Today in Grateful Dead History: December 14, 1990 – McNichols Arena, Denver, CO

dancing-bearToday’s show is an unusual one because it’s a rare post-Brent, pre-1992 show with no Bruce Hornsby, so we get to hear a pretty healthy version of the Grateful Dead with just Vince.  And he rises to the occasion.

The first set of this show is a pretty typical 1990 Dead show – the songs are fine, nothing to get too excited about.  The easy highlight of the set is To Lay Me Down, which is a very good 90’s version – Jerry gets the words right, the guitar solo is golden, the harmonies are great, there’s a little something extra on Jerry’s vocals at the end and Vince (yes, Vince) sounds just like Bruce on the piano.  Good times!

The second set suffers a little bit from poor song selection at the start (Foolish Heart works well), but by the time we get to He’s Gone, things are going swimmingly and we hear a dialed in band give the song all it has.  Drums/Space breaks things up and proceeds into Dark Star, which is a continuation of an unfinished Dark Star from the 12th.  The strange thing here is the staccato playing and Jerry and Phil’s back and forth guitar / bass duel, plus some interesting rhythmic choices from the drummers.  This changes into a very energetic I Need a Miracle and Wharf Rat, both worth hearing, and a set closing Lovelight.  All and all, a good but not exceptional, second set.

It’s nice to hear Vince here, on piano, playing his heart out and not being drowned out by Hornsby.  It’s definitely a different Vince from the one you’ll frequently get annoyed at post 1992.

Listen to the audience recording here:


Today in Grateful Dead History: December 5, 1992 – Compton Terrace Amphitheater, Tempe, AZ

stealieThe Grateful Dead ended up canceling their entire 1992 fall tour in order to once again nurse Jerry Garcia back to health and they didn’t get back on the road until December 2nd, so the band is well rested and Jerry is in good health tonight in Tempe.  It shows during this relatively conservative, minimal-mistake show.

Outside of the usual Drums / Space (which seem to only get better as the Dead get worse), the band plays things close to the vest tonight, but that’s ok.  We’re treated to solid, first-set versions of Hell in a Bucket (lyrics are a bit of a problem here) and Sugaree, Minglewood is a scorcher and Candyman is fun too.  Don’t expect much from the set-ending Music Never Stopped and you won’t be disappointed.

The second set opens with Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain.  You can hear what the boys are trying to do here, it just seems like they’re reaching for something out of range.  The songs don’t fall to pieces, and the transition between them is enjoyable, but transcendence is in short supply.  They fare a little better during Estimated Prophet which, being a tried and true Bob Weir driven song, always seems like a solid tune during the 90’s.  At this point, we get spacey with an almost half hour Drums / Space.  The piece itself is fine, but it definitely destroys the band’s momentum, and when The Wheel arrives, there is no more oomph there.  Ditto the perfunctory All Along The Watchtower and Black Peter that precede One More Saturday Night.  There is a little redemption with The Weight as an encore, but overall the second set is a bit of a letdown after the promising beginning.

Fans of the band had something to be grateful for during this tour – a healthy Jerry Garcia and a relatively engaged band giving it their all on most nights.  It just seems as if the Dead couldn’t really find their true footing here tonight.

The audience recording of this show needs a little work on the high end of the EQ, but once you find the sweet spot, you’ll enjoy it:

Today in Grateful Dead History: December 4, 1990 – Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, Oakland, CA

dancing-bearAfter spending the second half of October 1990 in Europe, the Grateful Dead took November off and returned to Northern California at the beginning of December for the start of a brief mini-tour that would culminate with the band’s traditional Bay Area New Years run.  The shows during this short tour, typified by tonight’s performance, were fairly loose gigs in front of friendly crowds as the Dead continued to process the loss of Brent Mydland and the (temporary) incorporation of two keyboard players into their lineup.

From their first shows, both Bruce Hornsby and Vince Welnick did not hesitate to assert themselves on their instruments, and you can hear that played out throughout tonight’s show.  Both keyboard players are banging out loud, strong lines from the opening notes and they are struggling to balance each other out.  In some cases, like during Brown Eyed Women, they succeed while in other places, like Big River, they get in each others way.  But, at least for tonight, the Bruce / Vince dynamic does not hurt the rest of the band like it often did as time went on, primarily because Jerry and Phil in particular seem to enjoy weaving between these various tones.  Bob, on the other hand, just plows straight through everyone like a runaway train.

Tonight’s show features the unusual performance of Bruce’s Valley Road, a song that the Dead would only play six times, all during this fall touring season.  This song, while well played, does not sound like a Dead song, nor like a cover tune that the Dead would normally play, which is why it was dropped from the rotation in short order.  However, this doesn’t mean that Valley Road isn’t a good song, and it’s worth hearing here tonight.  One does have to question its place as the first set closer, though . . .

The second set begins with a casual version of Eyes of the World that completely collapses when the band attempts to transition into Saint of Circumstance.  My favorite part of the second set is the middle, which opens with Truckin’ and moves into a sparse, slightly spooky version of Smokestack Lightning and then into an interesting Drums / Space.  When The Other One appears out of the ashes the band seizes the song and plays hard for a solid ten minutes of jamming that devolves and reappears several times.  The Wharf Rat that follows is also filled with this dark energy (as any good Wharf Rat should be) and the band really seems to dig into it.  Like some of the other songs in this set, the transition into the closing Turn on Your Lovelight is not ideal.

I really tend to enjoy the Grateful Dead’s early Bruce Hornsby era, and I think if you’re open minded about things, you are going to enjoy this show.  Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: November 30, 1994 – McNichols Arena, Denver, CO

terrapinYou can usually tell when the Grateful Dead are playing well in 1994 based almost entirely on Jerry’s level of enthusiasm and the volume of his guitar.  Today Jerry is in good spirits and you can hear him, so we’re off to a good start.

I think most of the first set highlights today fall during songs that most people don’t care a lot about – West LA Fadeaway is pretty funky and the band’s work behind Bob Weir on Queen Jane Approximately  is really quite pretty.  The audience goes nuts at the end of Big River – I thought it was fine – and Cassidy to close out the set was a jammyish good time.

The second set opens with Victim or the Crime and Samba in the Rain.  While I’ve warmed just a little bit to Victim, Samba in the Rain has got to be one of my least favorite Dead songs of all time, and it’s not well done here.  But the boys make up for it with a very nice (for 1994) performance of Crazy Fingers and a good Estimated Prophet.  This transitions into Terrapin Station, which is seriously marred by Jerry’s lyrical flubs at all of the wrong, emotional, sing-along moments of the tune.  There’s not much going on during or after Drums and Space and the show just peters out into a fine Liberty encore.

Despite my luke-warm review, I think that this show and the next night (also in Denver) are pretty illustrative of good nights in 1994.  The band is not going to come even close to perfection, but there is still a lot to be grateful for here.

This audience recording requires some work with the EQ to get it dialed in, but once you do, it’s fine:

Today in Grateful Dead History: August 25, 1993 – Shoreline Amphitheater, Mountain View, CA

dancing-bearI’m one of those people who actually likes Jerry Garcia’s late-era guitar tone, a haunting, processed, pseudo-acoustic vibration that cuts right to the bone.  (Critics will rightly point to the “pseudo” as their ultimate reason for hating this sound).  But for me, it works.  Unfortunately, the rest of the 1993 Grateful Dead played instruments that didn’t sound anything like this, which makes Jerry sound like the guy playing a very loud classical guitar while Metallica grinds in the background.  And on a night when Jerry isn’t perfectly in-sync with his bandmates (like tonight and many other nights to come), the tonal differences within the band create tension and ultimately make everything sound even sloppier than it probably should.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I didn’t really enjoy this show.  The first set is pretty short (not unusual in 1993 land) and the only tune I found even faintly compelling was So Many Roads, which Jerry truly steps into, like he often did in these later years.  The rest is a jumble.

The second set begins with a 24 minute Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain.  No one in the band seems to be listening to each other, and while there is plenty of soloing, I think that it falls on the linguine side of the noodling spectrum.  Estimated Prophet is another one of those 90’s cool-jazz versions, again with lots of noodling, mostly from Vince.  Following this, we’ve got an 18 minute Terrapin Station.  If you thought that the first three songs of the set were repetitive, wait until you get to this one . . . 18 minutes of Terrapin . . . In 1993 . . . 18 minutes of Terrapin . . . In 1993 . . . Out of Drums/Space, All Along the Watchtower sounds like it might turn into something good, with a neat little Jerry riff leading into the main body of the song, but when the band comes in, yeesh.

Yup, it’s one of those nights . . . Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: August 14, 1991 – Cal Expo Amphitheater, Sacramento, CA

terrapinToday’s show is one of several California shows from the summer of 1991 that all tend to blend together for me.  I’ve already written about the August 17th and 18th shows at Shoreline, and neither one of those nights was anything special.  The same goes for today – there’s nothing really wrong with this show, but there’s not a lot of liftoff either.

The first set is short – I’m counting maybe 52 minutes of music, which for the Dead isn’t that much.  And nothing goes on of any real import during that first set.

It started to rain during this show, which is unusual in Sacramento in August, so the Dead come out for the second set with a trio of rain songs – Cold Rain and Snow, Box Of Rain and Looks Like Rain.  Of the three, Looks Like Rain is the best, if you like Looks Like Rain.  Following this, you get the jammiest part of the evening – it begins with a fairly standard Crazy Fingers (“Your rain falls like crazy fingers” makes our 4th rain reference in a row) that leads into a pretty jazzy Estimated Prophet.  But it’s more of a noodling piano bar type of jazz instead of the fusion powerhouse that this song could be in better iterations.  A quick jam leads into Uncle John’s Band, which is one of the few Dead songs I prefer to hear on the studio album and tonight is no exception, although they do better with it than they usually do in the 90’s.  Following Drums/Space, The Other One tries but doesn’t really get there and neither does the Wharf Rat that follows.  After another piano bar rendition of Around and Around, we have a sloppy Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door encore that is worth hearing for Bruce’s accordion and not much else – how’s that for an endorsement?

I realize that this comes off as a pretty negative review.  The playing is not terrible here, but as far as Dead shows go – even Dead shows in 1991 – this one is pretty boring.  Jerry is definitely not blasting out solos and the rest of the boys are just grooving behind him limply.  It was probably still fun to be there.

Listen here: