This show marks Vince Welnick’s debut as the Grateful Dead’s keyboardist after the untimely demise of Brent Mydland earlier in the year.
Vince has been torn apart by Deadheads since he joined the band (just look at the comments on this show for a nice variety of complaints), but I don’t think that he deserved even half of the vitriol directed his way. I’m going to quickly try to explain why.
Any discussion of Vince has to start with a brief focus on Brent. (This statement alone illustrates a nice bit of the dilemma facing Vince during his time with the Dead). Brent was a divisive figure throughout his tenure in the Grateful Dead, but by 1990 most fans seemed to appreciate him as a vocalist and a keyboard player, even if they were divided over the quality of the songs he actually wrote. (You can read some of my thoughts on this issue here). The band has been very clear over the years that Brent’s death in July, 1990 really affected the group, especially Jerry Garcia, who remarked shortly thereafter that he didn’t know how he would be able to go onstage with the Dead without Brent there. The members of the band have also consistently stated that their decision to go back out on the road less than two months after Brent died was a bad idea that may have eventually led to end of the band several years later. None of this, not Brent’s death nor the Dead’s rush to get on tour, was Vince’s fault.
Nor was it Vince’s fault that the Dead, as was their want, rushed the audition process and, to paraphrase Bob Weir, picked Vince primarily because he could sing the high harmonies – his keyboard skills were an afterthought. It definitely wasn’t Vince’s fault that he suffered from crippling depression, was basically out of money when asked to join the Dead and could hardly afford to say no, even if hitting the road with one of the most dysfunctional bands ever assembled might not have been the best thing for his overall health.
To top things off, remember that the Dead decided that, in addition to hiring Vince, they would also bring Bruce Hornsby, a much more accomplished piano player with a bright solo career, a man who actually knew and loved all of the Dead’s music and was a much tighter musical fit for the band, out on tour with them for a couple of years until Vince got his legs under him. This placed Vince in an impossible situation from the very beginning.
It is true that the Grateful Dead’s musical fortunes declined quickly during Vince’s run with the band, but I would argue that this decline had almost nothing to do with Vince. Jerry’s drug habit was killing him and as the 1990’s wore on, his playing and singing became almost impossible to deal with, to the point where his guitar was basically turned off for long stretches of the 1995 summer tour. This had nothing to do with Vince. The song selection in the 1990’s (especially 1992 on), larded as it was with tunes from Built to Last, drummed up outtakes, slow blues numbers of middling quality and Bob Dylan covers, was not nearly as dynamic as it was during any other period of the band’s life. (Please don’t try to argue about how the repertoire was greatly expanded during this time – we all know how many times they played Corrina in the mid 90’s). This had nothing to do with Vince. Some band members’ focus on Midi effects to the detriment of a unified, consistent sound, also had nothing to do with Vince. The ever more elaborate, over half-an-hour Drums/Space segment that broke up the momentum, such as it was, of many shows throughout the 90’s, had nothing to do with Vince. The Grateful Dead’s inconsistency in the 1990’s was not Vince’s fault, and anyone who puts even a large minority of the blame on his shoulders is avoiding all of the other problems with the Grateful Dead, just like the Dead were avoiding all of their problems when they hired Vince and dragged him out on tour two months after Brent’s death in the first place.
I have done my share of bashing Vince’s playing on this site, but I hold firm in the belief that those criticisms are focused on specific instances of bad musical choices and do not represent an overall rejection of Vince as a keyboardist or member of the Grateful Dead. Hell, I’ve bashed them all at one point or another. They weren’t the most consistent bunch of musicians. But Vince, coming into the band when he did, gets much more than his fair share of abuse, and that’s simply not fair.
Enough with this rant – what about this show itself? It’s not bad, and it gives us a chance to hear what Vince could do for that very brief period before Bruce Hornsby relegated him to second fiddle. As with a lot of Vince’s playing, what he adds here is subtle texture that backs up the band nicely in most places. There are some issues with his volume being too high at points, but, to return to a familiar place, that’s not Vince’s fault. As far as I’m concerned, the pre-Drums portion of the second set is definitely worth hearing tonight – you get nice versions of China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider, Truckin’>Crazy Fingers (a nice transition) and then a good Playin’ in the Band. The Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door encore, in tribute to Brent, is the emotional highlight of the night, for sure.
Sometimes we find ourselves in danger of taking music, and this band, too seriously. I know I often do. So for tonight, let’s forget about those ridiculous criticisms of Vince and let the music play. Loudly.