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?
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.
...July, 87/ with Dylan. The crowd...well...gave it away for me...I had some good bud, rolled a joint, tried to pass it along. The people next to me...said...'nah, we got our own". That told me volumes...It's All Over Now, Baby Blue. Never went to a dead show since, except for the Further/1996...Cow Expo. That was fun!
WTF! Wadday mean banned from playing B-3?!!!! Nobody gets "banned" from doing that! Nobody!!! One of THE best sounds around!!! Bar-None!!! Take that to the bank, and cash in!
and the Gimme Some Lovin' is a classic. LOVIN'!!
Naww, Antonjo, I won't kick 11/5/85 to the curb, yet. I just thought it was generally accepted wisdom that it was a turkey. I never heard anyone defend it. My Dead views are constantly "evolving" though, much like a politicians. I'll give it another spin- I bet I've never even heard the whole thing once, yet.....
SURELY you're not sh*t-canning Richmond '85...... Dude. That was a classic.
Each to our own, as this thread amply demonstrates..... I'll hold up Dick's 21 as one of Dick's SOLID Brent-era excavations, and wonder what he was thinking on Dick's 6 (Hartford '83).... Disc 2 is era-representative (Scarlet -> Fire -> Estimated -> Eyes), but that first set is seriously sloppy.
I've been generally disappointed with the post-Brent releases that I bought, such as DP27 and the '93 Road Trips release, however the '93 one has some solid moments and it's probably one of the best examples of late-era, post-Brent and non-Bruce Dead out there. Vince had a huge problem joining when he did, he was just parachuting in as a last-minute replacement on a sinking ship and never had time to develop. I last saw them in August '91 at Shoreline when they were in the 2 headed keyboard monster phase, which was kind of a novelty at the time but in retrospect that was very cluttered with Bruce and Vince excessively comping behind Bob and Jerry and when you threw in the MIDI stuff it could sound really messy. I don't think you can entirely blame Vince for his tonal palette, it sounds like it was out of his hands for the most part. It's sad because you look at many of the setlists from that era and they look pretty interesting, a lot of old tunes being resurrected and new covers introduced, but when you hear it you realize that it just doesn't really deliver, largely because of Jerry's decline and I think some indifference in general on the part of the other band members. At this point I would really hesitate to buy anything else post-Brent (other than the May or August '91 Shoreline shows which I attended) because it's just hard to find a solid show from beginning to end in the last 5 years. Unlike many others here I'm not a complete show advocate as a rule if there aren't solid complete shows; I'd consider a "best of" compilation of a tour or series of shows, placing my faith in D.L. that the best performances were culled. I still really enjoy the Go To Nassau release, for example, and when you listen to the rest of those shows on the Archive or elsewhere, at least I think the best parts were preserved other than the somewhat odd placing of the encore Alabama in between songs on the 2nd disc to maintain the Bob/Jerry rotation. As long as they don't do stuff like that, I'd think about a compilation from 91-95 but it would have to be really good. A lot of that material is, unfortunately, unlistenable and downright sad.
Thank you for keeping the music coming!
How about a high-value production of the Aoxomoxoa sessions!!!???
Having no control over when I was born, nor the moments in which the Dead came into my world, I was thrilled to see shows (good, great, awful, and the regular ol' night). Seventeen years since the rainbow ended on the Good Ol' Grateful Dead, I would be thrilled to travel back in time to even a rough-sounding show-- with whomever on the keys.
I was not a Brent fan early on, but he really grew on me-- especially as he could rip it up on Rooster and Good Golly Miss Molly, Hey Pocky Way and Gimme Some Lovin'. I feel fortunate to see the last Tons Of Steel (Philly., '87), as that song would have special meaning years later. Plus, I missed the interaction with Jerry that made it seem like they all were having fun.
There were times in which I thought the band should have packed-it-in after Brent passed, but they could still have those shows in which you were so glad they were there.
My favorite Vince-era shows are Richfield, OH 3-20-94 (Cold Rain opener and Fought The Law encore (3-20-94?); RFK June '93 (1/2 Step Opener and The Weight encore-- incredible Corrina). Philly '95 when Phil broke out Unbroken Chain.
Although not my favorite times for the sound of the band, I would buy a set of the last shows at Soldier Field would be important for the "story" of the band. The first night of the Chicago run had an interesting first set with all first names for the songs (Jack Straw, Sugaree, Tennessee Jed, etc., plus a solid reading of Visions Of Johanna).
I would also buy a spring '82 box set. It was the last year (except for 87-90) in which I really liked Bobby's sound; the late 90s it got shrill for me.
Other eras that would interest me would be '65 - '67. How about any recordings from Monterey Pop. In addition, '74 shows with Phil & Ned doing their thing-- mixed in 5.1?
I also enjoy collecting shows from nights in which other things occurred (e.g., 10/4/70; the second eruption of Mt. Saint Helens in '80, Woodstock-- the Dark Star and Lovelight were not all THAT bad-- ... I love '69-early '78, but the shows were so similar that I have tended to pass on many releases. The May 25 '77 was a must get as I remember lining-up to see Star Wars at Tri-State Mall in Delaware. Not yet a Dead freak, but on my way.
Thanks for asking.
Both have/had amazing high batting averages by me, though yes Dick had those 90s blooper releases, I stand corrected. But can you find anything nearly as good as the MSG '90 RT set? I think only a compilation is workable.
Is there a reason that very little Greek Theater material has come out?
Hey Blair..Great post, as always. I was unaware of limitations placed on Vince. That strikes me as a little odd, but whatever. I could always find a whole lot of fun in just about any show. Those moments always made it worth the effort. I would agree with others that Vince's voice was mixed a little hot, ( for my taste ), but then so was Donna's, ( again for my taste ), but never to the point of ruining a show. I attended 13 shows in Las Vegas, and despite some hot days, always enjoyed myself. Those shows seem, however, to be sadly overlooked with regard to Picks, Road Trips, Tapers and Jams of the Week. I have always wondered why. One of my favorites Drums/Space memories comes from a show there with Mickey playing off a desert thunderstorm rumbling off in the distance...it was awesome. I would definitely buy a Road Trips type Las Vegas set. If memory serves there were enough moments to warrant that. I think we were all aware something was up in the spring of 95. I remember commenting to my buddy at the end of my last show that it seemed like something would be different next year. Little did we really know.