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?
MSG 90, 4-5-91, 8-16-91 (scarlet>victim>fire!), 9-14-91, 3-20-92, Chapel Hill 93, 3-21-94 (Matilda jam & stella!)
I was not aware when I wrote this, until rhyspencer mentioned it above, that June 2 is the sixth anniversary of Vince's death.
RIP, Vinny! My heart goes out to his family and friends...
Saw my first show in Syracuse in '78 (yup, you guessed it). I saw my only west coast show in '95 -- the Mardi Gras show with David Murray. I enjoyed it because the west coast vibe was different than what I was used to (first NY area shows, then midwest). But to be honest, I've probably only listened to the official releases from post '91 once. If I could SEE the GD again, and they were in 1995 form with Jerry G, I would go. But if I can LISTEN to any year, I can't see spending my GD listening time with a '93-'95 show when I can listen to a pristine Europe '72 show, a '69 Fillmore West show, a '73 jazzy show, etc., etc., etc.
I admit that I only watch the VFTV shows in small pieces, but I've seen the GD Movie (I first owned the VHS, then the DVD) perhaps more than any other movie of any kind.
Not to be closed minded, but I guess I know what I like.
I have tons of shows from late '90 through '95, tons of great quality sbds in circulation, so it would be hard to please some hardcore deadheads if a real late era release was in store. 10-1-94 is always mentioned as a "maybe" release, but a perfect Vault copy is already in circulation. I would prefer whole runs, as opposed to a compilation cd from 5 different shows, but that's just me. i would most certainly welcome a late era release, but as always, just depends on what it is and if it circulates...
Actually would love to see 10-3-94 or 3-19-95, the latter just for the first Unbroken Chain.
I thought that Vince did an alright job filling Brent's shoes. I was personally not a fan of Vince's songs. Way To Go Home was an alright song, but Samba was not very good imho. Baba O'Riley--->TNK was good. I will buy all the shows that are released if I can afford them. All GD is good GD!! Some shows that stand out to me:
06/17/1991 Giants Stadium
09/24/1991 Boston Garden
03/24&25/1993 Chappel Hill
46 of my 50 shows were post Brent. Summer 91 started it. I absolutely loved the Hornsby era. Nothing beats the texture and punch of his grand piano. His accordian could go thanks; but the grand was special.
Of the shows that I attended these stand out as great nights.
Special Hornsby shows? '92 Copps in Hamilton. Shakedown->women smarter->Dark Star is seriously special and Pine Knob 1991 both nights (released in the download series) had some serious energy.
10-1,2,3-1994 I attended. 10-1 as mentioned was incredible. I would put $$ down to get a vault recording of that. But 10-3 was very, very close. Finally a Cassidy in the 2nd set! AGain, would put $$ down for vault release.
But where I found the highest moments with the Vince on keys was MSG 1993.
9-20-1993 has an incredible first set and a second set that included Edie Brickell on vocals for space and Going Down the Road. Of course, 9-22-1993 with David Murray on sax for Estimated -> Dark Star was over the top but I found the rest of that show rather lackluster.
Also, summer 1992 Soldier Field with James Cotton on harmonica was insanely high energy.
This said, quite honestly, most of the recordings I listen to with Vince on keys is deafening to me. I just can't get past the texture of his sound.
I wish his family the best. Tomorrow is a very hard day for them. God speed to them.
you could call me a Touch-head, although my GD-beginnings were from Portland, Oregon's rich taping community and KBOO radio, going back at least a little ways before the Dead's popularity ascention in the late 80's (clinging to my credibility here :) ). I got into the Dead listening to Porchester '70, Winterland '73 (climbed Mt. Hood listening to that one - wow), Cornell (of course), Seattle '74 with an enormous Playin', and a few other classics. There was plenty of Brent in there too - Frost 82, Greek 85... When Brent would play Gimme Some Lovin', the energy went WAYYY up. When Brent died, I just lost interest in the Dead. They were never as good to me. I went to every Jerry Band show at the Warfield, and across Northern California for my fix instead. And if organ and piano tone were an essential part of Jerry's overall sound, you could get that in spades with Melvyn Seals post-Brent. But I think the part that I turned off to in the later Dead iterations was the rhythm section - the plodding drums. no shuffle feel, always on the 1. Clunky dinosaur rock for the stadiums. Overplaying, lumbering. Meanwhile, the Garcia/Grisman and JGB band arrangements didn't get so weighted down, and the selected tones were way more palatable, even the odd mouth rhythms in the Garcia/Grisman band! Less midi, more real instruments is more my taste anyway. I think maybe Jerry's too - he just seemed happier playing in these bands later on. Also, Brent and Jerry had an innate melody linkage in their time together - they made eye contact a lot, and the fans could watch and enjoy that interaction. With Vince, he was a sweet guy, and though Jerry seemed to enjoy playing with him too, it was like starting all over again, with one guy losing many battles (drugs, weight, health, burden), and the other guy a newbie. It was too hard to watch. Still listenin' though.
A funny memory that comes to mind is during the Drums at Soldier Field 95, Mickey started playing something and a friend said to me- 'We're in China.' I met a tour veteran once in 1994- He said one of his greatest memories was banging on the stage in front of Jerry at the Dekalb show on 10/29/77. I asked him what he thought of the band now- His reply was- When they're on, they are the greatest band there is. I would absolutely buy a 94 and 95 show or compilation if it's released. When they're on- well you know the rest.
From the position of working for the band from February 1983 until March of 1996 and touring with them from 1992 on I got to know Vince to some degree. He was so excited to be part of the Grateful Dead and loved being able to musically let go after all those years playing strictly arranged music with The Tubes, etc. He really let lose in other bands after Jerry died.
I know he was not thrilled about being limited to an electronic keyboard...He did tell me that he liked his B-3 sample because it was Garth Hudson!
I felt his harmonies were harsh, but I loved the covers he brought to the band.
Vince and I shared severe and chronic depression which is not exactly an easy thing to deal with. It has been especially hard for me since Jerry died...working for the Grateful Dead was a dream job that I had thought about since I was about 20...the hard thing about having your dreams fulfilled is not planning for an after life...But I am still here and getting ready to go to Cleveland!
Vince (RIP) had a challenge on his hands. He did well to soldier on.
Eugene 93 has a great Vince moment in HCS, with his key fills: Heeeere (badadadaba) cooommmmesss (badadadaba)...
He did his job well. I am not extremely familiar with GDpost-86, but have heard enough to know that Vince was as good as anyone to fill Brent's shoes.
God bless you, Vince.
and don't forget Bruce Hornsby!
1991: 6/14, 6/17, 6/22