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?
Definitely agree that Soldier Field show is stellar. One of my favorites of the final five years. One thing I loved about this period were the great jams out of "Terrapin" ...to the point where the 80s versions that led straight into drums were now a letdown to listen to! (The RFK that was released on video ... overrated to me).
I would offer that the Bruce period may have peaked with Shoreline, August 1991.A real definitive statement of what he gave them as a piano player across three nights. For instance, playing the outro riff of "Scarlet" using the melody/chords/key? from "Victim" as the first song goes into the latter. You've got to be kidding! Just incredible, creative musicianship. Or from that same show, he's leading "Space" all the way right into the "Playin'" reprise. Outstanding!
I never liked the accordian. There isn't one song that I like. Maybe a guest appearance in Raleigh NC 1990. That's it.
But I agree with Blair in that I wished he would have sang lead more, brought more of his songs in, and wrote songs with them. But as he said, then it starts to become his show.
"We tried to do some of my songs but Garcia said 'We don't rehearse' so those things kind of drifted away." I recall a quote to that effect.
He was so talented I think it was hard for him to not just naturally dominate. He didn't want to do that. I think he should have though. It could have made the final couple of tours he was on much better. That fall 1991 tour for instance to me has definitely not held up ... I would have even liked to hear him sing some of Garcia's songs for the hell of it. Sing "Tennessee Jed" or some those first set tunes now and again. Or take some verses of them like Brent was starting to take verses of "Man Smart" and "Good Lovin." Just those little tweaks sent the crowd into a frenzy. Just having him be a piano player at that point seemed like kind of a "been there done that" deal.
But it's great stuff. That summer of 1991 was something else. Good time to be alive and having a ball.
Scarlet victim fire. Listen to Bruce lead the boys to water and ... bam. Great jam in the 2nd set
I love the Jack Straw from 6/16/91....a great little jam from Bruce and Jerry trading licks. Also He really could lay into Promised Land, at which times use of foot was optional, on the ivories. 9/14/91 MSG Promised Land is a good example..nice Jack Straw too
However, I wonder if Garcia falling off the wagon, was influenced by Bruce's presence. Or maybe vice-versa. It seemed like he would use alot of laundry detergent some nights...Maybe he really likes clean clothes?
Bruce always added a nice vocal contribution (as well as piano) to Jack Straw making it much more powerful for me. Oroboros description of the Hornsby and the Noisemakers show is intriguing and makes me wonder if he'll come around here soon. Sounds like something I'd like to check out.
I've always really liked the "Scarlet-Fire" from 6/25...
...of folks that LIKE the accordion - - especially the Sandstone '91 Sugaree. If that show (6-25-91) were ever released I'd be one happy camper. It's one of my absolute faves. What'd make it even sweeter is if they included some filler from the night before. P.S. Someone I know had a bumper sticker that read 'I march to the beat of a different accordion'. He's since gotten a new ride so it's gone, but I remember it.
Brent & Bruce did share the piano (the same piano!) for a little good-natured keys dual at RFK Stadium, DC, 7-12-89. It was early in the 2nd set, probably Women Are Smarter (now that I look at the set list). It was a moment ~ and one that, of course, came back with a bit of poignancy once Brent was gone and Bruce was aboard.
And if it happened there, I'd bet it happened at other shows, too.
As for the accordian ~ my first response was "ugh!" at Buckeye Lake in '88 when he guested on Sugaree....and deprived us of a Jerry solo. Some years later, it fit a lot better on Iko. And now that I've had the pleasure to play in a band with a smokin' accordian player, I now have love & appreciation for the instrument. So I'd certainly have liked it better now ~ but still not better than a Jerry solo on Sugaree ; )
Loved Bruce's piano. And his might've been my favorite of the round-robin verses on Maggie's Farm (Summer '91). What fun...five guys taking verses!
Call me late on the bus if you will but I never got into the dead until the summer of '90 when my best childhood friend got me into them. I was about to be a senior in high school. That September my friend and I took a train from D.C. to NYC and saw the band. Little did I know but it was also Bruce Hornsby's first show. That show made me fall in love with the deads live sound, so I really appreciate what he brought to the table. Before that the only live dead I had heard was the Reckoning album.
After many years of extensive listening to GD I can't say the 90's are my favorite period but I’ll always have a special place for 9/15/90 and Bruce. Seeing him on stage that night with the boys forever changed the way I approach live music and listening to music in general.
My last show attended was in '89 and my interest in the band had pretty much drifted away and I'm generally uninterested in the final years. However, the addition of Bruce added a much needed spark of creativity and professionalism. The first set of 4-1-91 is spectacular. So much intensity and everyone sounds "engaged". The Dark Star (blaspheming again) just doesn't click for me. Whatever, Hornsby brought alot of energy and was a really good fit. Not many people could spar with Garcia. One of these days I'll try to check out some more of that era. And the accordion is just fine. It's unfortunate that he left but I understand. Wow, just imagine Myron Floren jamming with the Dead. It would've brought the house down!
Was already a great performing artist in his own right. He didn't need the Grateful Dead, the Grateful Dead needed him. He delivered. Perhaps his accordion was intrusive at times and other times misplaced but he challenged Jerry to rise above his lethargy.
He brought a whole new energy to the band and, to me, they blossomed one final time before the long decline. They, and we, were lucky to have Bruce along for the trip a couple of years.