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?
i listened to 10/1 & it rips! i was at 10/5 @ spectrum and it was the best show i ever saw (of 37)
I was never a huge Vince fan, but definitely was upbeat when he joined the band and remained so throughout, despite the tones he used early on. After Jerry passed on I came to listen a little more closely to Vince's playing and came to find some nice stuff there. Also when I saw him play with the Persuasions at Bimbo's in SF I was impressed by how tastefully he played. I went up to him after that gig, blisffully ignorant of his suicide attempt a few years earlier on the Ratdog bus, and said "It's nice to see and hear you play again." He responded with a smile, "It's nice to be seen and heard." This memory became more poignant for me after he took his own life and I became aware of some of the details of his post-Grateful Dead years. I was deeply affected by his suicide. The story I heard of his final moments were grisly and upsetting and I had just experienced the suicide of a coworker. Working in the mental health field and coming from a family in which depression was an issue did not and still does not prepare me for the depths to which people can feel and fall. I wish Vince's soul peace and I hope that his pain will serve all who know his story.
I had a chance to interview Vince in 2002, many years after he was no longer involved with official Grateful Dead side trips. He was playing at a local festival and consented to be interviewed for the radio station I volunteer for. The interview and music feature was fun-Vince was wide open, and probably happy a large part of the interview concerned the Tubes and growing up in Arizona. He did tell an amazing story about sound check for his first show with the Dead. He was using Brent's old piano bench, and it just collapsed right out from under him! I stopped going to shows after Brent's death (though hit a JGB & a Bobby show after 1990), so I was excited to see Vince play locally--he had played with the Affordables, the Valentines and the Missing Man Formation post-break-up, and was still jamming obscure Dead tunes and other great covers, much like he did while playin' in the band. The show was great, and Vince even jammed on "I Am the Walrus" with friends of mine on cello and guitar. Y'know, Vince really took Jerry's death hard--he had been in tax trouble before joining the Dead, and was given the opportunity of his life, which went away fairly quickly when Garcia passed away. There were some serious health concerns post-break-up, but Vince carried on with a positive public face in the years leading up to his own passing. Vince's relationship with Bob Bralove was quite intense, involving both sound and songwriting, so I feel it is a bit more positive than the take that they hijacked the keyboard sound. Vince was steeped the style of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner, and really had the chops of a pro. My feeling is he probably didn't have much else than professional music to fall back on, and when he no longer worked with the Dead family, I'm sure that dismayed him. My love of Vince comes from him being so open and creative, and not particularly from his playing in the Dead. I love the Tubes very well! Here's to Vince "Welmice" Welnick (21-2-51 - 2-6-06). My heart goes out to Lorie and all that loved Vince as a brother. You are missed!
The weeks leading up to Vince's suicide, he played a bunch of shows locally up here in the midwest. I was part of the sound crew for one of the shows he played in my hometown and got to meet him and hang out a little. His demeanor seemed like he was doing ok.
He assembled a band for that tour that consisted of various members of notable Dead cover bands. His setlists reflected that of a Dead cover band show that to my ears, was less than mediocre. There were roughly 50 to 75 people in attendance in a small old classic theatre that holds about 400 to 500 people. During a break in the middle of one of the sets, I shouted out a request for "White Punks on Dope", a classic Tubes song. He got a laugh out of it and shrugged off the request because they didn't work up any other material than songs the Grateful Dead played. Of course he did play all of his signature songs with the Dead.
About a week later, he was back in my hometown playing at a tiny dive bar. My partner had to track down the locally based promoter because he stiffed us on our fee for using our system, soundguy and video production. My partner told me that there were about 6 people in attendance at that gig. The promoter ended up stiffing us more than half of out money. I won't name any names, because I don't doubt that this guy may be kinown by a few people here who live close to me geographically.
A couple of weeks later was when the news broke that Vince offed himself. Makes me wonder if the "un-named" promoters shenanigans was a contributing factor to Vince's depression that got the better of him?
...was clinically depressed, Alex. There was a suicide attempt on the RatDog tour bus during his brief tenure with that band, and various other episodes that contributed to his not being viewed as a stable and reliable potential band mate when reunion groupings came up, much to Vince's disappointment. Right or wrong is not for us to judge.
i never got to much into collecting shows from '92 on because of jerry's decline, and also i never liked the sound of vince's keyboards, good playing, just a clownish sound to me. don't know whether i feel better or worse about it having been the band's decision to have him play those sounds. because it just sounds like a terrible idea to deny your keyboardist a piano/organ sound, in favor of pre-programmed synthesized sounds. especially in music that has such a down home feeling for so many.
that being said, i'll have to go check out some folk's Vince-only show recommendations, as my fellow bloggers are always good for that.
without going into rumors or speculation, i have often wondered why Vince was left out of all the post gd incarnations of the band? i had read speculative rumors years ago about a bad scene between him and bobby during ratdog gigs, but i'm chalking those up to the speculation i'm hoping to avoid. does anyone know?
oh, and yeah, RIP VINCE - while it was a long long way for you to go home, i hope the four winds have blown you safely there
I was reading the blog and this one briefly touches on something I like to do:
try to break down the years to determine the various eras & periods, sub-eras and subperiods of Grateful Dead. When I was sorting out my CDR collection, I came up with this one:
1. Psychedelic Era 1965-1971 (from very beginning to Pigpen's first departure)
a. Early- 1965-1968 (Summer of Love, Monterey, Free S.F. concerts)
b. Middle- 1968-1970 (Tom Constanten, Woodstock, Fillmore era)
c. Late- 1970-1971 (Post T.C., NRPS, Evening with GD, Five man band)
2. Keith & Donna Era 1971-1979
a. Early- 1971-1972 (Keith joins, Donna Joins, Europe 72, Pigpen's final shows)
b. Middle- 1972-1974 (Post Pigpen up to hiatus)
c. Hiatus- 1974-1976 (only four shows; w/ Mickey Round Records/UA)
d Late- 1976-1979 (post hiatus, w/ Mickey- Cornell, Englishtown, Arista years)
3. Brent Era 1979-1990 (I break this down based on the sound of Brent's electric piano! *Although his '82 piano lasted only one year):
a. Early- 1979-1981 (Brent joins, Fender Rhodes piano)
b. Middle- 1982-1986
c. Late- 1986-1990 (Digital keyboards, Touch of Grey era)
4. Vince Era 1990-1995 (I don't break this one down any further).
I think that Blair Jackson can have a nice blog & discussion on a topic similar to what I have presented, sometime in the future. I find it quite interesting and fun!
At the time of Brents passing I thought the perfect fit would be Bruce Hornsby for a replacement. When I heard about Vince Welnick I had a hard time figuring how a member of the tubes was going to fit into the band I loved. I mean, I remember seeing the Tubes at the Calderone years before and it was more of a theatric production than a concert about the music. The run at MSG in 1990 was great. 9/20/90 was lovely. Most Bruce and Vince shows were wonderful. After Bruce left I still enjoyed the Grateful Dead but age and other factors were settling into the quality of the shows. I felt the "machine" was moving along without regard of who in the band was good or bad on any particular night. Some nights just felt like they were going through the motions. I don't think that was Vinces' fault. On the flip side I don't think Vince helped the situation either.
First off, Blair, my favourite, ifn's I had to choose, era was the period of time, of long ago, when the band was transforming betwixt '69 through '72. When the folk song was being psychedelisized, if you will.
But, what I felt about Vince was nothing short of a perfect fit. I think he felt that way also. I didn't know about the restrictions of his instruments, what was THAT all about? Anyway, he could certainly sing better than any other predecessor (EXCEPTING PIG) and brought new visions to the experience. Like you, I dug his choices of tunes.
So, when I last went to see them, Vegas '95, after the show was over, & I was planning to go to Shoreline a little later, which I didn't do & regret, we went walking up high into the grandstands of Sam Boydland, the sun was either setting or was down & it came over me there; it was like a dusk feeling, & I watched the throngs emptying out & was struck by some enveloping calm & etherlike disposition? Stars were blinkering. I didn't know & still don't. It's like Ken Nordine said long before he met The Dead; "That's the way things have been in our town, for as long as anyone cares to remember... By the way... How are things in your town?" HEY! Blair, you should talk with that guy & let us know what stories he has to tell!
I never had any complaints about Vince. He always seemed to me a very tasteful and modest player. Especially compared to late Brent (85-90) which I still find mostly unlistenable. I liked early Brent but never liked his "later" style, which seemed too aggressive and "showy" to me. I've bought nearly all official releases from 85-90 but I'll bet I've tallied up only a few hours of combined listening time with them. A possible exception may turn out to be the 3/27/88 download. I've been giving it some listening and am beginning to warm up to it- (based on Blair's Desert Island recommendation). Oh yeah, I also love the Laguna Seca 88 PITB on So Many Roads. I love any show with Hornsby and will buy any show with him on board. A big box set of a run with Hornsby would be great. For me, most of my favorite Dead shows from 85-95 were all with Hornsby. I love the Cal Expo 93 Road trip and have listened to it more than most 86-90 Dead, (but 3/27/88 is catching up).
I like the notion of "latter years" compilations. For me, it was mostly about the jams. I'd buy any "jam-full" compilation from any era, regardless of whose at the keys. I'd buy, and love, any compilation of back-to-back "Bird Song", "Space", PITB, Other one, etc...from any era- eh, preferably every one ever played. I only want complete shows of pre-hiatus Dead.
The last Brent shows I saw were in '89. The only Vince shows I saw were the 95 SLC shows. I thought they were fine shows- Jerry seemed fine, not as bad as I had read and worried about. Everyone else in the band right on. Best parts were Drums-Space, but that was always the case!