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?
these last few posts have been classic!
absolutely loved your one blair! throwing a little strop are we, ha ha ha???!!! so, you do NOT want to hear such a sentiment at a Dead show, eh? i suppose murder ballads and a girl who's just fourteen are ok then? mmm...
i remember a post of yours from last year where you said you liked songs that had an emotional weight to them. regardless of whether the actual songs themselves appeal or Brent's delivery suited the ears, you know full well that the emotion was always heartfelt. maybe painfully so. that's the kind of sentiment i DO want to hear at a Dead show.
anger management? maybe he could've dragged Phil, Billy and Mickey in tow too. or do a variety of chokeholds, punchings and stranglings not count?
before i comment on Bruce, one last thing regarding Brent, Vince etc. always makes me laugh when people loudly proclaim that Brent ruined it, or Vince spoiled it; like the other five members weren't complicit in some way!!! Many a show was royally fucked by Jerry (and to a much lesser extent Phil, in his "Heineken & Cocaine" years). They are always painted as "suffering" in some way, while Brent and Vince get lambasted. Quite unbelievable.
One look at the joy in Jerry's face when interacting with Brent tells you all you need to know. (including that fantastic, rocking smile as Brent rips his way through Blow Away from Philadelphia 7/7/89).
Brent managed to get some great sounds out of his synthesizers, not an easy thing to do. true, some were cheesy but thats the '80's in general i'm afraid. no worse than some of the absolutely hideous tones that Jerry sometimes sprung from his guitar synth (that quite ludicrously lame trumpet/saxophone/horn monstrosity!!).
but i do agree with you about Bruce. there's some lovely music from that period. and Jerry's obvious pleasure at playing with him is infectious.
i too, as someone pointed out earlier, would've been interested to hear Bruce as the sole keyboardist. (and thats no disrespect to Vince). but then i also enjoyed that "muddied" sound sometimes too. being no stranger, in fact a close friend with a bit of dissonance, i liked that clash that could occur. felt like two or three bands trying to play the same song at once, each with a different purpose! made for some interesting collisions. wouldn't want to hear that all the time, but.....
personally, being into the more jazz, improvised, experimental side of music, i absolutely love those '68, '69 recordings. those beautiful heights of '73 and '74 too. but sometimes on a hot summer's day, a bottle of The Kernel Brewery's INDIA PALE ALE, Galaxy in one hand, a delightful offering of Amnesiac Haze bud in the other with my wife and my best friend at my sides, i want to hear Easy To Love You roll it's sweet way across my mind.
thanks for some great music too Bruce. wish you could've stayed (again, no disrespect Vince - you were shafted good and proper).
here's to all the eras of the Dead. we have one helluva menu to choose from.
I did NOT want to hear the sentiment "I don't need love and I don't need you" at a Grateful Dead show. And it was not a good song IMO... Guy needed anger management...
Unless you have been living alone under a rock, we all get burned or hurt in love, friendships, etc. I think we've all thought at one time or another "this ain't worth the time that it takes..." and so forth. Not sure what is creepy about that. That is just honest reflection on the human condition.
I don't think the tune is bad. I'll recommend the version from Augusta, Me in '84. I guess Jerry often vacated the stage for the tune, but on this one he stayed on to good results. On the 'creepy' description for 'Take You Home', I'd probably go with cheesy or schmaltzy instead. A sentimental tune maybe, but not a great way to come out of the space jam so often.
Bruce didn't make it to the first post-Mydland shows in Richfield; however, I did enjoy him and the Range at Buckeye Lake on that sweltering day, 6/25/88, when Bruce did play accordion, on Sugaree and Stuck Inside Mobile during the Dead's 1st set.
In Louisville, KY on 7/6/90, he and the Range again opened the show. Great hearing the Dead play Standing on the Moon under an open Cardinal Stadium sky. That December, I drove to Denver and caught 2 shows at McNichols: 12/13/90 was notable for the terrific Jack Straw, possibly the best I've seen.
When the GD returned to KC in June 0f 1991: Both shows rocked!
"Don't Need Love"- Am I the only one who loves this song?! What's not to love about it? Dark, brooding lyrics. A perfect-fitting "walking-groove". Honestly- its always been my favorite Brent tune. Weir always played beautifully on it, too. Hampton 4/14/84 is a perfect example.
The song is about his little girls! How is that creepy in any way? I saw a few really sweet versions of that one (though I'll be the first to admit it was NEVER what I wanted to hear out of "space," which was its frequent placement). I really dug "Tons of Steel" and "Just a Little Light," saw some good versions of "Far from Me," and really did not care for "Blow Away." "Easy to Love You" was a little bland-Michael McDonald-Doobie Brothers' for my taste. "Don't Need Love"... now THAT was creepy.
Reading that "Don't Need Love" is a favorite Brent tune, is maybe the most surprising post since the revelation that "Wave to the Wind" is Phil's most satisfying song. In the words of John Lennon- Love is all you need. Or perhaps- Without love in a dream it will never come true.
bambini. I mostly agree with your post. Except- the more I listen to the E72 box, the more I feel Keith was an equal contributor to that great period of music. I used to argue that there were only 4 real essential "Core" members of the Dead, but now I'd argue that should be expanded to 5, especially during the 72-74 period. His playing during E72 was just stunning, night after night. Right up there with Jerry, Phil, Bob, and Billy, IMO.
I liked Brent's playing well enough in the early 80's. I really like his playing on "Reckoning". And I enjoy live "Far from Me" and "Easy to Love You". They weren't great songs, but I think the live versions are fun to listen to. I'm with you on "I Will Take You Home". I don't know if its "creepy" but I do hate the song. It sucks. For some reason, that song makes me angry- it's the only Dead song that makes me angry. I loathe "I Will Take you Home"! My favorite Brent tune is "Don't Need Love", but I guess I am in a minority (I saw a great version in Hampton 84). I remember absolutely loving Brent's playing at the concerts I saw in the early 80's, but it just hasn't seemed to hold up over time very well. Or it doesn't come through well in the recordings, somehow. To my ears, anyways.
I certainly agree Vince was a better fit for the Dead than late 80's Brent....
I respect your opinion but have to also respectfully disagree about Brent. Hey Pocky Way (a cover, I know, but he put his own signature on it) and Blow Away were a couple of my favorite Brent tunes. Starting around 1983 Brent began to take over more and more of the show. He was a damned fine musician and pushed Jerry. I resented it a bit also but soon felt it was for the better. They could have done way worse with a replacement than Brent.
Don't know what to think about Vince since he was limited to the casio keyboards. I don't think Bruce was pushy, he just floated to his own level. The guitars never ceded to the keyboards. I do agree with you that the keyboards were something to round out the sound. Would you say the same thing about the drums also?