Blair's Golden Road Blog - Bruuuuuuuce!
By Blair Jackson
Last time, we talked mostly about the post-Brent era as it related to Vince and to Jerry’s sad decline. But I made scant mention of the period from September ’90 through the spring of ’92, when Vince and Bruce Hornsby were both in the band (for most shows; Bruce missed a few here and there because of other commitments). This marked a fairly radical shift in the group’s sound, as there was now assertive grand piano back in the mix—yay! I never cared much for Brent’s thin, tinkling electronic piano tone—along with the faux organ and synth textures Vince was struggling to fit in. It was a lot to take in as a fan, but some very exciting music came out of that transitional period, which includes what I would label the last great Dead tour, the summer of 1991.
What prompted me to write about this was watching the bonus tracks on the recently released Shout! Factory DVD box set, All the Years Combine, last night, none of which I had seen before. The first few had that familiar late ’80s look we’re accustomed to from various View From the Vault and other releases: a rockin’ “China Cat” > “I Know You Rider” and a really superb “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” from an ’87 Shoreline Amphitheatre show I attended, and a lovely, extended “Friend of the Devil” from Foxboro ’89. Nice!
However, the final two numbers were the ones that made me sit up and take notice. First came a hot version of “Hey Pocky Way” from what was then known as the World Amphitheatre, outside of Chicago, on July 22, 1990, Brent’s second-to-last show, just four days before his tragic death. The performance is good, but I must admit I was shocked at how bad Brent looked, especially compared with how he appeared in the previous track from a year earlier. His eyes glazed, his hair and beard long and unkempt, he has a sort of feral, mountain man vibe. Brent had occasionally seemed out of it and sort of removed from the rest of the band, but I don’t recall his physical presence being quite so alarming (much as Jerry’s sallow ’95 look was surely a warning sign).
But the last clip of the nearly hour-long unreleased footage was as exciting as the July ’90 one was disturbing: “Shakedown Street” from the band’s June 22, 1991 show at Soldier Field in Chicago. This was my favorite show of the summer ’91 tour, and I’d never seen a second of it. I know that 6/14 at RFK Stadium (VFTV II), 6/17 at Giants Stadium and 6/25 from Sandstone are more universally admired. I love all those, too, but there’s something about the cohesiveness of the 6/22 show, and the way Bruce and Jerry seem to be conversing musically on such a high level for the entire show, that has always knocked me out. And you can see that intimate communication in the long, adventurous “Shakedown,” as they share smiles and riffs and what looks at one point like a Vulcan mind lock! Hornsby had a certain fearless quality that allowed him to dive right in the Dead’s deep end immediately, and I believe that confidence rubbed off on Jerry (and the others in the band) at a time when they were no doubt still feeling deep hurt in the wake of Brent’s death and nervous about what lay ahead.
Bruce brought a playfulness and levity to the band at the same time he was obviously a monster player with serious rock, pop and jazz chops. The way he would quote from “Shenandoah” or some bebop riff or “Dark Star” at the drop of hat never felt like showing off to me; rather, it made overt connections to some of the roots of the Dead’s songs and approach. Some Heads were frustrated by his many forays into “Dark Star” territory (playing around the riff while tuning up, or during “Truckin’”!) but I thought it was charming and fun. Others felt Jerry sometimes deferred to Bruce at the expense of his own solos. There’s some truth to that, but more often than not Bruce added something interesting to most songs and jams, and his gung-ho spirit certainly pushed Jerry and the others to be more creative at times. Unlike some fans, I enjoyed his accordion work, too.
We learned later that Jerry was battling serious addiction during that summer ’91 tour (and started a rehab regimen following the last show in Denver). But I have no doubt that Bruce’s lively, puckish presence and his ability to keep Garcia interested and engaged helped make the tour such a grand success musically. There were several great shows that fall, too, at Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden, though most were not quite at the level of the best of summer ’91. (Alas, Jerry’s rehab didn’t stick.)
Despite what Bruce brought to the band, I remember having mixed emotions when he departed at the end of the group’s March ’92 tour. When that septet wasn’t firing on all cylinders, the sound could become cluttered and sludgy, and you could see in Bruce’s demeanor the frustration he felt when Jerry would periodically zone out and become distant onstage. Also, there was always a sense that Bruce was a placeholder—we knew he wasn’t in it for the long haul (that was stated from the outset). So when was Vince, the anointed one, going to become the guy? Imagine the adjustments he had to make and the pressures he must have felt once Bruce departed. (Or perhaps he felt liberated, as some fans did, when Bruce left.)
We’ll never know what course the band’s music would have taken had Bruce stuck around longer. I think he could have brought interesting arrangement ideas to the new songs the band introduced in 1992 and ’93, and I always hoped he would bring more of his own songs into the Dead’s repertoire (“Across the River”? “Talk of the Town”?). What if he and Garcia had written something together with Hunter?
What we’re left with is a curious interlude in the Dead’s 30-year journey—a side trip well worth taking that left a lot of us with very happy memories.
And here’s one vote for more audio and video releases from the summer of ’91. Starting with the rest of that Chicago show!
What’s your take on the Bruce years?
ha ha! good answer Syracuse78!
come on fluffanutter, save the endless political guff for the Trouble Ahead... topic, eh?
I was referring to buying tickets outside before a show. Hope that is (was) ok with you.
I may have to give the Soldier Field 91 a listen at the archive, Blair. As I wrote, the swirling winds in the stadium really muddied the sound and a soundboard listen may change my mind. Syracuse78, after skipping 92 and 93, I got talked into going to one of the 94 shows and had a fine time, good enough to go to 7/8/95, after which we all said that may be the end of the line-- the largely instrumental US Blues was a trainwreck. Unfortunately, it was the end of it all.
tickets to a grateful dead show. so many people couldn't get in to even a Soldier Field stadium show. better to sell them at cost or miracle a couple of people. that was then, this is now.
I too was there, but have a pretty vague recollection of it. I do know that in the '90s, whenever the Dead would come around to Chicago, I wouldn't buy tickets in advance. The idea of seeing them in a football stadium was really unappealing (first show was Syracuse '78 for me). Then about a day or two before they would land in Chicago, I would start to see the VW vans and get The Fever. Inevitably, I'd go down to the stadium and try to scalp two tickets and call me wife.
Anyway, it seems like after every Soldier Field show, I'd think to myself, "That was fun, but maybe enough is enough." Then they would come around the next year and I would rinse and repeat.
Bottom line, I guess I have to listen to 6/22/91 and see if it's better than I recall.
...needs some sweeping up and reorg. are we in a thread here, a forum, or a discussion? what's the hierarchy of discussion category? what's a listening party? where can i see all the listening parties grouped? if you click down a page or so we might see a random collection of very old topics (e.g. 3 FTV release announcement). A few months back I noticed I could no longer access the shows history pages by year. I like the low-key, no-commercial-dazzle of dead.net, but more org would be great.
...from 4/28/91 isn't too shabby either. Come to think of it, the band was on right from the start of this show. Not a weak song. Even the fickle old school Heads could find plenty to enjoy from this particular show, or run, if they give it a chance. I would be curious to read a properly written essay about the Dead in Vegas. I never got a chance to see them there.
Blairj, makes this happen (Vegas '91). Pass it onto Dave. Trust me on this one.
Can't and wouldn't speak for anybody else, but, where there's a will, there's a way. The powers that be could make this one happen. Just gotta think positive.
I've mentioned this before, and will gladly mention again. In an issue of the Allman Brothers fanzine, "Hittin' The Note", which came out sometime back in the mid-'90s, has an interview of Dick Latvala by Kirk West where they discussed plans to release a Dead/Allman box with highlights from their sets from RFK '73, a project that obviously never got off the ground.
Perhaps that bug can be put back out there into somebodies ear. I wish I was a project manager for the Grateful Dead. Shucks...
that in a number of cases you'd be dealing with their estates...
But imagine the collection.
...an outside player, it definitely affects the bottom line of a project. I gather some "guests" are more accommodating than others (i.e., they will accept less money), but I don't know specifics. I've always thought a GD + Guests box would be cool, but I understand that it would be a nightmare to negotiate with and pay everybody...
I'm wondering if some of has to do with royalties and record labels. Carlos Santana has been friends with the band since the early days so not be an issue getting him to sign off but he also records for Arista/BMG now. A label which the Dead left 10 years ago. Did they leave on a good note? Is BMG upset about losing the Dead who were a reliable seller and pulled in good money for the label?
I wonder the same thing about the shows with Steve Miller in '92. How much would his label or management want for his guesting on a couple of songs? On the other hand, maybe rights and royalties have nothing to do with it and the vault guys simply haven't gotten to these shows yet but it kind of would be nice to know either way.