Today in Grateful Dead History: September 16, 1990 – Madison Square Garden, New York, NY

dancing-bearTonight’s show is the third night of a six show run at Madison Square Garden that includes some of my favorite shows of the 1990’s.  Everyone is fired up, the playing is magnificent by the standards of any era, and, to top things off, we get to listen to a perfect audience recording that, in my mind, sounds better than Dick’s Pick’s Vol. 9, which features this show in its entirety.

I forgot to mention that this is also Bruce Hornsby’s second show as a member of the Grateful Dead and he already sounds like he’s been there forever.  (Bruce’s first show, 9/15/1990, was also quite good, but I think tonight has it beat).  Others have mentioned, and I agree, that the addition of Bruce, at least initially, really pushed Jerry to another level.  The results are evident all over this recording, with the two of them trading licks and playing off of each other like the pros that they are.  This interplay only gets better as the MSG run continues.

Now if you look at the setlist tonight, I’m sure that you’re going to scratch your head and wonder why this night was picked for an official release when the song selection at most of the other Garden shows is so much better.  (There aren’t a lot of repeats across the six nights).  Many of the Archive commentators have the same question.  The answer is to ignore the setlist – the Dead rock the Garden from start to finish, with definitive 1990’s versions of a bunch of songs.

Take Cold Rain and Snow, for example.  Bruce’s piano perks up this song and the band follows right behind him.  Little Red Rooster has an extra bluesy feel tonight, and although you definitely miss Brent’s vocals, Bob carries the tune on his own quite well.   Queen Jane Approximately is tender and nuanced and sucks you into every perfect word.  Tennessee Jed goes on for what seems like forever and Cassidy is firery fun.  The set-ending Deal rocks the house, with Bruce and Jerry again doing the heavy lifting.

The second set gets all of the love from the fans, and for good reason.  It’s not often that you’re going to hear me cheer a starting trifecta of Samson & Delilah, Iko Iko and Looks Like Rain, but trust me, they are all great, especially Iko Iko.  (If you don’t like Bob’s hysterics on Looks Like Rain, then skip this one).  The first really special part of the second set is He’s Gone, which shows off not only Bruce’s playing but Bob’s rhythm work and the drummers.  The vocal call-out is haunting, with Jerry literally wailing away and the voices echoing all over the Garden in an elegy for Brent.  Eventually we end up with just Phil, Bruce, Vince and the drummers on stage, and what takes place over the next few minutes is pretty amazing.  It’s hard to describe what exactly is going on here (not surprising when you’ve got two guys on stage who have a combined experience of 10 full Grateful Dead shows between them, counting tonight), but it’s special, especially Phil’s contributions, which are loud and completely dialed in with Bruce.  (Reminder – this was Hornsby’s second show).  Mickey and Billy must be inspired, because Drums / Space takes off to another planet tonight.

Space leads into a beautiful Standing on the Moon.  I know that a lot of people have mixed feelings about this song, complaining that it was actually designed to be a little too sentimental, but I’ve always loved it, and it’s great to hear Jerry, still in good voice, singing and playing his heart out instead of croaking through missing lyrics like he did in 94 and 95.  I’ll admit that the I Need a Miracle that follows is unnecessary and mars what could have been a great run-up into Morning Dew, but let’s just accept it as part of the overall charm of this show and move on into the aforementioned Dew, which brings down the house.  Just close your eyes and set the controls on this one – it’s massive and overwhelming, especially if you didn’t lose all of Standing on the Moon’s emotion during I Need a Miracle.  How do you come down from this Morning Dew?  With a sublime It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue encore.  This one doesn’t always work, but tonight, it’s magical.

Normally when a show is featured as a Dick’s Pick, I recommend buying said product, but for this show (and all of the nights of this run), I heartily recommend checking out Tom Darian’s mighty audience recording instead.  There is so much more to this recording than the sterile soundboard – you’ve got to compare both to see what I mean, but I trust that you’ll agree that this recording rocks, audience noise and all.  Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: September 7, 1990 – Richfield Coliseum, Richfield, OH

terrapinThis 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.

Listen here:

Today In Grateful Dead History: March 15, 1990 – Capital Center, Landover, MD

terrapinThis is a really good show that deserves to be listened to from start to finish, as there are highlights sprinkled throughout the spirited performance.

The Dead open the evening with Jack Straw>Sugaree, and you can tell right from the beginning that this is going to be a good one – the band members are listening to one another and the interplay between Phil and Jerry on Sugaree is exceptional.  After Sugaree, Brent busts out the first Easy to Love You since 9/3/1980, and while the song hasn’t aged well (who am I kidding, it was never good), Brent’s voice has gotten much more confident over the decade, which is really apparent in the second set when he sings an impassioned I Will Take You HomeAlthea is another first set barn burner, with liquid Jerry runs all over the place.

The second set opens with a fast China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider that shows off the band’s connectivity once again as they bounce ideas to and fro during the transition between the two songs.  This is pure goodness.  A pedestrian Samson and Delilah comes next, but then it’s time for the main event, a huge twenty minute Terrapin Station that will blow your mind.

I like live performances of this song right up until the end of the vocals, at which point the song usually loses me.  I just don’t think that the Dead do a very good with the jam at the end of the song – it’s a repetitive bore most of the time.  But the first part of the song is so good, both musically and lyrically, that you can’t begrudge the ending.  That’s on most nights.  Tonight, that ending is anything but boring.  Instead, it’s an ever changing tapestry, especially from Bob and Jerry, who play together brilliantly here.  Just when you think the band is going to wrap things up, there is another movement in a somewhat different direction.  This continues for a long while, and at the end, you’re grinning from ear to ear.  I can’t recall a Terrapin Station that’s had this effect on me.

The rest of the show has its ups and downs, but we do get the first Revolution in five years as an encore.  Even though the boys aren’t at the top of their game, musically, with this tune, and despite Jerry’s lyrical flubs, the song still has the power to send a chill down your spine.  “You know it’s gonna be … alright!”  And it is.

Check out the Charlie Miller soundboard here:

Today In Grateful Dead History: February 25, 1990 – Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, Oakland, CA

terrapinThe Grateful Dead kicked off 1990 with this show in Oakland and the rust is definitely showing at the start, with a messy Touch of Grey to lead things off.  Things pick up a little bit as the first set moves along, with a very nice, gentle version of Queen Jane Approximately to anchor things.  Normally, the band would bust out all of the stops on the set ending Deal, but tonight the song really doesn’t go anywhere.  So that’s the first set.  Pretty low key.

The second set suffers from a similar lack of energy.  China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider is perfunctory and Just a Little Light is Just a Little Light.  Musically, Estimated Prophet>Eyes of the World is fair to good, but, again, the boys just don’t seem into it.  After Drums / Space, there are bland versions of The Wheel and Give Me Some Lovin’ before my favorite song of the night, a out of nowhere, passionate performance of Wharf Rat.  I guess everyone was saving up for that one moment, because once it passes, we’re right back to the basics to end things with Sugar Magnolia.

1990 definitely features some intense Dead shows.  This is not one of them.

I listened to the Matrix here:

Today In Grateful Dead History: December 30, 1990 – Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, Oakland, CA

terrapinSometimes you pick shows based on the setlist alone and today’s stood out from the pack with a good looking second set that didn’t disappoint once I listened to it.

I typically listen to these shows the first time on plug-in computer speakers that aren’t very good, but they offer a fair representation of the show.  On today’s recording, I had a really hard time discerning Bruce in the mix, although on headphones it’s a little easier.  Normally this can happen when Vince is playing over everyone else in the band, but today it was just a balance problem, with Bruce turned down lower than the other musicians.  This isn’t a terrible issue, but if you’re a Bruce fan, you’re going to need to look for a different recording of this show.

As I said before, I picked this show based on the second set songs, so I wasn’t expecting much from the first half, which was good because nothing very interesting happened.  This was truly a warm up set, because the second half of this show was hot, as you can tell from the band’s playing on the set opening Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo.  After Looks Like Rain, we’re given a nicely done Crazy Fingers that runs into an almost twenty minute Playin’ in the Band.  This Playin’ is intense from the get go and it wanders all over the musical map – loud and soft, jazzy and rocky, but definitely good throughout.  It’s the highlight of the second set.  Drums / Space takes over from there and then we get to a fairly rare post-Drums Terrapin Station that is pretty loose but entertaining.  The jam out at the end moves nicely into what sounded a lot like the start of The Wheel or Give Me Some Lovin’ but turned out to be a good take on Sugar Magnolia.  It was fun to hear the Dead argue between themselves musically over the direction they would choose, even if the transition gets bumpy at times.

If you’re pressed for time, you can definitely skip the first set and get straight to the heart of the second, where the goodies dwell.  Listen here:

Today In Grateful Dead History: September 15, 1990 – Madison Square Garden, New York, NY

dancing-bearI couldn’t do it.  After spending yesterday with a sloppy, rushed performance at this very venue from 1988, I just couldn’t stomach listening to another show from that year when I knew that I had Bruce Hornsby’s official debut as a member of the Grateful Dead waiting for me today.  So I skipped ahead to 1990 for a much more enjoyable experience.

The Dead actually began this six night run at the Garden on the 14th, but with no Bruce.  That show is fine, but tonight’s introduction raises the stakes considerably.  You hear the difference on the second song of this show, the typically uninteresting Walking Blues, which tonight features a charged up band (especially Bob Weir) throttling away with Bruce already wrecking shop on the piano.  The next big moment comes several songs later during Bird Song, which builds to a tremendous crescendo fueled, dare I say it, by Vince’s organ at the end that sounds reminiscent of Brent’s celebrated build-up at the end of Shakedown Street at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in 1985.

The long (for 1990) second set is a little more uneven, due primarily to the song selection (what was apparently the only post-Brent Gimmee Some Lovin’ into All Along the Watchtower.  Really?)  But the selections that cook really take off, including this tasty nugget:  Playin’ in the Band>Crazy Fingers>Uncle John’s Band.  Bruce is all over these songs like he’s been playing them for years, and his interplay with Jerry is natural and exciting to hear.

I could easily stay right here at Madison Square Garden for the next few nights, but since I’ve listened to all these shows before, I might go elsewhere.  For now, enjoy night one of the short-lived Hornsby era on this very good audience recording: