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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The Hot Seat

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.

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Sorry...

In my trying to delete some of the repeated postings (not sure why that's happening so much all of a sudden) I think i might have deleted a unique one, possibly posted Sunday morning/afternoon. So if you posted recently and don't see yours there, my apologies... it wasn't because of whatever it was you said. Just a screw-up on my part!

And SteveM... for you to quote Weir about the "cover band" notion shortly after Jerry died... a LOT of things got said back then in the rush of emotions everyone felt... time moves forward relentlessly... All the surviving members have tried a million things... what you see as Grateful Dead cover bands I see as musicians looking for different ways to interpret songs that are legitimately part of their lives and which they have every right to perform however they want. I think it's sad you've missed out on so much great music because of your prejudice against the notion of Grateful Dead players playing their songs or sounding (sometimes) like the Dead. I have nothing against DSO or their ilk, but to compare them to Furthur is ridiculous, in my view. Totally not doing the same thing...

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very hot topic

I got to give you credit Blair, you aren't afraid to tackle any and all topics or opinions about this band, and this one is one of the biggest... the keyboard question, great headline.
I really liked them all, especially Keith in the early years, if only Donna had just stayed a back up singer and didn't scream like that, it goes thru me like a knife. I remember back in the 70's a bumper sticker I saw at a show "Donna has ruined some of my best tapes" or something like that.
I was glad to see a new keyboard player come along in 79, Keith and Donna had gotten old and stale and it was time for a replacement and Brent was a good substitute and really came into his own at the end, but I agree, sometimes he was just too dark. For years he was called the "new kid" and had a lot to live up to, which was a heavy burden for him to carry.
My personal favorite was the duo of Bruce and Vince, making the band a seven piece juggernaut. The sound they made was quite a change from the Brent years and a welcome change for me. Bruce can sing like a bird, knows the material inside and out and really challenged Jerry at a time he needed to be pushed. Vince loved Jerry and the whole trip. I remember him saying the first time he met Jerry it was like meeting Santa. He was a very gifted keyboardist but was not given any room to move and as stated above, his playing was very limted by the instruments he had to play. Look, it took Brent years to get into that grove, Vince never really had the time to bloom as the deads keyboardists. He was also ripped on by his bandmates, new guy, Brent's replacement, etc.. I heard Bobby was real hard on him. It's a sad story what became of him.
Pig was a blues man and the dead was a blues band with him, more a singer and harp player than a keyboardist. I always felt that TC wasn't ever really part of the band, just kinda sitting in.
JC with Furthur is like all of them rolled into one, I remember when he played with Mickey and Billy in the 09 Dead tour, he bacame a member of the Rhythm Devils during that tour and he was outstanding, best pick to fill keyboard shoes yet.
Gotta mention Rob B., he is great, makes the DSO sound like the dead and is an all around great guy, love his energy and attitude, plus, he knows the dead inside and out.
Back in the day, we used to call the keyboard seat "random factor", cause it was really all about Jerry. :)

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Live vs Studio

Surely there is a natural division here between live and studio? Pigpen's and Brent's biggest contributions were playing live in front of an audience, and because of that they had the biggest infuence that any keyboardists had on the band in their times. That there were so few studio recordings during Brent's time is more than covered by his contributions when they did record. Pigpen was an intuitive performer, whether on vocals or keboards, his intuition came to the fore live. Kieth, I am equally sure, contributed both live and in the studio, but his bigger infuence was in the studio, and he probably made than band apply themselves more in the studio, for all the band to write and develope new material. In Hindsight T.C. and Vince could not really make the mark on the band, fight for their space, in a way that their talent suggested they should have/could have. For different reasons-1969 was a peak year but for the songwriting and live work as much as the keyboards played. During Vince's time so much seemed out of sorts and unsettled that he would have to have been a miracle worker to make the impact, and being deprived of the B3 organ was a handicap he did not need.

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Jeff ever sing ?

I totally agree . Jeff fits right in. He does take more charge than the Dead keyboardists did. I agree they may have been held back by Jerry. Read TC's Interview on Dead Essays. Does Jeff ever sing ? Not that he has to, but I'd have to imagine he be good, he has excellent sense of music.

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I never saw Keith live

I never saw Keith live (before my time), but I agree with Blair. I think he was the best and smoothest keyboardist with the band. However, I love Brent too, and agree with what 'gratefultrip' that Brent really poured his heart and soul into the music. So much love, happiness, and passion while playing the blues.

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Keyboards

While I have experienced every era of the "Real" Grateful Dead (with Jerry, NOT The Dead, The Other Ones, Furthur, etc. to me those bands do NOT count as Grateful Dead, they are glorified "cover" bands!)

Granted I only saw one Grateful Dead show with Pigpen (free concert in Palo Alto summer of 1967) for me Keith's years from 1973-1977 were really good and he went way downhill from 1978 on (thank you Heroin...)

As an all around keyboard player I did like and even love Brent a lot, although his inferiority complex got the best of him a lot of the time. After a Shoreline show when he played Good Golly Miss Molly, etc. I told him that I loved it and said that Springsteen used to close his shows with it to which Brent sneared at me, "Thanks for telling me that, I'll never play it again!" And he didn't...

After Brent died, Jerry came over to the Ticket Office for our annual Jerry's Birthday BBQ on August 1st and said, "I dread going on stage and not having Brent there..."

Vince and Bruce, to me, were a great combination for playing, but I preferred Bruce's vocals to Vince's. I did not then, and still don't understand why the band would NOT let Vince play the B-3 or actual piano. I was not a fan of Vince's harmonies with GD, but I liked his lead vocals with Missing Man, etc. And I really liked Vince himself.

At one point early on I Vince and I were discussing B-3 players and I said that one of my most favorite all around B-3 players was Garth Hudson to which Vince said that Bob Bralove sampled Hudson and that was the organ sound that Vince played on the synth...

Concerning my harsh statement about The Other One's, The Dead, Furthur, etc. being glorified cover bands, Bob Weir said it first when they announced the end of the Grateful Dead. He said that they would just be a Grateful Dead cover band without Jerry, and that there were other bands that did it better...like Dark Star Orchestra...

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JEFF you ROCK!

One thing for sure, is that each keyboardist brought their own element to the band, and that is why we love or dislike each. I always liked Keith career with the GD more than Brent. I REALLY LOVE Brent's work for the first half of him playing with The GD, but then he add too much cheese to his sound, and it dates that era of the band being really 80's. But that also could be just what music at the time was, and the GD were part of that. I never really payed much attention to any of the Post GD bands, just The Dead, until Furthur came along. I thought Jeff was really good in The Dead, but now, and I have said it at every Furthur show... "Jeff is amazing!" I think he has really come into his own with Furthur and blows me away each time. I have lost myself many times when they do a smokin' Eyes of the World, and Jeff just takes command and that song explodes. I am definitely a Jeff fan, and yes, that's me waring my homemade Jeff shirt.

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Keith vs Brent

I hate using a word like best when talking about art. And the Dead of 73-74, (my favorite years), and 85(my first show), are so completely different that it seems like comparing apples and mangoes.

Who knows how much of my love for pre-retirement Dead is directly related to how much happier and healthier Jerry and other members of the band were at that time. Listening to an Eyes from 73-74 transports me to a trippy utopian head place that just can't be achieved in later years. And I am glad Keith and not Brent was playin in the band at this time.

Brent on the other hand was so raw, open, and emotional (Don't Need Love, Blow Away, We Can Run), that I feel so much more personally attached and close to him ( Should probably mention that I did meet and talk to Brent once). His voice and "blend" was a so fantastic that I had no problem getting past those occasional synth sounds that were not my cup of tea(think Touch of Grey studio version). I will go so far as to say that I believe Garcia's RAPID decline was directly related to Brent's death.

Which brings me to Vince. I am not sure who to blame(Bralove?) but whoever forced Vince to reguritate Brent's synth sounds instead of being able to establish his own "voice" within the band did him a BIG dis-service. It just magnified the GIANT hole vocally that was missing from Brent departure.

I'd go into Pig or Bruce but i've probably said too much.

I love feedback.

Eric

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Jeff

Brent was good - much better than Keith. After Brent, the Dead never really got it together on keyboards except when Hornsby was playing with them for awhile. I never could get into Vince. But Jeff is probably about like Brent when Brent was at his best, if not better. I love the big grand piano in these small halls. I can't wait for Boston on April 5. I dropped out of the scene for the most part after Jerry died. But Furthur has me hooked again. And Jeff is one of the main reasons Furthur sounds so good. Bobby needs to step back a little, turn up Jeff and John, and let John sing more.

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