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 am a 1985 guy and before. To me the dead are or were a guitar driven band. They played at times without a keyboard player or much of one in the early 70s until keith joined the band. The Grateful Dead were at their best when Jerry, Bob and Phil were at their best. The keyboards were more adding to the colour then drawing the picture. After Jerry's coma Brent's keyboards began to push the guitars to the back.They were took over territory that had belonged to the guitars and the music to me was less than it had been. All of Brent's songs were awful. One was worse than the other. I will take you home is not sweet just creepy. He was a good player but did not fit well with the dead. The releases from 87 to 90 are my least favorite. Even when Bruce Hornsby played with the dead too much musical territory was ceded to the keyboards. What I hear on Dicks picks 27 view from the vault 2 and the road trips from 93 was the guitars taking back the territory ceded to the keyboards . I don't know if vince was better player than brent but I think he was a better fit for the band as Keith was a good fit. They allowed the guitars to be where they belonged at the forefront.
...was fun. I did the first 3 shows and had a blast at all 3. Bob Weir's guitar was LOUD and I'm a huge fan of his guitar playing (even though he's not aggressive as he used to be...love ya, Chief), so this was tailor made for me. I was a huge Brent fan and, say what you will, he was incredible all around. Piano, B3, synth...he was built for this band in my opinion as he understood the musical goal. Jerry sure enjoyed playing with Brent. That much was obvious.
Bruce & Jerry were seriously locking in throughout 91 for sure. There were plenty of moments where I felt there was too much going on musically by too many people and it would get muddy. But mostly, it was really hot. I remember being 3rd row, right in between Jer & Bruce for Richfield 91. They opened with LTGTR > Jack-squared (Jack Straw, Jack-A-Roe). There was a Tennessee Jed played toward the end of the set and, during the jam after the verses were done, Jerry & Bruce didn't take their eyes off of each other. Throwing riffs back & forth, having this wonderfully exciting conversation and I was a (albeit one of about 17,000) fly on the wall. Blew me away.
They ALL brought a bright edge to the music, no matter what instrument they played. Each new player came in at the time when the band needed a boost. Pig helped the band take off, Keith brought legitimacy to the band, Brent took the band into the digital age, Bruce brought the band back to a more rock n roll roots sound and Vince took the band into places that they normally wouldn't have gone without someone of his ability. Not one of them was right or wrong, they just brought the sound moving forward. Personally, I liked them all for many reasons.
Better on organ, yes - but it was still a stopping point for me. Loved Pig on the organ. Mind you, as far as I was concerned, in mid-80s UK, I could have been the only UK deadhead left. I think there's a few of us older UK deadheads who thought that at the time. No internet. A void, to all intents and purposes, with the occasional anodyne studio album.
That said, it was a very fine thing to re-discover them; the Wembley shows in 1990, especially Halloween, were fine shows with passages of magnificence. And I did see them with Brent in 1981, when they came over twice in a year. Rainbow shows were nice, floor was open and not too crowded. Mushrooms acquired thanks to the agency of Serendipity.
Mickey hit The Beam in one show, and my younger brother's knees went, and we lowered him to the ground for ten minutes :-)
Every time they came over to the UK I realised how much I missed them. And still do. Bottom line for me is that of the boys were happy with Brent - which clearly they were - then I guess its my loss! And I listen to lots of eighties shows.
My comment on Brent was about his electronic piano tone only. I thought he was a great organist, and I think in the MIDI era he did a lot of really tasteful blending of sounds, and I always dug a good "fiddle" break from him on a country tune.
If you are a keyboards play who won't play the piano - you can't rock 'n roll. Full stop. One reason why Jeff C works so will with Ratdog & Furthur.
I'm with Blair. Brent's keyboards never did it for me, and often got in the way. Jangly and tinkly. His voice always sounded to me as tho' someone was squeezing his balls. S fellow deadhead told me once he was "a soul man", to which I could only reply, "Sorry. Otis was a soul man, not Brent". I know others loved him - but he put me off the Dead for nigh on a decade. Bless him. "Nil nisi mortuos bonum", and all that, and may his soul rest in true peace.
As said in earlier post-this show was my personal last Grateful Dead show. We were in first risers on the Jerry side of the stage-great view of the show. Show was a ripper right out of the box with strong tempos, eastern flavored Jerry leads with exotic tinges. Later on when Jerry sang Stella Blue we saw him in the dim spots with his back to us-he looked fragile from that angle but he sounded anything but fragile. The Scarlet-Fire was mind-blowing in the Garden that night and everyone was going nuts-they were, I am sure, caught up in the excellence of the spontaneous creation which was occuring in front of us as was I. In retrospect, I wish we still had the privilege to be with the big man and the boys in real time today. Thank God for the recorded legacy and the memories. Release all periods-it may have been someone's first show as it was my last show.
While it's true that the Dead certainly had good shows with Bruce, for me his style didn't actually mesh that well with the Dead. His "new age jazz" style tended to sometimes bog the band down while also making them sound soft. His playing is made up mostly of trills and not really all that deep. I actually like the ON show with Vince more but there are great shows with Bruce too.
RIP Bob Welch
What a run they had in the Fall of '91 at the (other) east coast Garden. Five or six shows of wicked awesome-ness. I say release one of those instead of anything from the summer!
The Boston Garden show from 9/22/91 is featured the next few weeks on The Grateful Dead Hour. As always, a big Thanks to David Gans for choosing this excellent performance!