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.
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?
Though this is not the topic, since it was mentioned and replied to, I just want to add my love of Donna to the mix along with jonapi. Particularly since Donna's still out there and still catching shit. Want her to know that there are those of us out here who recognize her contribution along with Keith's. For many of us, like Jerry or Bob or any other singer in the band who were often less than vocally channelling perfection, it was her heart and soul that was clearly embedded in her singing and it shone through any imperfections that may have occurred. Just like Jerry's cracked voice was still full of his heart long after his lungs had ceased to impress. I, personally, think the Grateful Dead benefitted greatly from the inclusion of a female vocalist. When she and Keith left the band, I missed Donna's presence immensely. Brent, as good a voice as he had, could never fill that gap for me (MUSIC NEVER STOPPED was never the same) as his style of singing was, as someone else here mentioned regarding Brent's over all style, more reminiscent of the Doobie Brothers than the Grateful Dead. Though Brent's vocals were surely impassioned. I think Donna has for many years gotten a bad, undeserved rap. If the band were not inspired by her contribution, she would not have remained as long as she did. And the music we love may never have grown in the direction it did. Credit where credit is due. I thought she was terrific. My favorite era.
I am a keyboardist in a Dead cover band Bear's Choice in PA. I agree with 100% of your thoughts. Keith was perhaps the most technically gifted keyboard player the Dead ever used. I've only seen Jeff once at the Mann in Philly and was totally impressed w/ his chops. His sound is huge and he compliments the band so well. I loved Brent and Pigpen for what their talents but being a trained pianist have to cast my votes for Keith and Jeff.
As a long time follower of the Dead, and one who likes to take the music way too seriously, I have some thoughts on the matter.
First, you left Ned Lagin off the list, even though he never really had an official chair at the boards.
I got into the band in '89-'90, so I had the most direct relationship with Brent, and as such, he is my man. Nonetheless, with his dark side, I sometimes have mixed feelings. I liked the way he engaged the band, and although Jerry would be soloing, Brent would riff off that solo like noboy's business. He chose very colorful lines, and his synth tones of his final few years really accentuated that quality. Further, his B-3 playing could be downright volcanic. Such a talented guy!
When Brent passed, I think the wisest move would have been for the band to take some kind of break. Outside of a few notable performances of ”He's Gone” on 9.16.90 and 12.28.90, there wasn't any real public memorial for Brent, and the value of his life was far too great to be denied. With the lack of good communication behind the scenes, it was difficult to choose a new guy qualified for the part, and, as a fan, I was definitely unfair in my criticisms of Vince and his steep learning curve, of which I had no understanding.
I, of course, wish Mickey or someone would have mentored Vince in the polyrhythmic roots behind the music, the nuances of the groove, or maybe even helped him relax into the feel. He did play some grand piano on a few versions of I Need a Miracle in '91, perhaps to less-than-impressive results, and sitting in the shadow of Bruce may have even been a thorn in his development. In that first week when he joined the band, his attack was much different than after Bruce's exit.
I do agree that Vince was truly finding his voice as Jerry's abilities waned. I question the songs that he wrote (Samba) and the band's willingness to place them in the second set show stopping position. But try listening to the bulk of 7.23.94 and tell me that Vince didn't have chops! Sure, he didn't know that Jerry was cuing up Comes a Time on 3.31.94 out of Dark Star, but he didn't really have much relationship to the music before joining the band. And back in those days, we thought of the Dead's music as more than music, and didn't know how to categorize it or choose the best man for the job.
The one time I met Vince, I encouraged him to study jazz, which was a pretty asshole thing to say. He looked a bit offended, and I wish to this day that I'd actualy thanked and encouraged him instead. I, of course, went on to study jazz, and I still don't know a damn thing! But I digress.
Nonetheless, I think the band got it right by not trying to replace Jerry or anyone versed in that language up until Furthur took the stage. It would have been a profound and inconspicuous disrespect to the person attempting to fill his shoes, as well as to the band.
Jeff Chimenti is incredible. I am very very happy he is in the band. I first heard his work on an album called The Counts Jam Band Reunion with Steve Marcus and my teacher, Larry Coryell. Jeff is a monster on that album, and sounds completely at reader on Tomorrow Never Knows while Larry slashes him away with twisted augmented voicings. JK simply hasn't been able to relax and solo in his own way on Eyes of the World since Chimenti came on board and turned that song inside out. Mind you, I have not heard the previous two tours, so I can't comment on the most recent developments.
Pigpen. While the band searched for their sound, Ron adapted beautifully. He wasn't a virtuoso, but he could hang. His contributions lack for nothing. He might not have the massive chops, but he had the feel and the sound.
TC remains confusing to me. Never really heard him let loose, so it's hard to say. I recall him being criticized for not being able to swing, and I did own a recording of his with a Dark Star that contained that limitation. You couldn't dance to it, bit he was interesting to listen to. His basic chops are undeniable, of course.
Keith. He had a number of different flavors through the years, depending on the e equipment at play. From the bar room boogie-woogie of '71 to the colorful and delicate fills and splashes of color in '72, and the bold runs of '73 and even moreso the following year, Keith held his own, keeping character and pace. He brought forth much larger chords and sounds from '77 on, creating that huge bounce off the big drums effect when the band slammed into the highest crescendos! Keith was low key on stage, but his presence is still felt today. As a quiet man on stage, known for singing only one song, it's hard to know what he was about. But he certainly meshed with the band during the glory days, and he sure knew the art of taking the music way way out there. Nobody else had that ease when diving into the twists and turns of a 30+ minute journey. During the age of free, unstructured jazz exploration, Keith was the main man.
Back to Brent. Man, that man knew how to suffer! One thing that attracted me to his music during my high school years '88 to '92, was that he understood the shit going on in my heart at that time. I could feel was he was tryng to say because those were hard times for me as well. It will always be sad and tragic that he went out the way he did (Pig, Keith and Vince as well), but I pray with my life that poison turns to medicine, and their lives in the universe, where ever they may be, may be filled with happiness and peace, and the confidence to win over their problems and never more defeated by them. I hope the inner workings of the Grateful Dead experience is directed towards lasting happiness and human advance. It's an incredible part of our American culture, and I pray that the music be guided by wisdom towards the service of the greater good for the purpose of introducing new audiences and bringing people together. Herbie Hancock stated this as his determination, and I think there is nothing wrong with adopting such a purpose.
The keyboard seat of the Grateful Dead is part of the story of American music. May it be transformed into a treasure.
It is like comparing apples and oranges. The band was so different in each era, some differences brought about by the keyboardist in the chair at the time. I found the GD during the Brent era and really liked the soulful sound he had. I love the B-3 sound and find that missing when I listen to Keith era Dead. However, the piano is much richer with Keith than with Brent. I also liked the blues that Brent brought back to the band, which was largely missing since Pigpen.
Personally, for me it is Pigpen, Brent and Keith in that order, but not necessarily for their keyboard/piano playing. Pigpen seems like he was such a big presence (oh, to see more video of him someday, including a full on rave-up like Lovelight) and as someone mentioned, don't discount his harmonica. His B-3 flourishes on the Europe tour really round out the music. Once Brent died, I think the GD had trouble recovering the sound. Interesting about the instrument limitations they put on Vince, makes me wonder what he could have done with his instruments of choice.
Jeff Chimenti is a very good player-- I felt that when I saw him with Ratdog, the Dead in 02, 03 and 09 and now with Furthur. He does some really good things. I am staying out of the cover band argument, though. I may write on one of Blair's other Furthur or 11 wrapup blogs with my thoughts on that.
Staying home doesn't preclude nay-sayers from posting on the internet, but rather provides them with more time to chime in on what they don't like and why they don't like it, ad nauseum. Staying home is not the solution, Blair; getting a life would be my suggestion.
I agree with every word in your post!
I guess we should be happy that Furthur can still play good places, instead of having to go the arena route everywhere, so maybe it's better if the nay-sayers and non-believers stay home!
In response to some of the comments that have come out in this thread, regarding every incarnation of any band post Jerry as being some kind of 'cover band.'
I am not sure where those comments come from - I imagine in some cases folks have not had the chance to hear these bands play, or have only limited exposure to what Ratdog, Phil and Friends, the Other Ones, the Dead, and Furthur have done over the last 15 plus years. In other cases, there are just some people who have made the decision that everything and anything after Jerry is just not worth while, and they won't even allow themselves to be open to it, regardless of quality.
To suggest, as one post did, that DSO is a better experience than Furthur is in my mind patently ridiculous. I saw DSO last month, a sold out show at the Ram's Head Live in Baltimore. They were great, good music, great fun, people were having fun, dancing, and the music was tight. But as good as they are, they are not even close, on any level, to what Furthur is doing these days - not in musicianship, vocals, total band quality, anything.
Having seen every post Jerry incarnation multiple times, I can say that great music and great magic have been created by all of these bands. I have enjoyed some bands better than others, but on any given night that Grateful Dead spirit that we all love can come to life. I've seen it with Ratdog, I've seen it with Phil and Friends, with the Other Ones, all the way down the line.
That being said, Furthur has taken it all to another level. We don't like to say it, and many Heads don't like to hear it, but Furthur has been playing the best live Grateful Dead music that has been played on stage in a long time, to include the last couple of years that Jerry was playing with the Dead. Don't get me wrong - the last years with Jerry there were still some great moments, still some great shows even, but the overall quality had diminished dramatically, and you could sure see some awful shows on a bad night. And forget about the fact that the first sets had become perfunctory 45-50 minute extended warm ups, and even the second sets were only about an hour or so long when you take out the drums and space.
Furthur, with the quality of their playing, with the imagination put into their setlists, with the length of the shows - well, suffice it to say that I feel extremely lucky to have the chance to see them playing at this level, and if you set aside the whole Jerry issue, and just listen to the music, you'll hear some of the finest Grateful Dead music played anywhere by anyone in many a long year.
i noticed re: the duplicate postings, that even if the page times out after hitting save; if you open another window and check, the comments are there! if it looks like it's failed to post, it hasn't!
those pesky gremlins. why i oughta.....
(oh, and thanks for mentioning the hideous mess of the archives! someone out there, pleeeeeese, for the love of God......).
another day, another dig at Donna.
"Donna has ruined some of my best Dead tapes";
yep, like Jerry did sometimes.
liked your post smarcus; always glad to hear mention of Garth Hudson. what a keyboard player HE is.
and totally agree about the Vince issue; only the band know why they put a stranglehold on him. strange things happen through grief i suppose.
would anyone have worked after Brent? regardless of the huge amount of talent out there, i think the writing was on the cards. i think the loss of Brent left such a void (that Jerry felt partly responsible for if i'm not mistaken) that although there were some high times in the nineties, the stone was cast.
me, i enjoyed them all.
Thank you for forcing us to think about that which we love so much. I don't comment too often but perhaps it is that I too think that Jeff may be it. At least at this point in time and with this band I agree that he is the lead melodic musician. Bobby and Phil of course more than hold down (muscularly and more energetically ever since the Dead shows with Warren...but Jeff was the man that tour as well). This is in no way meant to diminish the contributions of any of the others. I loved them all. It's sort of hard to compare really. I will add one personal perspective and that is simply that through out the Brent era it seemed that the quality of Jerry's night of music was more dependent on how in synch he and Brent were. If Brent had an "on" night, Jerry would usually get the whip out and drive everyone to the outer limits of the spacetimeart continuum. Jeff doesn't have that foil to test his mettle against. Could be why he is so impressive though, he seems comfortable in his art.
It isn't really a hot seat any longer. Just a platform for great music that I love.