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?
Vince being banned from B-3: Thank GOD they (Furthur and PNF especially) incorporate the B-3 and REAL piano into the shows again. Those are sounds essential to the GD sound, and if you're gonna play the songs, might as well use what helped cement the sound in all eras. INCLUDING harmonica, which needs to be employed more. Jackie Greene anyone?
Sax synth blasphemy: this is blasphemy. I feel that sax ("Estimated") was awesome to hear again in 90's shows, and it was a nod to the original. I have always appreciated it and welcome it.
90's shows that should be released: 6/17/91, 6/20/92, 6/26/92, 3/10/93, 3/24/93, 3/25/93, 7/19/94, 7/20/94, 7/31/94, 8/1/94
I guess that I'm going to riff off off the last few posts I read...like the fellow whose first shows were Calaveras '87. Man, were those smoking. Brent was all I knew in a live context, having gotten on the bus around 1984 (first show was Springfield - March '85), so that was the band I fell in love with. When he died, I sort of lost interest in a way...also, I was living in places where there weren't shows, like Alaska and Germany. I liked Hornsby's grand piano when listening to recordings, but I have yet to meet anyone who really dug the accordion stuff. Back in the early nineties, there were some good crispy 'unofficial' bootlegs available (Eugene '93 and Atlanta '94 come to mind). I just don't have a lot of money to spend these days, and between the streaming selections here, and the archive, there is just less incentive to buy official releases. I saw JGB in '93, and then caught one last show at Giants Stadium in the Summer of '95. Jerry kind of laid out on the solo, but at least I got to see Unbroken Chain! The chemistry between Jer and Brent was pretty great though, as many or most of you know. It was nice seeing that Alpine show recently...more video releases and movie theater nights please!
little jaded from so much corporatism lately- not neccessarily from this site in particular but just in general-
WWDD. Aww- I still think WWDD is a good rule to live by. Obviously, 11/5/85 and 9/19/90 were boners. But those are the only crummy choices I can think of in, what 36 picks? The Boston 91 pick is one of my favorite shows after 1980. I havent heard a whole lot from 91, but that one and View from Vault2 seem like quintessential Hornsby shows, and unimpeachable choices. 5/6/81 and 10/14/83 also fine choices, IMHO.
oh yeah, 12/16/92(DP27), another boner. But that's all, no?
What Brent era set? Did I miss a release recently or is it a forthcoming? The last three have all been Keith era releases.
Have a little faith. The next DP is NOT from that era, I assure you. I do not clear my blog topics with DL (nor he his Picks with me).
get people talking, maintain interest, drive sales, etc... I appreciate your thoughts in a way but I can't help to think that I am just being manipulated to purchase a Dave's Picks after Brent era set....
Just remembered, 3-20-91 was another fine night. Corrycorry, your observation makes me laugh.
there definitely were some great moments, though they seemed farther and fewer between. I have about 20 post-Brent shows in my collection, though most get very little listening time compared to the rest, with one exception that really stands out: 3-14-93, Richfield Coliseum.
Great Cold Rain & Snow opener, a strong Tom Thumb's Blues followed by a great Lazy River Road, and then some real blah in the middle (eternity sucks, Jerry botches Touch of Grey); Corrina wasn't bad, and it sorta picks up here through Terrapin>Drums>Space>Miracle.
The absolute best part of this show is the very end, starting with what is my favorite Stella Blue (the solos are soul melting!) that segues into a strong Throwing Stones and then another segue into a strong Lovelight, followed by an I Fought The Law encore, which was a great touch to end the show with (even though Jerry botches the lyrics).
Besides that, the only other songs from this period that really get any play from me are the Queen Jane and Crazy Fingers from 1-24-93 in Oakland; Jerry was hot this show, and he puts his whole soul into the Crazy Fingers that night. Both 3-14-93 and 1-24-93 are worth a listen if you get the chance!
I hardly saw the Grateful Dead in the Vince era, although the reasons were almost entirely work related. I heard plenty of grumbling from people who went to shows, however.
I first started seeing the Dead back in the early 70s--my first show was at Winterland December 12, 1972--and they sounded great to me. What I didn't grasp was why all these old hippies (probably about 29 years old, but you know what I mean) complained that Keith had "ruined the band." in the 80s, a lot of old hippies--all about 39 years old--gave some grudging respect to Brent, but looked back fondly on the Keith and Donna era, which according to them was the Dead at their finest.
Were the 29 year old anti-Keiths the same as the 39 year old anti-Brents, or the 49 year old anti-Vince's? No, I don't think so. But I didn't find it to be a coincidence, either.