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?
A trademark of the 90's shows is the evolution of the Space Jam. The Drums portion is a trip through the sounds of the world- One night could feel like you're on a safari in Africa, and the next night could seem like a journey through the Orient. And then Space could be Jazz Fusion, or perhaps a delicate floating pulse, hauntingly beautiful. I read once a review of the Spring of 94, that described Drums and Space as the most consistently innovative part of a show. That about seems to sum it up.
An Oakland show in 1992. Musically is was probably the worst show i saw (dating back to 1972) but, like every show i attended, the overall experience of being at a Grateful Dead concert was great!
The Dick's Pick from 92 (Oakland) has some very nice parts, especially the reflective Playing in the Band. The Dark Star is one in name only and singing only the second verse seems out of place (i guess they did the first verse the night before). I do like the added material from the next night. I actually listen to this CD often.
The Sacramento 93 irritates me as the drums/space was left off and totally disrupts the aftermath of a powerful Playing in the Band (quite different that the Oakland 92 release). Other than that, I think the show is quite good. The glue remenents on Crazy Fingers renders that song unplayable.
I would purchase some music form the 94 95 era. Since you are asking, i'd prefer more of the "newer" tunes and have it be a complation that was designed to mirror a concert (first disk set one...second and third disks set two). Whatever the powers that be decide is good enough to release is good enough for me.
For the record, my 5 favorite years are (in order) 72, 70, 69, 77 and 89
Thanks for asking for opinions, Blair. You all keep up the great work! Many of us do appreciate it!!
I recently listened to 03/24/93 show, Thank you very much, Vince!
My 1st show was 7-8-70, and I saw the boys all the way through & enjoyed every moment. Post-Brent, I took my girls, ages 8 & 10, to the Pine Knob shows June 19th & 20th. Both nights were much fun, weather was great and the playing was so wonderful; seemed the band was a cohesive group. Vince & Bruce worked well together although Vince kinda stayed back some, but really enjoyable. The highlight for me was the 2nd night, 2nd set starting with Throwin' Stones with the segue into a hot Iko Iko, then a sharp turn into the best Watchtower I ever heard live, or even on recording. The reprise into Throwin' to finish up made it a great finish. Had to keep swattin' some younger Heads away from my totally cute 10 year old daughter, although she was digging the attention.
4/1/95: The Pyramid, Memphis
6/21/95: The Knick, Albany
6/30/95: Three Rivers, Pittsburgh
7/6/95: Riverport, Maryland Heights (Mo.)
Vince sounds fine to me on these songs. Wish they'd had the time to round this one out.
My fave period is most definitely the 68-69 psychedelic snarling beast.
Having said that, I saw the boys numerous times in the 90s right up til the end and they always brought it in concert.
However, I draw a disinction between attending live shows and recordings of those shows. Being there in person is such a more intense in-your-face experience than listening to a disc of the same show. And thus, even though I always enjoyed my post-Brent shows, discs from the 90s are my least favorite. The band had - forgive my crudeness here - largely shot their load by then and frequently sounded tired, uninspired and going through the motions. Hey, they'd been doing it for three decades and Jerry's substance-abuse health problems didn't help matters.
Furthur, on the other hand, sounds very rejuvinated.
Blair, those of us working on the 1995 Summer tour called it "The Tour From Hell" not "The Death Tour."
It truly was The Tour From Hell...People dying in the parking lots from over doses, the destruction of Deer Creek and the very real death threat against Jerry at Deer Creek (the show went on after the police and FBI informed the promoters and band of what they called a very credible death threat, and Jerry decided to go on although the house lights were on and down in front of the stage was lined with plain clothes and uniformed police and us facing the audience and watching...)
The collapse of a balcony at a camp ground "near" the Riverport concert (actually over 20 miles away!)
It was a very depressing concert tour and truly was from hell...
I saw Bob do that at least twice in that era ~ once w/ Wasserman opening for Jerry at Merriweather '89, and possibly again a couple years later when he co-headlined there with Hot Tuna.
Those '89 acoustic opening sets were really nice, some other songs I recall are Twilight Time, Artificial Flowers (what a goofy song, which he definitely played again a couple years later), Victim Or the Crime, Heaven Help, and ~ especially ~ Looks Like Rain.
Marye, I *think* the show where Bob sings Take Me To The River was a show by "The Valentines" on, of course, Feb. 14 of some year. David Gans played it on GD Hour a long time ago. I could be way wrong on this, but that is what my memory is telling me. :-)
I believe The Valentines were a precursor to Ratdog, and some of the players were the same. I wouldn't bet money on any of this, though...
As I mentioned in my post to this article, I enjoyed shows with Vince very much, and more so with Brent. I heard music of absolutely transcendent quality, but it pales before the 68-74 and 77 Dead. I'm honestly not knocking the 80's and 90's - those were some of the best times of my life, and I'll always treasure them.