picking he would vote for Brent. This is based on the way they interacted during the shows. I think Brent was always coming up with new stuff which Jerry dug. Still the keyboardist for the Dead is always going to be in the background and not doing lead but was always an integral part of the music.

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Chimenti the best, REALLY?

C'mon Blair, I've seen Dead shows with Keith, Brent, Vince, Bruce. Didn't see Pigpen but dug his organ, very psychedelic.

It's hard for me to pick between Keith, Brent, & Bruce (when he was on the piano). After beiong on the 2002 Other Ones tour, my final vote has to be Bruce Hornsby as best pianist to play with a post Dead band.

I've seen Chimenti get Phil & Bob going on several occasions with Furthur, especially one of those nights at the Cuthbert in Eugene. He is good but he doesn't have the psychedelic flourishes.

My vote for best Pianist with the gogd would have to Keith Godchaux. Anybody who could be doing that much smack and still not only keep up with Jerry but even be brilliant on a particular night gets my vote every time.

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the keys

Although the end of his tenure was marred by some sloppy shows due to the bad habits he developed with drugs and alcohol, even a cursory listen provides a lot of evdence that Keith was the best player for the band bar none.

He was spot on from show #1, hit the ground running in 1971 and never looked back. His playing was never busy, always thoughful and very suggestive. You could always hear the notes he left out,the mark of a truly great player. He was able to adapt to the stylistic changes in the bands' music over the time of his residence which was something no one else had to encompass. He went from the psychedelic period through the jazz period and came through the disco phase close to the end of his career.

But the real proof is in the listening. For my ears, he's absolutely the best blend with the rest of the members of the band. And that makes Keith truly one of the Grateful Dead. His ego never got in the way of the music.

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silly boy?

I know about all you read of the Soka Gakkai online, but most of it is very false. Most points of the fear campaign never actually materialized, and, as I know Herbie well through Soka Gakkai, I can tell you that your misconceptions of that group are very misguided.

I recall in the 1990's when out wasn't cool to be a musician who respected the Grateful Dead. The music world had extraordinary things to say about the Dead.

Here is my experience. My conversations with Herbie, among others, rehumanized music for me. Through the Grateful Dead, I became a music worshiper. Part of my Buddhist practice has been about putting music back in its place for me. I know that I absolutely enjoy practicing Buddhism with Soka Gakkai, but I can recall many years of practice living in fear of whether or not I was correctly living the teaching, when in fact I just needed to focus on having confidence in myself.

Look at Herbie's career and ask yourself if he has failed to benefit and grow through his Buddhist practice. It was Buddhism that enabled Herbie to seek and find the sound that became the Head Hunters album, it its Buddhism that has caused Herbie to constantly work outside his own comfort zone to create music that serves people.

Further, people tell me that he used to be very 'holier than thou, I'm a great artist' in attitude, and yet he now is very down to earth, approachable, converses on any subject under the sun while remaining true to his convictions, and dedicates an immeasurable amount of effort to raising the next generation of jazz stars. All these developments return to his Soka Gakkai experience.

I think his music has changed from that of a show off of huge chops to somebody who creates based on a definite vision and purpose, a music that expresses the totality of the unfolding life-moment informed by wisdom generated from within. I see him as the example of somebody doing the healthy version of what the Grateful Dead were attempting. Rather than getting addicted to his music like a drug, you have to keep seeking Herbie's work.

People can talk all the shit they want, but there is a definite reason that he created the only jazz record nominated for grammy of the year since the early 1960's. There is a reason he won that grammy.

And although you may call him evil for speaking for George W. Bush at the White House, he reported back to his fellow SGI members that he spoke of the importance of peace building, and that he chose to speak there based on the realization that 'you cannot win if you do not play the game.'

There is much more to say on the matter, but I will stop here. Thank you for your honest opinion. I just think that you have attached to a very biased view based on a foreign defamation and propaganda campaign that you do not understand. You have chosen the safe, easy to follow view. You don't have to work hard to develop your life one bit by embracing that view. But that can hardly be called setting an example of becoming strong or standing alone in the world. All the best.

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--------------------------------(----@

Hey Blair---
Wanted to thank you for my new perspective of
keyboardists and Grateful Dead music...
I've re-read your article and added some of
my own-- oh yeah!

I think I'm on (to) something, gonna have to
rock that thought out a few more times to
hammer it down, got any nails?

It's a different circle and one that only
wraps around the outside of the orginials...
So many players playing so sweetly a
style their own though borrowing a little
from the former. Impossible to deny that
of course
or it would not be Grateful Dead music now
would it.
Kinda like a bullseye with a choice of centers;
you can win even if you don't quite hit it...
that's how it becomes orginal. But when someone
hits that bullseye! Wow, right on!
Thus...Jeff, he hits the bullseye for you.
100 points for the center. Winner!

And I'm thinking of others things now too
just had to get this off my mind and let
you have a bullseye thought of your own.
Thanks for your work, as always, xo!
Lovingkindness and Light and Good Love
To You Both---Never Stop.

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agree completely

Nice appraisal BJ, thanks! Brent ruled on the B-3 in the early 80s, and Keith ruled on the piano in the early 70s, but Jeff is the definitely the best all-around keyboardist. The outside playing in some of his solos is particularly crucial because it restores a bit of the hard bop edge lost without Jerry. And while I'm being sacrilegious, I'll cast a vote for Joe as my favorite GD-related drummer.

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Jeff rocks! ...perfect for now

I'm really happy to see Blair bring Jeff Chimenti into the limelight. I have heard Furthur a handful of times, and each time I am more impressed with him. It is especially notable when they're passing the jam around and it's his turn, man he totally kicks things up a few gears. He has some Nicky Hopkins going on. The boy can boogie!

As for the Grateful Dead's preferred keyboardist, gotta say I'm a Keith man. All of those discussed are good or they wouldn't be playing in the band, but I just thought there was a lightness and rightness about his piano. And among a group of people who were good at sensing each other and complementing the improvisation, I thought Keith's togetherness with Jerry was absolutely telepathic. I have some Jerry Garcia Band shows he was in and the interplay in the jams is breathtaking. Listening to them, I've thought that if I was given one more chance to hear Jerry play, I would like Keith as his sideman.

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Nice to see....

My dear old friend and tour-mate raindep enter the fray! I got nothing to add to what he has to say....and he is far more polite than me! : )

jonapi (not verified)
matter condensed

meant to mention that that was a really great post Dan R., especially the last paragraph. absolutely spot on.
i too connected with Brent's emotions. Pig's, Keith's and Vince's too (every time that image of how Vince passed comes into my mind a part of me dies also; shockingly sad).

(but a shame Herbie Hancock chose to be a silly boy and involve himself with that Soka Gakkai evil. don't be fooled everyone, i beg you).

and here's to you Hal_M! i raise a wee golden dram in your mighty fine direction!

jonapi (not verified)
sake heat when the night awakes

yes, i too agree about the "cover band" nonsense.
this is their music and they can do what they like with it. what would we rather have them do? not play? still be vexed at each other? on non-speaking terms?
no thanks...
all of the post-Dead projects have brought some wonderful music to our hearts and ears. true, they're not exactly revolutionary, but damn, once in a lifetime could be seen as greedy. any more than that and it would be plain wrong!
i would like to say again, that Jeff Chimenti is indeed a great player (wonder if he'll bust out some En Vogue melodies during those jams!!); all this talk of "technical ability" and "chops" means not a jot, my dears.
he's consistently inventive, tasteful, happy to go out on a limb (don't forget everyone to check out his playing with Les Claypool's Flying Frog Brigade - Live Frogs Sets 1 & 2 albums are great).
he also seems to be a real nice person.

we mustn't forget that trying to find a player who can encompass all the styles that Grateful Dead music requires is one tall order. most bands would need four or five different keyboardists to accommodate such breadth. (or maybe one David Lindley!! he can play everything!). by the way, did Kaleidoscope ever jam with the Dead?

all this silly talk about "it's just not the Dead without Jerry" is nauseating. i second and third everyone's replies about the futility of comparison. a complete non-starter.
to dismiss outright borders on a childish strop, best reserved for when mummy left your teddy in the car or she forgot to put ketchup on your fries again.

some sweet music emanates from Phil & Friends, Ratdog, Scaring The Children, Rhythm Devils, 7 Walkers (my personal favourite), Furthur et al.
personally Furthur has yet to really enter my bloodstream but i'm not able to see them live so i'm growing up and reserving opinion until i can (come on fellas, you know you want to visit Japan....i'll enlighten you to the Highest resonant spiritual temples and introduce you to the ramen that'll make you see GOD!).

until then, keep on keeping on everyone.
the world needs light not dark (unless it's those recesses of the mind that need opening to make us all better beings).

Jeff, we love you.

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