Blair’s Golden Road Blog - After Brent
By Blair Jackson
I’m generalizing somewhat, but it seems as though the Dead Heads who have chimed in here on various topics favor one (or more) of five eras of Grateful Dead music: the primal psychedelic beast of ’68-’69; the ’72-’74 group with Keith and Donna, pre-hiatus; the same group, with Mickey added, in ’77-’78; the early Brent years from ’80-’85; and the post Jerry coma years from ’88-’90. (Yes, I know there are many who love all the years I didn’t mention—including me! Just go with my premise, please.)
But you hear very little love or even much respect for the post-Brent years, especially once Bruce Hornsby is out of the picture in mid-’92. There are, of course, multiple reasons for this.
Many Dead Heads never warmed up to Brent’s replacement, Vince Welnick (just as thousands of mostly older Heads never warmed up to Brent during his 11-year stint with the band). Vince had a lot of things going against him when he joined the group. He was banned from playing B-3 (like Brent) or an acoustic grand piano (like Keith), and was instead saddled with a rather harsh electronic keyboard with sounds pre-programmed for him by the band’s resident MIDI whiz, Bob Bralove. A lot of the timbres that were chosen for him were, frankly, cheesy-sounding—it was a couple of years before he had a decent B-3 sound in his arsenal (and it was never as full and rich as real B-3).
Though an excellent technical player, he did not have a background as a soloist particularly, and since his younger days had not played in a band that actually jammed. He turned some people off by consistently using his MIDI saxophone sound on the jam after “Estimated Prophet” (which he had learned, he admitted, from the album version of the song—sacrilege!— featuring Tom Scott), tossing bird effects into “Birdsong” and occasionally overdoing the atmospheric textures on “Stella Blue” and other ballads. His first songwriting contribution, “Way to Go Home,” was accepted by many at first, but then lost its luster to some when it became one of the most common songs the Dead played and appeared exclusively in second sets. “Samba in the Rain” was even less popular.
I can’t argue with any of those points, yet my experience of Vince was almost entirely positive. I loved his upbeat onstage demeanor (especially compared to Brent, who was often so dark and surly towards the end). Some of the new colors he brought to the group’s sound were cool and imaginative. I dug his choice of cover tunes—“Baba O’Riley,” “It’s All Too Much”—and wish he’d gotten to sing more. As time went on, he played better and chose more appropriate sounds. I liked his harmony singing. I am not a Vince detractor at all. On a personal level, I had the opportunity to interview him a few times (during his Dead years and after) and I found him to be bright and friendly; a really good guy.
And there was plenty of other stuff going on in the Grateful Dead besides Vince from ’92-’95 that was disturbing/dismaying. A few of the other band members’ new song contributions were greeted with indifference and hostility by some. (As usual, it’s all just personal taste. I loved “Corrinna” and “If the Shoe Fits.” So sue me.) Poor Vince’s ascension also coincided with Garcia’s decline. The whole band tried so hard during ’94 and ’95 to make up for Garcia’s lapses, some of which were drug-related but also affected by his obvious physical deterioration. The lack of precision in his playing was partly from losing feeling in his fingers due to his ongoing struggle with diabetes. His heart disease contributed to his brain not getting enough oxygen. You know the whole grim story.
But through it all, the band gamely persevered and often rose to amazing heights. A show in which Garcia seemed spaced and/or distracted for long stretches might have an incredible “Wharf Rat” or a killer “Scarlet-Fire.” There were beautiful and moving versions of late-period gems such as “Lazy River Road,” “So Many Roads” and “Days Between.” Sometimes the chemistry and interaction among everyone except Jerry was enough to elevate a show. Remember that period when a bunch of the band members got into yoga and suddenly seemed to connect in special ways?
It was also a period when thousands upon thousands of new Dead Heads fell in love with the band for many of the same reasons us older fans did. So, we can sit here and be all critical and nitpicky (for good reason!), but it obviously still worked on some level; that essential Grateful Dead X-factor still had the power to reel in newbies until the bitter end—and to occasionally satiate old-timers like yours truly, too.
Two of the last three shows I saw—at Shoreline Amphitheatre in early June ’95—left me feeling hopeful and optimistic about the future of the band. Even with all the horror stories emanating from the road on that grisly, nightmarish summer of ’95 jaunt (the “Death Tour” we called it, even before Jerry died), when word came down that Jerry had gone into rehab shortly after the final show in Chicago, I figured the next Grateful Dead renaissance was right around the corner. (Believe it or not, I never had that feeling of impending doom that so many of you did in ’94-’95. I’ve always been an optimist to a fault.) Alas, it was not to be.
Tell us about some of your experiences of the post-Brent era. I’d love to hear about the shows that you enjoyed and that you think we should check out (Boston Garden 10/1/94 is loved by many, for instance, as are the two Salt Lake City ’95 shows and various Las Vegas shows from the ’90s). And if you hated everything post-Brent, tell us why. Would you buy CDs of a ’94 or ’95 show, or should David Lemieux stick to earlier years? How do you feel about the few Dick’s Picks and Road Trips releases that have come from the final era?
I never had any complaints about Vince. He always seemed to me a very tasteful and modest player. Especially compared to late Brent (85-90) which I still find mostly unlistenable. I liked early Brent but never liked his "later" style, which seemed too aggressive and "showy" to me. I've bought nearly all official releases from 85-90 but I'll bet I've tallied up only a few hours of combined listening time with them. A possible exception may turn out to be the 3/27/88 download. I've been giving it some listening and am beginning to warm up to it- (based on Blair's Desert Island recommendation). Oh yeah, I also love the Laguna Seca 88 PITB on So Many Roads. I love any show with Hornsby and will buy any show with him on board. A big box set of a run with Hornsby would be great. For me, most of my favorite Dead shows from 85-95 were all with Hornsby. I love the Cal Expo 93 Road trip and have listened to it more than most 86-90 Dead, (but 3/27/88 is catching up). I like the notion of "latter years" compilations. For me, it was mostly about the jams. I'd buy any "jam-full" compilation from any era, regardless of whose at the keys. I'd buy, and love, any compilation of back-to-back "Bird Song", "Space", PITB, Other one, etc...from any era- eh, preferably every one ever played. I only want complete shows of pre-hiatus Dead. The last Brent shows I saw were in '89. The only Vince shows I saw were the 95 SLC shows. I thought they were fine shows- Jerry seemed fine, not as bad as I had read and worried about. Everyone else in the band right on. Best parts were Drums-Space, but that was always the case!
I'm one of the advocates for the 10/1/94 Boston Garden show( I emailed David touting the show as a possible Dave's Pick). But there were other shows I saw in the early 90's (all in Boston for me) that were excellant or had some fine moments. I don't remember the year offhand of the absolutely stellar "Standing on the Moon" which figuratively brought the house down-you could hear a pin drop. I thought the Dead were focusing and fine-tuning the Midi stuff during that period and were growing towards a less cluttered, pristine sound with more focused playing-Jerry's physical problems brought a new economical approach to his playing which clicked, for me, when they stopped using Midi as a toy or distraction which I think they had been doing when they were still besotted with the stuff at the beginning of their use of it. The writing was entering a new phase also-I think a new beginning was around the corner, but, alas, was not to be when Jerry passed. The new writing was so strong-remember the clamoring for official release of the new songs which( other than "so Many Roads" box) could not be because of the unfinished state of the material? A new Renaissance-perhaps.
It was Brent, who got Phillip to sing again. I love Keep On Growin' always nice to hear, Why Don't We Do it in the Road....or a Drum. Gimme Some Lovin' out of Space. Who knew Phil would have a repertoire to choose from as the years roll on by. "Next time you hear someone say (we want Phil) you say we want Brent" Phil 7/2/88
Nothing was sweeter than watching Jerry and Brent interact together. The headnods and the smiles between them as they would take over a jam. Go back and watch/listen to NFA from 7/4/89. Brent could also be a catalyst for "deep space" 7/29/88 Playing in the band from Laguna Seca....comes to mind. Jerry always seemed grounded by Brent's playing. If he got lost and needed direction, Mydland was there, while Weir was off in "Bob World" (we all know and love). Garcia and Hornsby could get the "duet" going during songs. The Jack Straw from 6/16/91 is a great example. The great thing about Brent and Bruce is that they would engage/challenge Garcia's playing. Bruce wish you had left that "Squeeze Box" back in VA. Vince never seemed to get a handle on "deep space" and really playing off Garcia. Maybe being tucked behind a Grand Piano didn't help to start. Not to mention could he have been further away from the rest of the group on stage? HIs incident on Bobby's tour bus.....was not endearing either. I will give Vince alot of credit for trying to revive some of the old classics and bring them back to life As with any era, there a nuggets to be found with each keyboard/piano player. After all, it is about the trip, not the final destination.
my favorites 10-27-91 5-24-92 5-21-93 2-25-94 7-1-94 7-2-94 9-16-94 9-17-94 10-1-94 12-8-94 12-9-94 and i would just love if 6-3-95 shoreline would get released
5-24-92, 5-30, 31-92, 6-12-92, 6-28-92, 3-17-93, 3-24,25-93, 3-27-93, 5-16-93, 5-26, 27-93 (already released), 6-5, 6-93, 6-8, 9-93, 6-11-93, Deer Creek 6-93 among others as I didn't want to make the list too long.
One thing that doesn't get mentioned often is that Vince had to find his place in the Grateful Dead twice: when he first came on board, and when Bruce left. It is especially difficult to find your way in a long established band, but to find your role and then suddenly have to do so again in a relatively short period is quite a task.
In retrospect, a lot of Jerry issues were reflexively pinned on Vince at the time.
All that said, I must say that I pretty much never listen to anything post Halloween 91. I loved the big sound of the Vince/Hornsby combo, and I thought it was the right approach to not try to ape Brent's sound. I mourn the death of Brent to this day, but I was also lucky enough to catch some great shows post Brent. My three favorites that I attended were 9/20/90 (best concert I've ever attended by ANYONE), 6/14/91and 9/13/93.
It's unfortunate that Vince had to be the last "new guy" and that Jerry had to fall apart during his run. Vince was actually quite good and a very talented guy. Granted, he sometimes sang off key but who in the Dead didn't. I actually though his voice fit in well with the band when he/they were on. He still had a high range but his voice wasn't always as intrusive as Brent's or Donna's in the mix. Listen to those Attics with Brent and then listen to the one's with Vince. May/June '92 have some great shows and there are great shows scattered throughout '93. I actually like the ON shows from this period better than '90-'91. I've been following the Dead since the '70's so it just isn't a case of "that's when I saw them". The band is back to it's groove with Vince having found his way, new songs and a stable line up. 1994 and 1995 are more of a mixed bag but there's great stuff in there too.
As far as Samba, it isn't Hunter's best lyrics but could be a hot jamming song in the right hands. I actually found it a nice change in that it was at least a different sort of song for the band. There they go taking chances again. Zero and Missing Man Formation did massive versions of it. Unfortunately, I think it was brought to Jerry too late in the game and he couldn't get a good fitting on it mostly.
Great article as usual.
Vince played great funk (see many great Shakedowns), played beautifully in the jams (think of many great jams out of Terrapin, all kinds of incredible Scarlet -Fires), and smoked (in 94 particularly for some reason) on shoot em up saloon type piano solos (Promised Land, Don't Ease,etc.). His playing was epic on Days Between and other big ballads.
He also did nice job bringing in covers and HC Sunshine.
Any musician would tell you the guy was one hell of a keyboard player.
I thought his singing was atrocious a lot of the time, and decent other times. But nothing more.
He for me ruined almost every single Estimated Prophet.
You had to almost feel sorry for him. There was no way to top Brent and the bottom line was, I don't care what anyone says, it was all about the money the final four years or so. There was that feeling that none of them cared that much enough of the time. Play it safe. Mail it in.
What sucked was without Brent they had no grit, no balls...they needed a junkyard dog in there. That was Brent ...playing like his life was on the very line every night.
Did they make the right decision?
They rushed back on the road in 90 for the money and out of mental laziness. As great as it was ...what might have been had they put the brakes on the entire thing for a year or so? I often wonder.
And yet...I enjoy so much of the 90s through around July of 1994, where in my mind the real final descent begins with Garcia. Spring tour he's hanging in there, it's dicey but still not a big drop off from 93....then bam. Every five minutes in June 94 he's doing something incredible or totally short circuiting. And I love some of those shows overall. His singing!
If he hadn't fell apart it felt like 94 was going to an all time great year. When they were on that year I felt they were reaching one of those "zenith" periods where everything was right in place and going to the next level. Phil's new songs and Samba notwithstanding.
In short I loved the 90s, listen to many shows often, would buy some especially those I attended. You can't beat experience and taste and wisdom. Energy and youth is great for football running backs but for the GD, I felt they for the most part only got more interesting with age. "Not as good" from the standpoint of straight mindblowing long jams but more songs, more set list variety, more sonic textures, more consistency for the most part. More fun. Needed real bad in an increasingly dark world!
I kind of dug the exciting peaks and valleys element. And drums and space ripped!
The scene and the "fans" were the lamest part of the 90s. Once the music got consistently bad, it was real ugly all the way around.
I remember in Eugene 90 I encountered all kinds of smart, good people, one after another. Then in Portland 1995 a field of dust filled with complete douchebags. We were now way outnumbered by total losers.