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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jonapi (not verified)
what's worse than a lobster on your piano?..a crab on your organ

a line in your musings said it best, blair: "...that felt perfect to me for that band at that time".

for me, it's impossible to pick a favourite or even an overall preference. each era was so distinct that all of the players mattered; sometimes there a deep hankering for those gorgeous ripples from Keith, sometimes the expressive inner beauty, rage and sadness of Brent, sometimes that lightness you speak so rightly of from Vince.
they're all so enmeshed in memories, visions and trips that apply directly to the time it was being made, and the subsequent re-visits and journeys that carry me still, that i cannot separate them and introduce logical evaluation and a pick and a choose.
all indeed, seem "just exactly perfect"; even when things were stressful, straining in opposite directions and verging on the collapse.

but that is why we still listen. why we HAVE to.

there really aren't many bands where this applies; Miles Davis' & Frank Zappa's spring to mind. comparing early Mothers to the mid-seventies fusion of the George Duke era to the late-eighties abstractions......or the classic Miles Quartets of the '50's & '60's to the heart of darkness of Dark Magus to the funk of On The Corner.
well.....that way madness lies.
(i think a similar keyboard discussion is most apt for Miles Davis).

you're definitely right about Jeff Chimenti; he is a wonderful musician. i was really pleased when he entered the Dead orbit. he just fits with Bobby & Phil in all their combinations.

but i think to truly touch that "other"; to really connect with that pure spirit, in all it's manifestations, that poured from the Grateful Dead so brightly, so long; i really feel it takes someone filled with enlightenment, searching for that which is Higher, but soaked in a deeper, maybe more troubled, earthly soul.
this could be because all the keyboard players had this vulnerability, this inner hurt, that makes me feel such a thing; the rich history influencing the present continuous?
maybe so.

interesting that you mentioned Jerry not encouraging them to step up and solo; always fills me with joy in those late eighties shows when you see the interplay between Jerry and Brent. maybe this was on days when Brent was wounded but those smiles when they faced each other are magical.

and Raindep?
"..the entire sound is ensemble improvisation during the era you most cherish!"
that is just exactly right.

NYsteve's picture
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Joined: Jun 8 2007
Best.....

Brent, IMHO, was the BEST the Dead ever had.....

BUT......

no one has impressed me more than Jeff Chimenti........if he played with the Grateful Dead....ohhh...the possibilities......Jerry woulda been ecstatic!

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Joined: Nov 1 2010
about Blair getting a life...

I am pretty sure Blair Jackson gets paid for his contributions on this website, and any accusation that he need "get a life" should surely be recalculated.

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Joined: Nov 1 2010
I happen to disagree

To one who said Jerry did not push keyboardists to solo, I am going to disagree. Not sure if anyone else has disagreed, but here's my 2 cents.

I love all the keyboardists in their own eras. Keith brings a delicate feel to 72-74 that I love. I think Furthur needs to play smaller venues and try to bring these delicacies to their own show, IMO.

Brent, Vince, and Bruce were ALWAYS given solo time by Jerry. There is a show from June 92, when I listened the other day I heard Jerry do his solo on a song (can't remember much, sorry)- but then he played this huge low E I believe to signal the end of his solo, and IMO, signal Vince to solo.

Songs like "Rooster" and "Big River" and other first-set songs, Jerry definitely always gave the keyboardists their time to shine, after Keith left. I don't believe Jerry ever wanted the full spotlight. It even is apparent in JGB shows that Jerry gives Melvin plenty of space to do his own thing. Also when Marsalis or other sax's came in to play...Jerry gave them their times.

/end rant

NorthwestMichael's picture
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Joined: Jun 11 2007
hmmmmm

I have thought about this more now that Jeff has entered the mix and I'll tell you why. I always looked at the era's divided by the keyboardists. They each altered the overall sound enough in style and tone in their own ways that it noticeably changed the dynamic and overall timbre of the music.

Each era had it's place for better or worse and I have my favorite moments in all. I lean towards the 71-74 Keith and Brent's overall vibe and definitely his B3 playing. Brent could bring the group right out of a disastrous show with the right vocal or rippin organ solo. Raise the energy enough to turn the ship around. Pig has his own place in the band that is beyond just keys.

Jeff IMHO seems to have done his homework has studied all the eras and brings the best of all eras to the table. When I first started critical listening to him in the Dead, it was as if he incorporated a lot of the album version keyboard tracks and added his own jazzy influence. As time went on it seemed he probably studied the live recordings more and maybe discussing the key position with people who were close to the music. Heads included.

His performances have increasingly encompassed what I feel is the best keyboard applications directed at each song. Rippin Brent organ, Keith style piano even notice Bruce influences. Pig sounding organ too on the bands very early material.

It seems this last tour he has really wrapped his head around the songbook now and is more effortlessly contributing all these elements and using them as a platform now to take things to another keyboard level with his own developed albeit dead soaked influenced style.

He makes all the keyboardists the best by offering the "best of" all the key parts over the years. Not sure if that makes him the best but sure gives newer generations an opportunity to experience all the eras in a live situation. I really dig that.

Still a toss up for me. Depends on my mood. Currently it's been all Keith for me as I devoured the Europe 72 box set, but man a rippin Brent B3 solo or backing a wigged out ,edgy out on a limb, Jerry solo with Phil adding his own monster strings just really scratches that itch... but then again Keith...

JeremyP's picture
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Joined: Jun 7 2007
It has to be between

Keith and Jeff for the simple fact that both play/ed superb rock 'n roll piano - and I would (humbly) hazard that the piano is the bedrock keyboard for rock 'n roll - and after all, our boys were a rock 'n roll band, as amply demonstrated by the Europe '72 set. And one of the great things about the Europe '72 is that Keith is up in the mix, and you can really hear him properly for the first time.

JeremyP's picture
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Joined: Jun 7 2007
It has to be between

Keith and Jeff for the simple fact that both play/ed superb rock 'n roll piano - and I would (humbly) hazard that the piano is the bedrock keyboard for rock 'n roll - and after all, our boys were a rock 'n roll band, as amply demonstrated by the Europe '72 set. And one of the great things about the Europe '72 is that Keith is up in the mix, and you can really hear him properly for the first time.

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Joined: Jan 12 2012
Silly question

It's a silly question. It's like asking who's the best Jerry Garcia? The 1968 version, the 1974 version, the 1986 version, or the 1994 version? The best keyboard player was the one who played with the band when they played with the band.

The only ones I saw were Brent Mydland and Vince Welnick. I didn't stand there thinking "Oh, he's the best, or second best, or third best keyboard player of all Dead time." I was enjoying being there.

For me, the experience was what mattered. The words, the melodies, the harmonies, the vocal quality, and the magic. The experience would be ruined if I stood there second-guessing my experience with meaningless prattle.

The only reason I am even responding to this is that it came up on my Facebook page. If you have time on your hands enough to sit around generating such mental masturbation, you might want to consider getting a life.

TheStrangestCaptain's picture
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Joined: Jan 21 2009
Keyboards.

Best Piano Chops - Keith no doubt.

Best Organ Chops - Brent no doubt.

But Pigpen was so much more. His contribution on the organ was insignificant compared to all the other stuff he brought to the table. I know you said this but you left out his harmonica which added a SHITLOAD.

Can you even imagine what early GD would have sounded like without Pig wailing on the harp? I sure don't want to.

If the question is about who is the best at playing the piano/organ/keys Pigpen isn't going to be winning. But if the question is about who added the most to what the Grateful Dead is. None of them even come CLOSE to Pigpen.

If the question is about who contributed the most to the GD sound, That's all Pigpen, and to me, that makes him the best.

turtlemusicfan's picture
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Joined: Feb 9 2010
Keyboards

I was not fortunate enough to witness TC nor Keith play. However, having done my share of listening, enough to form more than a quasi-opinion, I would say this: "I think Keith was way to inconsistent and when he was good he was only somehat good, not great." Having seen Brent, Bruce and Vince I say: "Bruce was without question the best piano player to play with any of them."

As for the question who is the best all around keyboard player to have played with them, Brent is the best. Period! I do understand the thought that Jeff is accomplished, I hear moments of brilliance in things he does. However, in Jeff's playing I hear minor mistakes, missed opportunities, and some times just not enough extra notes enveloping the other musicians to put him in the same category as Brent.

In other words, just like in college football or basketball, how can a team (player) slide down the rankings when he does not play any more? I cast my vote squarely on the dead man.

Sandman

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