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?
I did attend 6/22/91 show, as well as all of the Deads performances at Soldier Field between '91 and '95 with the exception of 7/24/94, and can attest that the first was my favorite, with 6/25/92 being a close second. James Cotton and Steve Miller as guests was an enjoyable listen.
For the most part, the rest of the shows at Soldiers Field were forgettable in my opinion.
In regards to the '91 concert, the entire show was great, and I would gladly buy a CD/DVD set from this. I think it is a good solid representation of the band performing at it's best on this particular tour. I think the band really hit it's stride well during the stretch of shows from Giants Stadium>Pine Knob>Soldier Field>Sandstone on the '91 summer tour.
...and speaking of great shows from a '91 tour that are overlooked because of other more-esteemed nights, I highly recomend Richfield Coliseum 9/4/91. Perfectly executed and inspired show from start to finish. 9/24 is every bit as essential as MSG 9/10/91 and Boston Garden 9/26/91.
One other recording that I feel is essential from 1991 is the Las Vegas show from 4/28. Carlos Santana ripping up a killer solo on Birdsong? You kidding me? Why hasn't that been released yet?
send me a PM with the details and I'll see what I can do.
Maybe it's just me, but I am laughing at reading the last two pages of posts here....no, I am not laughing at you! I just love to read some good ol' fashioned deadhead disagreement, done with spunk, but not malice. I get a bit uncomfortable when the discussions on dead.net get a little over zealous and words get hurled with a bit too much anger...but not this one. I am enjoying it thoroughly. Very good natured disagreements.
I remember at the time not being a big fan of I Will Take You Home, nor Don't Need Love....in fact I found Brent irritating at times and could not stand when he sung his verse of Little Red Rooster. That being said, he could really rock and I enjoyed a lot of what he did.
Now Bruce....whoa! Bruce is a whole other level of musician. His playing is/was magical. He could sell me a pop song any day (he is one of my guilty little pleasures). His playing had so much technique and feel to it. Yes, the duo of him and Vince got cluttered at times. But he is a tremendous player and songwriter. I was glad to see him the half dozen or so times I saw him play with the Grateful Dead. There are times that I hear his rolling quality when Jeff Chimenti plays also...
I wasn't at Soldier Field '91. I just love the show. In fact, I just listened to it again for the first time in a few years on headphones yesterday and I still thought it was brilliant from beginning to end. As I've said, I love all the "Dark Star" teases, and then the actual "Dark Star" jam out of "space" is as good and satisfying as a lot of the full-blown versions from that era (I don't require Jerry's croaking '90s vocals on that song--seems like he never really committed to singing it with passion in the modern era). And I love that it drifts into the "Playing" reprise. Love that "Black Peter" and "The Weight" encore... I don't know--there isn't anything I don't like about that show... And, getting onto the topic once more, I think Vince plays pretty well and imaginatively throughout...
And since you're the first to mention this Brent song, E-E, "We Can Run" was one of my guilty pleasures; always liked it. I still think it could be a powerful ecology anthem for somebody...
A lot of interesting observations here and on the previous thread. Jonapi-- you had me cracking up, nice post. I was a huge Brent fan and was broken up when he died. My age prevented me from getting into the band before my first show in 1988, but the GD really did not sound the same after Brent's death-- probably what fans were saying in 1972 after Pigpen.
I had a completely different experience from Blair at Soldier Field 1991. After a really good opening of Bucket, Shakedown and Wang Dang Doodle, the rest of the show kept me away Dead from shows for 3 years. The constant teases of Dark Star in the second set (Jerry just wasn't going there that night) from Bruce really annoyed me to no end and throwing in a Playin' reprise, it took a loooooong time for the band to play another full song. Part of the problem I have always attributed to the swirling winds at Soldier Field that night really muddying the sound.
Brent songs-- I really like Just a Little Light, Blow Away, Tons of Steel, Easy To Love You and I Don't Need Love. I can understand people having issue with the lyrics to some of those, though. "I never held you against your will..." how nice of you, Brent. I can take or leave I Will Take You Home and We Can Run. I guess you could say I like the rockers more than the ballads, but that is how I run with Jerry and Bob tunes, too.
On another note, marye, what is up with the customer service? I placed an order on Memorial Day and it is still pending. I wrote to inquire why and received notice from 'Andre' that the order is pending. Thanks for nothing. So, I wrote explaining he did not answer why it hasn't shipped and he replied that I could always cancel my order at anytime if I didn't want to wait for items. Crazy bad customer service.
I love I Will Take You Home and I am a sucker for the Shoreline photo, so there.
I see. Well, it's not my favorite, but there's probably a dozen I'd take it over...
I actually preferred Brent's electric piano sound over the his later era sound but I also prefer I Don't Need Love over I Will Take You Home and I like most of Dick's Picks 6 too.
I'm taking the position that "Don't Need Love" is a mediocre song that I personally find unappealing. I couldn't relate to it at all; many people here obviously disagree. That's cool. It'd be pretty dull around here if we all agreed about everything.
given the emotional landscape Hunter charts, "don't need love" is a perfectly legitimate part of the experience. (That said, there's a raft of songs I didn't like to hear, too.)
If you're taking the position that the Dead were about preaching rather than charting the experience, well yeah. But the Brent/Barlow songwriting duo addressed things that probably wouldn't have come up in the canon otherwise, probably struck chords with people who wouldn't otherwise have gotten it who are still among us, and hey, we're the richer for it, in my increasingly geriatric view.