Did you know that there’s a Grateful Dead song called Gentlemen Start Your Engines? It’s on So Many Roads, but I honestly don’t remember it. This little historical nugget, which debuted today, is why we’re doing two 1988 shows in a row.
I guess now is as good a time as any to address a topic of seemingly endless disagreement within the Dead community (then again, what isn’t) – Brent songs. I’m not going to get into the debate about Brent’s voice or keyboard playing although I will say for the record that I’ve always loved his voice and I think that he was the best keyboard player other than Bruce Hornsby that the band ever had. His keyboard tone is another matter entirely. This is about his actual songs.
I remember watching a Brent-era show on DVD with a couple of friends who were the main catalyst for my really getting into the Dead . I don’t recall what song it was – maybe I Will Take You Home – but I do remember calling it cheesy. This prompted a very long argument. At the time I didn’t have a clue about what I was talking about when it came to the Dead, and the people who I was arguing with already had a long relationship with the band. They insisted (and forgive me if my description of this conversation is not as nuanced as their argument was) that Brent’s songs were passionate and forceful and pretty great. Responding more as a music fan in general and not as an experienced Dead fan, I stuck to my guns and said that no objective listener would think that Bent’s songs were good in the way that a non-Deadhead would respond to something like Uncle John’s Band. We never agreed.
Fast forward thirteen years (dear lord). Suffice to say, I’ve heard a lot more Grateful Dead music since that conversation. I’m no longer able to approach the band’s music as an objective listener, because they are a much more important part of my world.
Now I like the Brent songs, for much of the same reason that my friends did back when we first had that argument. There is a feeling behind these songs, a deep heartbreak and anger, that comes out every single time Brent sings them. This passion is something that’s typically missing from other Dead songs, despite the incredibly high quality of the music and lyrics. It’s hard to get legitimately worked up about streetcats making love (although Bob Weir gives it his all), but when Brent sings “Soon as I finish tearin’ myself apart / Like the Devil’s Mustangs / I’ve been ridden hell for leather / Put away wet and angry in the dark” like he does in Gentlemen Start Your Engines, you believe that he really feels this way. NOTE – John Barlow wrote the lyrics to both Looks Like Rain and Gentlemen Start Your Engines, which proves that he was definitely writing with the singer in mind. In an era when the band was slowly coming apart only to come back together again, Brent and his songs provided a much needed burst of pure rage and feeling that you don’t hear anywhere else in the band’s repertoire, ever, but especially not in the 80’s.
All of this doesn’t mean that Gentlemen Start Your Engines is a great song, but it’s actually pretty groovy, in a swampy, late in the evening kind of way. I enjoyed hearing it here.
The rest of the show is pretty good, too, and certainly better than the previous day’s performance. Mississippi Half-Step opens the show and sets the mood as the band goes on a joyous, up-tempo romp through the first set, culminating in a pretty quick but nevertheless well-done Music Never Stopped. The pace doesn’t slacken in the second set, what with a set-opening Touch of Grey leading into Playin’ In The Band>Uncle John’s Band>Playin’ In The Band. Even the Drums/Space is dynamic. The show closes with a pretty fired up version of Turn on Your Lovelight before Jerry brings us all home with Black Muddy River.
This recording is labeled as a Matrix, and it sounds like it could be, but if it is, the volume on the audience side is really low: https://archive.org/details/gd88-06-26.sbd-matrix.nawrocki.5608.sbeok.shnf