Blair’s Golden Road Blog - After Brent
by Blair Jackson
I’m generalizing somewhat, but it seems as though the Dead Heads who have chimed in here on various topics favor one (or more) of five eras of Grateful Dead music: the primal psychedelic beast of ’68-’69; the ’72-’74 group with Keith and Donna, pre-hiatus; the same group, with Mickey added, in ’77-’78; the early Brent years from ’80-’85; and the post Jerry coma years from ’88-’90. (Yes, I know there are many who love all the years I didn’t mention—including me! Just go with my premise, please.)
But you hear very little love or even much respect for the post-Brent years, especially once Bruce Hornsby is out of the picture in mid-’92. There are, of course, multiple reasons for this.
Many Dead Heads never warmed up to Brent’s replacement, Vince Welnick (just as thousands of mostly older Heads never warmed up to Brent during his 11-year stint with the band). Vince had a lot of things going against him when he joined the group. He was banned from playing B-3 (like Brent) or an acoustic grand piano (like Keith), and was instead saddled with a rather harsh electronic keyboard with sounds pre-programmed for him by the band’s resident MIDI whiz, Bob Bralove. A lot of the timbres that were chosen for him were, frankly, cheesy-sounding—it was a couple of years before he had a decent B-3 sound in his arsenal (and it was never as full and rich as real B-3).
Though an excellent technical player, he did not have a background as a soloist particularly, and since his younger days had not played in a band that actually jammed. He turned some people off by consistently using his MIDI saxophone sound on the jam after “Estimated Prophet” (which he had learned, he admitted, from the album version of the song—sacrilege!— featuring Tom Scott), tossing bird effects into “Birdsong” and occasionally overdoing the atmospheric textures on “Stella Blue” and other ballads. His first songwriting contribution, “Way to Go Home,” was accepted by many at first, but then lost its luster to some when it became one of the most common songs the Dead played and appeared exclusively in second sets. “Samba in the Rain” was even less popular.
I can’t argue with any of those points, yet my experience of Vince was almost entirely positive. I loved his upbeat onstage demeanor (especially compared to Brent, who was often so dark and surly towards the end). Some of the new colors he brought to the group’s sound were cool and imaginative. I dug his choice of cover tunes—“Baba O’Riley,” “It’s All Too Much”—and wish he’d gotten to sing more. As time went on, he played better and chose more appropriate sounds. I liked his harmony singing. I am not a Vince detractor at all. On a personal level, I had the opportunity to interview him a few times (during his Dead years and after) and I found him to be bright and friendly; a really good guy.
And there was plenty of other stuff going on in the Grateful Dead besides Vince from ’92-’95 that was disturbing/dismaying. A few of the other band members’ new song contributions were greeted with indifference and hostility by some. (As usual, it’s all just personal taste. I loved “Corrinna” and “If the Shoe Fits.” So sue me.) Poor Vince’s ascension also coincided with Garcia’s decline. The whole band tried so hard during ’94 and ’95 to make up for Garcia’s lapses, some of which were drug-related but also affected by his obvious physical deterioration. The lack of precision in his playing was partly from losing feeling in his fingers due to his ongoing struggle with diabetes. His heart disease contributed to his brain not getting enough oxygen. You know the whole grim story.
But through it all, the band gamely persevered and often rose to amazing heights. A show in which Garcia seemed spaced and/or distracted for long stretches might have an incredible “Wharf Rat” or a killer “Scarlet-Fire.” There were beautiful and moving versions of late-period gems such as “Lazy River Road,” “So Many Roads” and “Days Between.” Sometimes the chemistry and interaction among everyone except Jerry was enough to elevate a show. Remember that period when a bunch of the band members got into yoga and suddenly seemed to connect in special ways?
It was also a period when thousands upon thousands of new Dead Heads fell in love with the band for many of the same reasons us older fans did. So, we can sit here and be all critical and nitpicky (for good reason!), but it obviously still worked on some level; that essential Grateful Dead X-factor still had the power to reel in newbies until the bitter end—and to occasionally satiate old-timers like yours truly, too.
Two of the last three shows I saw—at Shoreline Amphitheatre in early June ’95—left me feeling hopeful and optimistic about the future of the band. Even with all the horror stories emanating from the road on that grisly, nightmarish summer of ’95 jaunt (the “Death Tour” we called it, even before Jerry died), when word came down that Jerry had gone into rehab shortly after the final show in Chicago, I figured the next Grateful Dead renaissance was right around the corner. (Believe it or not, I never had that feeling of impending doom that so many of you did in ’94-’95. I’ve always been an optimist to a fault.) Alas, it was not to be.
Tell us about some of your experiences of the post-Brent era. I’d love to hear about the shows that you enjoyed and that you think we should check out (Boston Garden 10/1/94 is loved by many, for instance, as are the two Salt Lake City ’95 shows and various Las Vegas shows from the ’90s). And if you hated everything post-Brent, tell us why. Would you buy CDs of a ’94 or ’95 show, or should David Lemieux stick to earlier years? How do you feel about the few Dick’s Picks and Road Trips releases that have come from the final era?
Fair point Antonjo, but don't forget Dylan and the Dead. On the other hand ........;-)
The sound and tuning on Jerry's guitar was amazing - rivals pitches from any other year - in '93 and '94 in my opinion. The stereophonics of the band - the way it sounded - was awesome in this period.
Same deal for 84->86 ~ three discs (Dick's 21 ~ and the filler was from '80!).
Widen that to 83 -> 87 ~ a five-year stretch ~ just three releases in 19 years (Dick's 6 & 21, and View From the Vault 4). Almost like saying a whole era of Dead (the mid-80's, and all the fun & musical thrills that era's Heads enjoyed) never happened.
By the way, PalmerEldritch, the 2nd set of that 3/17/93 Landover show started with a Picasso Moon cranked to 11.
Saw the GOGD about 1xyr 68-80, missed 81-83, 2-3xyr 84-95. Not a single concert I attended from the 1990-95 era stands out as being of much substance musically to me. The only ones in my collection from this period that I ever listen to are: 09/10/91 MSG with Branford Marsalis-sax; 02/23/93 Oakland with Ornette Coleman-sax; and 09/22/93 MSG with David Murray-sax. Regrettably, I was not at any of these. I know, I'm just (you should pardon the phrase) old and in the way, but that's my 2 cents worth.
Well, 9-20-90 has gotta be one of the best post-Brent shows. Its a damn shame they didn't put out the first set on the Road Trips release, there is some smokin' playing going on there, check out Its All Over Now, even Vince gets in a killer solo (right after Bruce slays a piano solo, of course). 9-19-90 is pretty excellent, as well. (Its a mystery why 9-16-90 was chosen for Dicks Picks 9 over the last two nights of the run, other than what Blair said earlier in this thread about Dick not being the best guy to pick shows from the 80s and 90s)
I also loved Compton Terrace, Arizona in 1990, 12-9-90, in particular, but that's mostly because of Hornsby's playing, he's really rocking it.
Yep, all my favorite post-Brent shows had Bruce in the band. Sorry, I just am not a fan of Vince's playing or singing or songwriting. Totally agree with the dude who wished it was just Bruce who replaced Brent.
It took many years since the end of the GD for me to appreciate Vince.
I did see some shows, post Brent, that blew me away. Still, Brent, IMO cannot be matched. HIS approach to the B3 and his contributions were a perfect fit for the band. Keith in 72-74 is also up there for me. But I can listen to 80-Summer 90 all day every day.
I just listened again to the 3/27/88 download and the Cal Expo 93 release. Based on those, I'll take Vince over Brent, anyday (especially later Brent) Admittedly, I'm no expert on either era, but it seems to me Vince listens more to the rest of the band and plays with more taste and feeling. And yeah, WTF, only one release from 93-95? I'd also love a compilation that's heavy on the newer tunes that were being developed- Lazy RR, Liberty, Days Between, So Many Roads are all knockouts, on the SMR Box set. I don't even have a recording of "Wave to the Wind". Never even heard "If the Shoe Fits". I don't think I have any "Easy Answers", except Weir/Wasserman. I only have one "Picasso Moon", a song I really like a lot. Let's hear some of the choicest ones. That would be much more interesting to me than another Brent era release.
The only embarrassing Dead song to me is "I Will Take You Home". Barry Manilow wouldn't lower himself to sing such a syrupy, heart on the sleeve, trite tune. I could never listen to it- definitely a "pee break" song.
Thanks for answering that question that had been banging around my head so loudly, David. I guess if the reason was non-musical I can understand it, but from a musical perspective, Vince not having a real B-3 seriously undermined his chances at being great in the keyboard spot, IMO. But I will always prefer organic, classic instruments and tones over synthesized, MIDI-ized ones. To my ears, nothing beats a B-3, a Fender Rhodes, an acoustic piano, and maybe a Farfisa every now and then. I wish Vince had gotten a chance to play some real keyboards in the GD.
Out of over 400 discs of Archival releases, how many are from 93 to 95? Three discs- the one 1993 release from Cal Expo.
= more late era Dead releases. Totally nuts = whole show 90s releases.
Bambini - well said. This is OMFG territory frankly.