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?
First I have to say that my "favorite" era seems to change depending on what I feel like hearing. I don't think there is a bad one & people that shut any of them out are only hurting themselves. Second, I think Vince got a bad rap & thanks Blair for calling us on this. Lastly, like many of you I'm sure, I have bootlegs going into 1995 (yes, I have the whole 3 CD set of Jerry's last show). Like every other year, there are wonderful shows & BOMBS. Putting some of the good stuff that I'm sure you have stored away out would be, to me a good move. Come, Bobby doing "Take Me To The River", who doesn't want that? I'd love to see some soon.
On furthur pondering, it did occur to me that I can't recall any '94/'95 official releases and so if a show, especially from '95, could be deemed available and good enough to present nearly as well as the first two Dave's Picks, that would be a great thing.
on the bus since '81 - my Dead teeth were cut on Brent's dark, foreboding songs which played perfect foil to the joy and hopefulness of Hunter's - which was the lure that kept me chasing them across the country for the next 14 years....
imho i believe Vince was NEVER allowed the access, input, or support necessary to truly blossom as Brent was allowed to - i've heard rumors that most of the band didn't like him personally or professionally (might be wrong, but such is the rumor) and as Jerry's fade-away began to really roll I think that Vince felt even more alienated and unsure of exactly his place in the band - if he ever had one (if you were picked to be keyboardist and then they bring in Hornsby? - guess they didn't think he could cut it alone!)
that being said, i still believe there were many meaningful musical moments (mmmm) during the post-Brent period and as such should be included in any future releases - heck, let me pay a couple of grand and give me access to the entire library - unless you decide to open it up for free ;-)
peace for those who need it - love for all
It is unusual for so many heads to be requesting a compilation. I have asked several times for one.
It sounds like Phil doesn't want a "Wave To The Wind" to be released. That sort of spoils it. A 92-95 compilation with all the songs never released would sell enough to be worthwhile. It rounds out serious collections, from the official release point of view
A lot of good reminiscence and insights in this thread from an era not much discussed.
I think the post-Brent Dick's Picks are the weaker ones and the Road Trips, Ditto.
Of course there are great moments, but I generally wish it had been Bruce only- imagine the Keith-like revival in the sound!
Sometimes the group would be winding through a Dark Star and all of a sudden you get a sound not unlike a power tool piercing through everything and causing one to wince, Vince.
I would implore Dave to stick to previous line-ups. In fact, earlier the better!!!
A good article. I totally agree with Blair's division of the 30 year trip into five eras. I have further divided them into eleven epochs and have compiled a detailed timeline, available on request.
I know that it was a valuable experience for anyone to have seen the Grateful Dead at any point in their history. I know some young Heads of college age who never saw them and I wish for them that they could at least have seen the Vince-era band. We all cherish the time when we first got on the bus and saw our first shows. My first was 10/9/72 at Winterland and even by then the older Heads were talking about how Winterland was too big and how the scene was better at the Fillmore and the Avalon and how Pigpen's absence was taking away an integral part of the band and there was derision of the emerging "Rock Star Bobby" and how we teenagers couldn't get the point if we hadn't been a part of the ballroom scene and the free shows in the Panhandle...
At the end of the day I do think that it's all about Jerry. I treasure the experience of having seen him play, as I do treasure the memories of others I have seen who are no longer with us: Andres Segovia, Joe Pass, Freddie King, Roy Buchanan, Jaco Pastorius... As went Jerry, so went the Grateful Dead. When he was ineffective, for whatever reason, then they simply were not interesting. In the '90s I also saw good and bad shows by the JGB and Garcia/Grisman. I saw some terrible shows. My last Dead show was 2/26/95 at the Oakland Coliseum Arena. They opened with a version of "Let the Good Times Roll" that didn't have enough spirit to make the good times crawl on their hands and knees. It didn't get much better from there.
In all, the Vince years were the Dead playing out the string for the sake of keeping the money coming in to support the large family they had created (not a bad reason, really). There were some good shows. I saw 12/12/94, also in Oakland and it was a blast. I would buy a "Best of..." compilation in the format of the original Road Trips concept. I know the vociferous Complete Show Absolutists will hate it, but picking out individual tracks from the era would produce a listenable release with some enjoyable surprises. I doubt there would be a complete show that could give a consistent and comprehensive picture. Some Heads with closer ties to this era have suggested certain shows as complete show releases and they are probably right on.
I'd rather see the work go into a '67 or '68 release.
Considering that they only make 12,000 copies, I am of the opinion that even a '92 - '95 release would sell out. I predict resale values would be equal too if not higher than the original purchase price.
Everybody has their own favorite eras/shows. Why deny the demographic who might be only interested in 1984, 1986, 1994, 1995 or any other year/tour that isn't officially represented or are under-represented?
Ultimately, you can't please everybody. Somewhere there's the guy who won't be satisfied until the rest of the concertsa from 1972 get released, despite having the enire E72 tour in a convenient box, then will threaten to never buy another release if, Heaven forbid, GDP and Rhino decide to release another 1985 or 1988 show.
I love this era of Grateful Dead music. I listen to this era less than I used to, but I still have an affinity for many of the shows that I saw during this time. Can't help it if I was born too late.
Some shows that stick out for me in this era include 3/21/94, amazing show from start to finish, 7/23/94, wonderful vintage sounding show, 7/31/94 and 8/1/94. These shows from Auburn Hills feature some of the most inspired Jerry singing I ever had the pleasure of seeing (Lazy River Road, Black Peter, Row Jimmy, Peggy O, Stagger Lee etc.) Of course Delta Center in Feb 1995, 5/21/95 (amazing Days Between) and finally 6/30/95...that show was great.
I hope that something from 94/95 will come out, because I would like to hold on to some of those memories
You could gauge the appetite for '92-'95 by making a Dave's Picks annual bonus disc be a "Best of '92-'95. Then see what prices it commands on eBay! Better than a focus group! lol
Agree with Blair's comments about moments in some shows, but whole great shows are almost totally missing. My favorite moment is the lengthy jam out of Victim or the Crime into an epic Foolish Heart on 6/27/95 with 2d place going to the stagger lee from a soldier field 93 show (did they really sample marv albert during space sampled from the intermission showing of the suns/bulls nba finals game on the big video screens?).
There are many other individual moments of songs. I personally have put together my own "best ofs" from personal tapes, archive.org and etree for 92, 93, 94 and 95 subject to questions like "why would you do that" from an older deadhead friend!
I would be very reluctant to purchase a full show from this era in the future. On the other hand, I would probably purchase an old style road trips of the "best of" certain years or tours if it had what I considered good versions of songs on it. There would have to be complete disclosure of the dates of the songs before hand. I also would consider a road trips that collected live versions of the best versions of the unreleased band originals and covers from this era, part of the impetus for my own work in this area.