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?
While it's true that most who were there before 1989 would not prefer 1993-1995 over ANYTHING, there were some kind shows in 1991. It wasn't just Vince that was lacking, or Jerry's playing at the end.....even the other ones (!) seemed a little detached for long stretches, for whatever reason. I saw the band less and less ion 92 and 93. I like the Boston Garden shows from 91, MSG from 90...the lack of tight playing during the summer shows from the last few years is pretty obvious, I think. I respect Vince for his effort and the years he gave to making Deadheads happy. Thank you to his family for sharing his beauty with us.
it didn't get much sweeter than that!
There is no better argument for compilations of highlights from a run of shows versus complete shows than for the later period of the Dead. There is some stellar material during the later years that should be released in a compilation format.
Opening Day, 1993, San Francisco Giants, Candlestick Park.
Jerry, Bob and Vince performed one of the most genuine, heart-felt and inspiring renditions of the National Anthem I've ever heard. Vince brilliantly arranged the harmonies, and the boys knocked it outta the park:
Made me extra proud to be a Deadhead that day!
..I've warmed up to Vince's contributions to the Dead, though it was hard to accept him at first, at the time.
I was of the mindset that up to the point of just before Brent died, the Grateful Dead were at their utmost musical peak of a 25 year career full of peaks. The way Brent pushed Jerry to play his guitar at his career best during '88-'90 was nothing short of amazing, especially when Brent was playing the Hammand B3 with the Leslie cabinets. Something that even Pigpen never fully achieved and Keith never attempted during the bands creative peaks in the '60s and '70s.
Tom Constanten not withstanding, with early electronic keys, Pigpen brought the organ into the Deads sound, Keith brought piano into it and Brent perfected it the use of electric and acoustic piano sounds mixed with synths. Of course Bruce's piano fit right in and the *cough* accordian brought in a different timbre that sometimes worked, sometimes sounded like, um, well not always appropriate to be nice about it.
I agree that limiting Vince to electronic keyboards kind of put limitations on the overall bands sound, though it worked more often than not.
There are plenty of post Brent shows i could get excited about for release.
If I had to pick only two from Fall '90 through Summer '95, one with Bruce/Vince and one with just Vince, today they would be...
an easy pick with Bruce/Vince
9/26/91 Boston Garden
a not-so-easy pick toss-up with Vince
9/13/93 Spectrum or 3/30/94 Omni
There are plenty of other nice post Brent shows, but these three I never tire of listening to.
I'm kind of oversaturated with '72-'78 at the moment so would most eagerly welcome anything but. If the next couple of Dave's Picks are to be from '84-'90 or even a particularly special pick from '91-'94, It would go a long way for me to enthusiastically sign-up for another subscription. While there are still unrepresented or under-represented years to be released, I can live without another '72-'74 or '77 show for now.
If 8/27/72 is on the soon to come horizon, I suppose I have room for one more '72 show in my "official", but thats about it for now.
How about that Alpine Valley 7/18/89 video? Thats the one that should be the next release.
Gee, that piece you wrote depressed me just reading it. I think it is a worthy topic worth exploring though. I feel Vince didn't get enough credit for being a member of the band, never mind his playing.
I saw a couple of my 100 shows after 91. I left the scene in 93 after Louisville. For me the magic was gone. However, now listening to shows during those years I can hear very occasional shows that are quite good and a lot of moments here and there with a lot more shows that are flat and lifeless. The Boston garden run in 94 is an example.
Anyway, it always seems whether the show was good or not depended on Jerry though Bob & Phil could occasionally elevate it. Not so much Bill & Micky and not at all Vince. I respect the guy as a musician and didn't know they had that much of a collar on him.
Now I know what I've been thinking about JK's playing in Furthur is true.
My first show like a few others was the final one. I had high hopes of seeing some Fall shows as by this time my Grateful Dead freek flag was flying way high. Man, was I stomping during the Shakedown Street (from waaaaayyyy up there). Alas, it was not to be. I'm still a grateful deadhead thanks to everything that's always been available commercially and otherwise through tape trading. In some ways, there's been no greater time to be a deadhead. I admit, I'm more of a '95ophile, than a '94ophile given a choice between the 2. But, I'm open minded. I'd appreciate someone opening my eyes to more of some good '94 stuff than I already know and like: 3-17, 3-21, 3-30, 4-1, 7-3, 7-13, 10-14, 10-17. Most of the dates I like from '94 are for certain songs or sequences - - It's hit or miss. I just don't think there was a barn burning show I can find from 1994. Same goes for '95 where the highlights for me are 2-21, 3-18, 3-23, 3-26 and 27, 4-7, 5-26 and 7-2. I am of the mind that any release(s) from 94/95 would have to be compilations but there is some good stuff in there.
There were of course good times and at times great music. I can't imagine finding anything past 1990 though that would get me excited to buy and listen to more than once. And it's not on Vince. The band sounded lazy and unrehearsed, unfocused I would be shocked if Rhino/Dave do not already get the low quality of experience post whatever (pick a 1980s year). Focus on 75, 70, any below radar hot thing deep In the vault and I will be pleased. But don't miss the essence. Many heard the new Hartford show and thought it tame, ok so Seastones would have helped there. I think with very late era Dead we don't need or want whole shows. (e.g. I loved that casino space in Vegas with the 2nd set Deal!!). Focus on great music and moments. That's what it was toward the end. No beer sold after drums.
12/8/90, 12/9/90. It was a perfect road trip from New Mexico down the Gila River. Also Salt Lake City 2/19/95.If a kid was 12 or 14 in 1995 and saw the Grateful Dead even just a single time he was very lucky. And I liked Vince. I liked Pigpen the best of all the keyboard players. And I saw all of them. Each had a gift or color to add to one of the greatest bands in history.
Being less forgiving than Blair, my review of Vince begins and ends with the cheesy sounding keys played by a guy who was never a soloist and was never in a jam band. I guess I'd also add harsh and oddly incongruous-in-tone/texture vocal harmonies.
Needless to say, I was never a fan and never listen to post-Brent performances (rarely, in fact, to anything after the Fall '89). I may have seen 15 or 20 shows in the post-Brent era, including a bunch in Vegas, but it already felt like a nostalgia tour to me at that point -- the crowds were big, it was always fun to meet up with friends from around the country in different places, but I can honestly say that none of the music was memorable (at least I can't remember any of it).
True, Vince was somewhat unfortunate to jump aboard something of a sinking a ship. But the flip side to that, in my opinion, is that was lucky to not have been more of a drag on the band than he might otherwise have been. Imagine the 1993 Dead suddenly playing like the Spring '77 Dead . . . with Vince. THAT would have been tragic.