Branford Marsalis played five shows with the Grateful Dead throughout the 90’s. The “big one” was the March 29, 1990 show at Nassau Coliseum, but in my mind Branford’s performance at this show is just as good, if not better, than that one.
This is not to say that the band’s performance tonight is better than the 3/29/90 show. A lot went down between March 1990 and September 1991 – Brent Mydland died, Bruce Hornsby and Vince Welnick joined the band, things started to move downhill. Musically, the stage was a little more cluttered and a little less focused in 1991 than it was in 1990, and it shows during this performance; Bruce sometimes plays over Vince and there is a lot of noise without purpose, especially during Cassidy.
To me, this crowded musical landscape is the foundation that makes Branford’s performance all the more amazing. Throughout this show, no matter the tune, he’s gliding in and out of the messy structure being laid down all around him, and he’s making it sound effortless. Sometimes (a lot of times – that’s why this is a cool show) the members of the Dead play right off of Branford’s ideas. Other times, they’re not quick enough. But all in all, it makes for a very dynamic, exciting, jazzy night of music in the Big Apple.
My personal favorite from the first set is a spectacular High Time. This song can be mournful or celebratory depending on the mood – Jerry in particular threads the needle between both here, with Branford weaving a spell in the background. The set ending Deal is also a tour de force. And lets not forget about It Takes a Lot to Laugh it Takes a Train to Cry, which jumps right off the stage – I can’t tell you why it does, but you’ll notice it immediately. There’s just something in the air.
The second set has highlights all over the place. To me, the best part is the Help On The Way>Slipknot!>Franklin’s Tower that gets things started. This sequence has something for everyone – jazz up front with Help on the Way and Slipknot! and rock on the back end with Franklin’s. The Estimated Prophet that follows is deep and very intricate.
I’m not a huge fan of the Dark Star sequence here – I know a lot of people are. I think it’s just too much. And Standing on the Moon would be a middling performance if it wasn’t for the Branford parts, which are sentimental and spectacular.
This show has a lot of fans. You can hear why here: https://archive.org/details/gd1991-09-10.dts.mtx.haugh.gems.98701.flac24