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?
Loved Bruce, to echo a previous post, Bruce had hits and was kind of a media darling at the time that he joined the band. This, along with his great playing, brought a new, different crowd of people to the shows that, without Bruce, would have never came, they didn't come to see the Dead, they came to see Bruce and his new band. I was fortunate enough to catch a three night run in spring of 91 and Bruce was the uplifting spirit that the band needed in a time that their spirits needed an unlift. IMHO it felt like everyone liked Bruce, liked his upbeat playing and his other skills, which included, but was not utilized nearly enough, his singing ability, he sings like a bird. I have seen him cover several Garcia/Hunter tunes including a tearjearking reading of Loser back in 98/99. When I look back on those days, 20 years ago now, it was like stepping back into time those three nights, back into the sixties, and thinking about it now, those were some great times. I'd give just about anything to go to one of those shows again. Thanks Bruce.
...and listen to 10/1/94. Amazing show! Definitely one of the best of that era.
to Road Trips Vol. 2, Numbers 1 and 4- MSG 1990 and Cal Expo 1993 respectively. Great music on both of them. Brought back my memories of Fall in boston garden-1991-some tremendous shows-very jazzy and creative. I would be pleased to see release of that run or parts of it( once again-go listen to 10/1/94 at the Garden also-my last show of the Grateful Dead).
I guess I've never really understood why Bruce was able to play a grand piano when Brent never played one, and even Keith pretty much stopped using grand pianos in the last year + of his tenure. And then of course Vince never played one. Was it a band decision as we've heard about some of Vince's constraints and they relaxed the rules for Bruce, or what? I would have liked to hear Bruce by himself without Vince. Now that would have been interesting. I really think the Grateful Dead's sound lent itself so well to having a grand piano, as reflected in their most sophisticated and creative period when Keith was mostly playing piano from 71-77. I last made it to a show on 8/16/91 and I actually never got into to the show but did the parking lot scene at Shoreline all night while waiting for my brother who was inside but you could hear the music pretty clearly out there, I distinctly remember that Scarlet>Victim transition. Victim is an interesting song but I think Bob played it too much and it's generally kind of oppressive and not very fun. The Grateful Dead are kind of about what was, and also what could have been. There were many missed opportunities over the years and the lack of rehearsal coupled with apathy and burnout were starting to take their toll by the time Bruce came on board, but there were still moments of brilliance and I agree that 1991 was the last good year, there's nothing I've heard after that year to convince me otherwise. But I am really curious about the whole piano thing, what's the deal?
In answer to your questions:
I believe the "Seastones" portion of the DP2 show was left off for a couple of reasons--it would have forced a fourth disc (and screwed up timings on the other ones), and it's NOT the Grateful Dead. (Nobody asks my opinion on these things, but I will add I think that particular 20 minutes of Ned and Phil is some of the most unpleasant and unlistenable music I've ever heard; just ghastly! I had trouble listening through it once! You can hear the hostility of the crowd at several points. But, of course, YMMV. And I've heard other Seastones excursions that are considerably more palatable to my conservative tastes in squonking noise.)
I don't know anything about payment arrangements with Bruce. Since they've already put out a couple of audio releases on which he's featured (plus VFTV II), I don't suspect there's a royalty issue or whatever, but I don't honestly know.
The periods when the band broke in their newest keyboard
player proved interesting and exciting each time around. I
had the good fortune to have invested heavily time-wise
during both Brent and Bruce’s Honeymoon runs, knowing full
well that things would balance out soon enough.
My first few shows were with Keith & Donna, so when
Brent came on board the change in the musical palate was
emense. By the fall tour of ’79 the band was starting to really
click. Starting with Springfield each show, and each leg of the
tour seemed to top or at least match the others - Philly, The
Cap Centre, Buffalo - back to the West Coast, then Cleveland
and Pittsburg all the way to New Years. Talk about a potential
Box Set. I am in the minority as I prefer the “bells” that Brent
was playing and his line of attack from this tour as opposed to
later years when he had that Fender Rhodes type sound and
all of his solos were in the circular rave-up format. In essence
what he was playing in the fall of ’79 was in some ways more
sophisticated than what he was serving up 11 years later.
Oddly my last show seeing Brent was Raleigh, where Bruce
was the opener and sat in on the squeeze box. Almost a
transition show if you will ...
Now Bruce is by far the most talented keyboard player
to take the stage with them. He was so good he even knew
when NOT to play - an amazing ability when you stop and think
about it. He had far too much going on to join the Dead flat-out
in the wake of Brent’s demise, but also could not resist the
temptation to rescue his old heroes.
At first it was like Christmas morning all over again as
each song seemed to get a little something special or different
from Bruce. The shows at MSG and Europe that fall were
extraordinary. They did a couple of Bruce’s songs, however
when they reassembled in December for the little tour that
went to Phoenix, Denver and Oakland the band, or Jerry had
forgotten the arrangements to Bruce’s songs so I know he
decided then that his solo stuff would no longer be attempted
at GD shows. That would have been interesting had he felt
confident enough to have worked several of songs into the
repertoire. Nevertheless his playing inspired Jerry and so
most of 1991 was a very good year! Check out 06/11/91 -
off the beaten path, hard to top. And the accordion - I didn’t
much care for it but one night during Queen Jane
Approximately they sounded like the house band at the
Bavarian Cellar (a German restaurant in Asheville long since
history). Anybody who can pull that off is alright.
Ultimately the fact that the leading creative figure for the
group was a hopeless junkie was too much for Bruce. He had
other issues as well - such as no meaningful rehearsals and
other perceived lack of professionalism (Jerry’s hygiene) etc.
Being a realist I don’t think he figured anybody was going to
change for him so he politely moved on.
And yes as Zuckfun mentioned earlier, the show he played
in Charlotte in March of 1995 was the real deal. That show
should be released in it’s entirety.
Blair - Since I am curious whether compensation issues or complexities (for Ned Lagin) was an issue in leaving off the Seastones interlude from the last vault release, may I also ask whether Bruce Hornsby's stake in the music he created with the Dead is or is not a factor in deciding around that material? Or did he sell his rights when Rhino licensed the vault? Thank you.
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!
Have to mention the two Vegas April shows, some fantastic music in this mini-run. A Bird Song that is one of the finest I've heard. Something about the Fall tour, although I agree it's not of the quality of Summer, Bruce plays some of his greatest at MSG and Boston. Sometimes I listen to 9/22 for example, and it seems like Bruce wants to tear it up as much as he possibly can. Spider-fingered piano mania. Just like the pre-drums jam of 9/21. Perhaps not until Charlotte 95 would such piano mastery be demonstrated again on the GD stage.
I just saw a bumper sticker last night that said, "I'm pro accordian and I vote".