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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Strider 88's picture
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Ned Lagin

Ned Lagin sat in 2/18/71. Howard Wales and Garcia made some interesting music together. Saw them at Academy of Music Jan(?)1972. Unreal and out there but fun. Always loved Merl. Pigpen was fantastic on the Europe 72 tour.

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keys

Great story.....thanks...it really gets to the heart of each of these amazing guys

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Found it!

The Issue Is:
VOL. 17
NO. 3
(ISSUE #179)
MARCH
1991
PAGE #80

The KEYBOARD mag is titled:
Playin' in the GRATEFUL DEAD

The article delivered such a gathering of sound,
in print. Maybe you have read it but if not it will
scratch an itch for you on this topic, if nothing else,
it's a great read. I think you have to have the need
to be educated
by it so I can send you a copy but the educational law
limits it to 3 copies. (If I can even apply that, I will
check first if your interested.)

Okay, can I compare these keyboardist, um no.
Have each on rocked my world yes, 100X's over.
The Grateful Dead never had a member named,
Jeff Chimenti. So, as a Grateful Dead cover band
player, I can sing praises for him all day. We rocked
a Sugaree in Long Island or maybe New Jersery that
was I think 16:00 something minutes long, in the last
couple of years. I was so
impressed with his feel for the song I about flipped
but I can't flip so I just danced my ass off. The security
guard had to excuse himself for a quick trip to the men's
room. Just don't tell them...is all I sang.
Jeff and the Guys absolutely had me in a sweet groove.
And isn't that the point of
Grateful Dead music to get ya rocking and groovin'?
Yes, slow songs are beautiful and necessary however;
If I can't swing my hips to it ----it's set break.
Slow or fast, they move. But, I digress. I hope I have not
said the wrong thing.

On another note...the Keyboard issues covers a good
deal. The cover is awesome - cool with a skeleton with
a headdress of red roses. Red roses are all over the
keyboard the skeleton is playing on the cover. Mar'91

Keyboards In the Grateful Dead
by: Robert L. Doerschuk
Everyone is represented and the pages are decorated
with Stealies. I'm going to jump around it a bit so
to start. There is this diagram of Vince's MIDI
Roland RD-300 with foot pedals and Leslie Effects and
Lexicon MRC. A great discussion with Bralove and Welnick.
A picture of Keith riffing on the Rhodes in '75. A great piece
about Merl Saunders and his involvement with Europe '72
even though his wasn't in Europe he was involved with a
recording of it. Jerry and Merl played around the Bay area
through the years. A younger pic of Barlove with all his groovey
sound making equipment. A good pic of PigPen playin' on his
Hammond B 3 with a skinny Jerry at his side. A beautiful
feature on Tom C. and a pic with him with a spider-web tie-dye.
The article discussed contributions and styles at points. There
is a great picture of Bruce and Brent playing along side each other
at the awesome rainsforest show we went to in '88 here in NY.
A quote by Vince, "Deadheads love the band but they're critical
and truthful. They call them as they see 'em." . The Taper's Section
is represented in picture and importance. New Year's Eve 1981 with
Brent at the Keyboard helm is presented. It ends with Bralove
saying, "Well, if you go into working with this band with the idea
of changing the idenity of the Grateful Dead, you must be nuts."

Nice trip BJ, it was a good flight. The window seat and 7 little bottles
of Jack Daniels have made me very comfortable. The old mag was
like dust on the bottle and friend to greet ya on the concourse.
I love them all, xo!

------------------------------------------(------@
Thanks everyone your posts have been very cool.
I love you, All, xo!

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BRUCE!!!

BRUCE!!! Pushed Jerry at a time when Jerry could use a push, and that alone made him the absolute best keyboardist. His playing added so much color & fill, and his leads were inspired. Bruce added as much to the mix as anyone... and that's a tough crowd! I fantasized about Hornsby taking over at keyboards before Brent's tragic death. I think Hornsby was much better with the Dead than with The Range... much better being part of something that doesn't focus him!

Jeff is awesome... but never played with the Grateful Dead. If we put him in the mix, how 'bout Melvin's B-3!
I came on board in '73 and for me he IS the keyboard player for the Grateful Dead. I never really dug Brent's contribution, though I liked to root for Vinny. I thought Brent would have fit in better with the Doobie Bros.

PalmerEldritch's picture
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Joined: Jul 25 2011
Keith, hands down!

Dang, I spent all day at work thinking of what to post here, but now see Hal and badger already said everything I wanted to say better than I could have. It's Keith all the way for me. His last few years weren't his best, but it's still Keith and I still love it. At least he never tried to fake inspiration. I liked the early years of Brent. His playing on Reckoning is probably my favorite. I never understood the 85-90 "Brent era". I think, maybe like Hal, it just doesn't suit me "aesthetically" somehow. Not knocking it though.
[I second the honorable mention of Nicky Hopkins. The "Let it Rock" release is a real treat!]

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--------------------------(-----@
cmd
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Early Brent

Fall of 1979 is some of Brent's best stuff.
He was more exploratory. When they came out of
the gates in the Spring of 1980 it was as if they had reigned him in a notch.

Like one of the Taper Compendiums said Brent NEVER backed down from a "jam-challenge" from Jerry, or anyone for that manner.

Bruce Hornsby is obviously the most talented one to have played with them, but
Brent was best suited for them for the long haul.

I've heard the post Jerry line-up's since '96 and long ago concluded
my $$$ was better spent purchasing Vault releases, Dicks & Dave Picks, whatever.
I heard Further a year or so ago and felt they were a decent cover band at best.
So I really can't count the past 16 years. They are the appendix in my catechism of Grateful Dead.

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kb

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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jeff is great but

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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Joined: Jul 5 2007
I agree 100%!

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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