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
Particle and Wave

Blair, this post reminds me of the interview that you and David Gans had with Garcia on April 28, 1981, which appears in Gans' Conversations with the Dead. In discussing the shift from Keith to Brent, Garcia notes that "the thing about having another percussion instrument in an all-percussion band was really too much of the same thing. The effect the piano had on the ensemble was something we could accomplish with guitars, so what we were really looking for was that sustain—you know, we were all hungry for color. Real hungry" (41).

I'm not a musician, so when I first read this quote years ago, it helped me to think about music differently. Garcia's quote showed me that music can be seen as having two distinct properties, percussive beats and sustained tones, much like light is said to have the physical properties of both a particle and a wave. Keyboardists are able to produce both percussion and sustain—one in each hand if they want to—so it would seem to follow that the ideal GD keyboard player would be adept at that sort of dualism. In my opinion, Brent was the GD player best suited to the post because he had nimble access to both modes, much like Jeff Chimenti these days takes us effortlessly between the two.

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Joined: Nov 12 2007
Brent's electric piano changes over the years

During Brent's days with the band, there was frequent change of his main keyboard which was an electric piano (he did play hammond organ frequently, and on rare occasions, a synthesizer). This is what I have noticed when listening to shows:

1979-81 Brent played a Fender Rhodes, which was popular in the 70s. However by the 80s this type of keyboard was losing its novelty in music. Actually '81 was rather late for musicians to be using the keyboard.

1982- Brent started playing this "artificial" sounding electric piano. He definitely had replaced his rhodes piano by then. Listen to a Brent solo during any "Friend of the Devil" from this period and you'll hear what I mean. This piano didn't last long.

1983-1986- Brent's electric piano had a distinct "staccato" sound to it. Used very extensively and can be heard at all of the shows from this era. What kind of piano was it? Still trying to figure out.

1987-90- Brent's modern sounding digital electric piano. Can be heard on all the late Arista albums such as "In The Dark" "Built To Last" and "Without A Net."

cosmicbadger's picture
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Joined: Jun 13 2007
kb

I think the decline and departure of Keith and the returm of Mickey coincided with the band pulling back from being an truly exploratory and innovative outfit with the power to do extraordinary things. But I don’t know what was cause and what was effect. Taking on Brent sort of placed a limit on where they could go…he did what he did very well indeed, but some places just became out of reach. I used to think that was his fault or perhaps Mickey's fault, but now I know I was wrong to think that. Maybe they had all flown a little too near the sun and had to learn to do things a little different. Still a great band , but…..

I really wish they would have hired Bill Payne after Brent, Feat weren’t doing that much then, he can play just about anything and he does know how to jam.

I too have been enjoying Pigpen's contributions to Europe 72, even getting involved in Dark Star on occasions.

cosmicbadger's picture
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Joined: Jun 13 2007
kb

I think the decline and departure of Keith and the returm of Mickey coincided with the band pulling back from being an truly exploratory and innovative outfit with the power to do extraordinary things. But I don’t know what was cause and what was effect. Taking on Brent sort of placed a limit on where they could go…he did what he did very well indeed, but some places just became out of reach. I used to think that was his fault or perhaps Mickey's fault, but now I know I was wrong to think that. Maybe they had all flown a little too near the sun and had to learn to do things a little different. Still a great band , but…..

I really wish they would have hired Bill Payne after Brent, Feat weren’t doing that much then, he can play just about anything and he does know how to jam.

I too have been enjoying Pigpen's contributions to Europe 72, even getting involved in Dark Star on occasions.

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Joined: Jan 13 2012
Pigpen's Contribution Reduced on Original Live Albums

I've been listening to some of the Europe 72 shows and other material from that time, and I think that Keith's piano really added something amazing to the band's sound. Why he sounded less inspired after the band's holiday, I don't know, although I don't think it was purely his own problems, as the band's sound changed after Mickey returned. The band was never so fluid when he was in it as it was when he was away in 1971-74 (that's not meant as a criticism of him as a drummer/percussionist). Also Phil's playing after 1975 never seemed to me to be as prominent as it was before. These aspects didn't change with Brent or Vince in the band.

So it's difficult for me to state who was the 'best' keyboard player. Keith was brilliant in 1971-74; Brent was excellent on the Hammond, but how I wished he had played an acoustic piano on some songs at gigs. Bruce was excellent on piano, but he could at times clutter the sound by being too 'busy'. Vince had a hard job on his hands following Brent, and I think it's a shame that he didn't use a Hammond or Fender Rhodes, but I think he gets unfairly criticised by some people, as he was by no means a mediocre musician.

One thing that has worried me was the way that Pigpen's contribution to the band was reduced in the live albums of 1971-72. Listening to the Dick's Picks and Vault releases of that time and comparing them with Skull and Roses or Europe 72, it seems that Pigpen's organ and percussion were edited out from some songs on the latter two albums. One clear example is 'Trucking' from London, 26 May 1972, where he plays throughout the long jam on the Complete Recordings CD, but only for a bit on Europe 72. His organ seems to have been removed from 'Saturday Night' at that gig as well, and from 'Tennessee Jed', Paris, 3 May 1972, when originally released.

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Joined: Nov 2 2010
Keyboards

I think Brent was the best keyboard player for The Grateful Dead. I did not appreciate Brent's vocals when he was alive and absolutely missed his vocals tremendously after he died!

I did like Keith however I did not care at all for Donna.

Vince.....

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Joined: Nov 2 2010
Keyboards

I think Brent was the best keyboard player for The Grateful Dead. I did not appreciate Brent's vocals when he was alive and absolutely missed his vocals tremendously after he died!

I did like Keith however I did not care at all for Donna.

Vince.....

uponscrutiny's picture
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Joined: Jan 18 2010
Brent was

in the right place at the right time.

Thank the heavens for that.

As he himself said "I'm here to add color". Which he did and then some.

One moment that has always stuck with me was his solo on "Friend of the Devil' right before the boys broke out "Box of Rain" for the first time in eons (Philly '86?).

Keith, Vince and Bruce combined could not touch his personal contributioin to that band.

He understood, respected and delivered-on his part in/of Grateful Dead history.

That being said, I think Vince could have done without Bruce Hornsby as chaperone.

The band should have simply taken the rest of the year off out of respect if nothing else.

It took a while but he really bloomed into a perfect replacement for Brent who seemed to be irreplaceable.

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Joined: Dec 8 2008
we don't have to pick just one

Each keyboardist, Whether he is my favorite or not, has been an integral process of keeping the Grateful Dead flame glowing. At times the flame has not been as bright during each players tenure. While at other times it could be blinding.
Whatever the case there was some light to be had.
The great thing is......We don't have to pick just one. Since when has the Grateful Dead trip been about limiting the possiblities. Each incarnation has provided a wealth of material to choose from.

jonapi (not verified)
little blighter posted itself

little blighter posted itself twice....

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