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 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.
many good shows post brent....91 summer tour ..fantastic..highgate 94...msg 10/17/94 scarlet >fire ...fk...killer
MANY GOOD SHOWS POST BRENT....THOUGH I PREFER THE 72 -74 ERA WHO DOESNT....10-1-94....7-13-..94 HIGHGATE...6-17-91 GIANTS...9-22-93 MSG...ALL GRATE SHOWS....EVERY ERA/YEARS HAD ITS MOMENTS OF MIND BLOWINGNESS
That was a nice detailed articulation of the late period malaise so many of us witnessed. I wasn't at any of those shows but every wrong turn and disappointment you mentioned sounded scarily familiar, down to the abandoned "Dew," which I saw at some point, as I recall. I didn't boo, but I'm pretty sure I thought, "WTF?"
As for WWDD, danc, he showed with his choices from the '90 MSG and '91 Boston runs he didn't have a clue about late-period Dead (or much after '80, for that matter). Loved him dearly, but he was not the guy to be delivering the later Dead stuff to us... IMHO, of course...
A very late era release, even a lot of Brent band, as part of the subscription series would be a bomb, please consider common sense (WWDD?) above all.
First, I'll lend my heart to alexj's prayer for Vince ~ couldn't have been more eloquently voiced if the words WEREN'T lyric appropriations.
To two of Blair's points that struck me ~ first, SO true about Estimated and the "sax"! First time I heard that at a show, I thought it was blasphemous as, a) it seemed to cut the peak of Bob's scatting right off (which tapes later revealed wasn't quite true); b) I always loved Jerry's watery half-wah lead coming in to inaugurate the colorful journey post-Bob-vocal-finale; and c) I just thought it was obnoxious SOUNDING. I actually appreciate it a bit now, it's really not a bad musical idea and being more a jazzer than I was then I can wink back at Vince's Dolphy-ish goose honks. But like some other of Vince's contributions, a bit over the top in execution.
Secondly, that he was banned from the B-3. I had no idea. We constantly derided Vince's "Casio on a stick" as a poor excuse for the real keyboards we'd enjoyed from Brent (organ AND piano). To learn it wasn't his choice is a revelation, and rather sad indeed.
And I think you're right on, Blair, to recognize that Heads initially dug Long Way to Go Home.....but it got waay overplayed.
Too often, I think Vince's high harmony was too high in the mix. And he didn't always seem to have the sensitivity to hear or know when to cool out ~ case in point, Jack-A-Roe from the nevertheless stellar 6-14-91 RFK show. With Bruce already handling piano, he brought in a rather fun fiddle sound which fit the folk song well....and proceeded to just keep wailing it right overtop Jerry's solo and everything else. So, I hate to say it, but sometimes it was "tune Vince out" and everyone's really hot. Not that he wasn't, too, sometimes ~ I remember him single-handedly saving a '93 One More Saturday Night that Jerry was nowhere on ~ but he didn't always seem able to intuit his ideal place in the musical conversation.
I've heard he was instrumental in some of the latter-day breakouts, of which New Speedway Boogie was a serious wish granted for me, so for that I'm eternally grateful. And that song's a great example of latter-day Jerry belting out a classic with gusto. When I heard they'd resurrected it on the West Coast in '92, the first one in Landover (as the sixth song pre-drums!) did NOT disappoint.
Seems obvious they should've taken time off after Brent's death. Though from all accounts (I was away backpacking) they still seemed to be on a roll in Fall '90, and certainly were for summer '91. The aforementioned 6-14-91 is on the short list of favorite shows I saw (Help->Slip->Franklin's->Estimated->Dark Star ~ I mean, c'mon), but of course that's already released as View From the Vault II.
Full-show gems were hard to come by for me after that year. But 3-17-93 Landover is one of them ~ really dug Eternity & Days Between, and Handsome Cabin Boy jam out of space made my night (I was enamored of it from the 9-22-87 Space, but never knew what it was till Shady Grove came out years later). The night before, Jerry had aborted Morning Dew after flubbing the final verse (the only time I ever uttered a Boo at a GD concert), and heading in for 3-17 we felt he owed us. And he totally delivered with a Shakedown opener that left us beaming, and all was forgiven. The whole show was inspired playing.
I'd buy that one, and believe there must be others ~ but honestly, I'd be hesitant on much after '91 without a preview. I've played the Cal Expo Road Trips about once (though Broken Arrow is worth the price), and I didn't see shows in '94 after experiencing something unheard of at the one summer '93 show I attended: a mediocre Bird Song. Didn't think it was possible. Though the boys did conjure a great Playin' in the 2nd set.
Like Blair and others have said, the last few years were usually more about great moments than whole shows. And too many Heads didn't even seem to notice a tepid China-Rider (or the aforementioned Dew even).
My final shows were Portland '95, I psyched myself up for a two-night stand and my song wish was Let It Grow ~ wanted one more for the road. Got it first night, and I'm happy to report, never saw a lame one! But the venue was awful, and I got an ER-caliber sunburn that sidelined me for the 2nd night. Something poked me to pour sunscreen on my head, don long-sleeves, and shoot up I-5 to catch the 2nd set. And it seemed like destiny when they opened it with Shakedown, almost 10 years to the day of my first show ~ Merriweather '85 ~ whose outdoor 2nd set opened with Shakedown.
Would love to say it delivered, but it was pretty brutal. After Jerry didn't make it to the mike in time for the 2nd verse, he took another little jam and recovered nicely (we simply got extra music) ~ which I thought was a good sign. No such luck. After he graciously allowed Vince the first solo in the big jam, I waited for him to jump in and take over. And waited. He never did. Ouch.
Then came the Terrapin (a couple songs later). Following the big "whistle is screamin' TERRAPIN!".....Jerry went off to Mars. He never played the riffs. Just rode a spacey tone to his own haunts while the band played Terrapin (as best they could, without his melody to lead the way). It wasn't even lame, like that Dew had been. It cut much deeper than that ~ it was disturbing. It was wrong. It didn't feel right, or good. And yet.....
To end the show, they conjured a classic, wonderful Sugar Magnolia. The Liberty encore was just a coda, I think of that Sugar Mag as my farewell moment of magic with the Grateful Dead.
For what it's worth, my brother said the RFK shows (his last) were solid, and he was psyched for the Fall tour (that never came).
Sorry for the novella. I'll just also say that it's so tragic they didn't take a break sometime in the early '90's. Jerry so obviously needed it, in retrospect at least.
And the inspired music & magic the others have brought in the ensuing years ~ as the Dead, Ratdog, BK3, Global Drum, Further ~ is a marvel, and a precious gift. I try not to take it for granted, but sometimes I still do.
Smiles to Brent, Jerry, and Vince.
10/1/94 Probably yes, I would buy it. 2/21/95 Probably yes, I would buy it. I am very partial to 3/19/95, so I'd probably buy that with conditions, if a matrix recording could be sold, I'd buy it, as this show is the breakout of Unbroken Chain, and the reaction to the song.
A two or three disc "best of" compilation would be most welcome, above all else.
Bob Bralove told me recently that it was Jerry's decision not to take a B-3 on the road for Vince. When I asked him why, he replied:
I don't know. He never really articulated it. He wanted to move somewhere else with it. It may have been an emotional connection with Brent.
I have always been critical of the sounds Vince used, and am really curious why he would be forbidden from using a B3 if he wanted to. The tones were only part of the problem though - his melody lines were often uninspired and cliched, far too often simply aping Jerry's guitar lines, and as often as not drowning him out. I enjoyed some of the shows I saw with Vince very much, but I would be lying if I said they in any way compared to the "great" eras, which I will define as 68-69, 70-71, 72, 73-74, and 77. All 5 are quite distinct, and all 5 are consistently marvelous. Of course there are great shows from other eras, but as we got deeper into the 90's things really fell off. If the vault crew focused on my 5 "great eras", and forayed into 78, 79, and the 80's on occasion I would not fault them. My Dicks picks and Road Trips from the 90's get very little play.
The best post Brent show I ever saw was 12/30/90, and Vince did not play a significant role - all the keyboard glory was taken by Bruce.
Blair -- you pretty much nail it square -- I appreciate your upbeat & psoitive take and intellectual honest in presenting (I'd say "both" but really "all" basic perspectives on this topic. (I know there are as many perspectives as therea re deadheads -- you gert my pit, though). The one thing I'd add (and yeah, it's critical) -- I didn't so much like Vince's voice -- he yelled at times instead of singing --- almost but not as schrill as Donna at her "yikes" moments -- but in the same vein. But who am I to say -- my even dog bums out when I sing . . . and he's 13 years old and deaf!
BTW -- all the positive stuff you rightly make metion of faroutweighs the negative point I just made -- so yeah, rock on Vince -- hope God as a B-3 for ya in Heaven, and if not, I'm sure Brent and/or Pig will lend you one of theirs.