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?