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 had stopped seeing the Dead for a few years when I got on the Internet in 1993. I fell back in love when I started getting all of these new tapes and my first shows afterwards were the 1994 Vegas shows. I loved them and really enjoyed Vince. I'd never warmed up to Brent (My first show was 8-4-76). I saw 25 shows in 94-95. Very few were good all the way through, but almost all had some great moments. I thought Vince fit in real well, but was never going to have a chance to shine like Brent (I now appreciate him after all of these years) and Keith did due to Jerry's ailments. Some favorites during these 2 years were, most of the Boston 94 run especially 10/1. The 10/14/94 Scarlet>Fire. Lucy In the Sky With Diamond 3/17/95. Second set 3/22/95 (first set was abysmal). Loose Lucy during 1994 which was good due to a great Vince organ part.
I am one of those who only got to see the Grateful Dead live with Vince. Although I have listened to countless shows with other lienups, with shows that can bring tears of joy to my eyes, I was one of those who gave Vince a chance to shine when he was on stage. I had the pleasure of meeting Vince in Tucson after Jerry's passing, and he was nothing but gracious and kind to this fan who just wanted to thank him for the music. His time was too short to truly become one of the members of the band, but his grief of Jerry's loss was probably as damaging as any of the other members. The Las Vegas Run was my stomping grounds, with Cal Expo and Phoenix shows thrown in. There is still my all time favorite attended show (12/9/90), and a couple I rarely listen to, but all in all, Vince's contribution to the last years of a legendary band should never be taken lightly.
Let me first say that if I had to choose a "favorite era", it would be the Brent era ('79 - '90). I attended 59 shows from 8-26-80 to 6-28-95. 36 of those 59 shows were during the Vince era ('92 - '95). I have listened to well over half of the shows that the band played '92 to '95. A majority of which came in the form of HQ soundboard and audience master DAT recordings. The question asked by Blair: "would I purchase music from the "Vince era"? The answer is YES. Blair mentions some release worthy shows in his piece and I would agree with him on the above mentioned. I will now list some additional shows that, IMHO would also merit possible release.
6-28-92 Noblesvile IN
12-11-92 Oakland CA
6-22-93 Noblesville IN
12-8-93 Los Angeles CA
6-24-94 Las Vegas NV
7-31-94 Auburn Hills MI
8-1-94 Auburn Hills MI
4-2-95 Memphis TN
6-28-95 Auburn Hills MI
Obviously this is just my opinion and there are many shows from the Vince era that I have not heard. These are a few that stuck out in my mind. The boys on an "off" night was still better than most bands on a good night. Peace to y'all !
So I came on board as a 16 yr old in '88, and saw the boys with Brent 6 times.
They were phenomenal shows, especially Nassau '90. But I have to say this:
the "it" feeling, whatever that is, was still there with Vince.
Bruce was awesome, but I thought Vince started to really fit in by summer '92.
Yes, when I listen to '72, '74, '77 etc. I can hear the music is undoubtedly "better."
But I was there in the 90s, and the band still had incredible power. And since I was there, I still love to listen to those shows, actually sometimes moreso than what most consider "peak'' years.
I know, I know, to each his own, but definitely through '93 and many times in '94,
they were still the greatest band on the planet. ('95? umm not so much).
...would make a splendid release.
I didn't attend any of these, but I did attend the Blizzard of '93 show at Richfield 3/14/93 after this run. At the time I was thoroughly disappointed with the concert, but having listened to it recently, for the first time in perhaps15 years or more, it isn't all that bad. At the time, I felt that the band finally showed up to play a concert when the jumped into Terrapin>Jam>Drumz>Miracle>Stella Blue. The rest of the show is ok, but I will forever feel like, after all that we went through going to that show, the crappy weather, the cancelled first night and the overall hassle, that I Fought The Law was the ultimate boobie prize for a debut.
A total contrast to what took place in Rosemont Illinois a couple of days earlier.
Hey Blair, thanks for responding to my post. As a quasi-studio-album that fifth disc is really good. It's my favorite disc of the box, and I love the gem that is Whisky in The Jar. What I was trying to say is just that it's different than what a Dave's Picks style treatment (or Road Trips style treatment) would be. In the context of the quasi-studio-album the edited "live" version of So Many Roads works as a statement of what the song is supposed to sound like, which is a very different thing than a color outside of the lines warts and all version. I would be very eager to also get my hands on a high audio quality HDCD release of such a warts and all live version, because it's a great song and has never received that kind of an official live release.
Saw Vince in '98 with MMF and can confirm he tore it up on the real organ. If I remember right they did some great covers where he just went off in impressive fashion. "I Want You She's So Heavy" maybe was one?
You said, in reference to "So Many Roads" (which I co-produced with David Gans and Steve Silberman):
"I just consider the fifth disc of that set to be more a quasi "studio album that never was" than a true live release."
That was our point! In fact, initially we had a couple of other studio/rehearsal things on there that were removed--a rehearsal "Liberty" (the live one IS better) and a studio "Wave to the Wind," which was much better than any of the live versions (but was vetoed by Phil).
Re "Banning": Vince told me that the road crew was happy not to have to lug either a B-3 with all those Leslie cabinets, or a grand piano...I don't think he was implying that was the reason he was asked to play an electronic keyboard, but it's interesting that he mentioned it. I think the other band members were hungry for some new colors, just as they had been when Keith joined and when Brent joined. Once Vince started playing a B-3 in Missing Man Formation (which I have often cited as my favorite of the first post JG groups), we saw how good he could be on that instrument. And he had his own baby grand at home that he's had for a while, so he was solid on that as well.
...that seems illogical because that's the reason why Brent was asked to join the band back in 1979; so that HE could play b-3 organ. Remember now, Keith didn't play that instrument. The Dead were looking for someone who could, who fill the music with certain fills, only a B-3 could that.
In response to Grateful_Deadhead's post, speaking as a younger Deadhead who only got on the Bus when I was in high school in '05, I think we younger Deadheads are still biased but just in different ways. My first album was the Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack, and my first studio album was From the Mars Hotel (with the CD bonus tracks), so I think it should come as no surprise that pre-hiatus 70's is my favorite era with a special emphasis on 74, and that I love Dave's Picks Volume 2 :-) .
For the time being though, my thirst for official releases from pre-hiatus 70's has been saturated by the wonderful treasure trove of the Europe 72 Box Set and Dave's Picks Volume 2 (as well as the Real Gone Music reissues of the late Dick's Picks which came out while I was still getting on the bus). I would certainly be very interested in getting an official release of Vince era Dead either as a complete show or a compilation. My personal preference would be for a complete show, rather than a compilation, but I'd take either if I could finally hear an unedited version of So Many Roads given the HDCD treatment*. The reason that I lean more towards the complete show camp is that I do not always find that my tastes perfectly map onto those of The Powers That Be. Sometimes compilations can be absolutely amazing, classic examples being The Grateful Dead Movie Sound Track, Reckoning, and E72, but other times I can find myself on a different wavelength of preferences than The Powers That Be or other Deadheads. With complete shows from any era I know there will be some moments I don't especially care for, and some moments I absolutely love. That said I certainly understand that if a case can be made for compilations anywhere it would be with the 90's. While the frequency of flubs in the 90's was perhaps greater than in other eras there is more to it than that. In any other era when someone in the band seriously flubs something, or forgets the lyrics you can smile to yourself and chuckle warmly while you whisper "Oh, boys..." or "Oh, Donna..." but for the 90's every imperfection gets interpreted as foreshadowing of that August 9th.
*My comment about So Many Roads is in no way meant as a shot at the So Many Roads box set, which is quite good. I just consider the fifth disc of that set to be more a quasi "studio album that never was" than a true live release.