The Welnick Years (September 1990 – July 1995)

As The Grateful Dead took only 30 trips around the sun, five years is a pretty long time. After Brent Mydland died, Bruce Hornsby and Vince Welnick both played keyboards for The Dead for a year and a half, then Hornsby returned to his solo career, and Welnick carried on alone until the end.

This whole period seems to be treated like a step-child in fan and official appreciations of The Dead’s live music. I certainly had that attitude until very recently. I saw both of these keyboard configurations back in the day, but isolated shows only tell you so much, and since popular opinion reinforced my sense of decline, I never bothered to pursue recordings of this period’s shows. Phil Lesh commenting that the band should have quit a few years earlier than death forced a conclusion didn’t help.

Sure, there were various forms of decline, but they didn’t degrade the band’s performances in some kind of day-by-day way. This was still The Grateful Dead, six extremely talented, grown-up musicians, making music within a long, mutating, intuitive collective sensibility, who played together under the pressure of hundreds of lengthy concerts, in front of millions of audience members. 

Welnick Dead could be amazing – executing songs or jamming. It contrasts with Mydland Dead by being less busy and less thunderous. The climactic Mydland years could sound like everyone soloing at once – one big, loud, shiny machine of music. Welnick Dead seems to have more negative space, and to offer more glimpses of the "jazzy combo" Dead of earlier days. Things can bubble slowly. Momentum can be built on delicate rather than forceful terms. There's more room for just the right note or chord to have the desired effect. Both keyboardists seem more drawn to jazz harmonies than Mydland, and neither tries to be as continuous a dominant element in the music as Mydland – but the choices they make are still very much shapers of the songs. And maybe it's just the era's mixes, but on much of the material I've selected for this blog, the drummers seem to be working to be a single, unobtrusive percussionist, rather than the leaders of a herd of elephants. 

I raise my glass to Vince Welnick and Bruce Hornsby. Thank you for giving us another Grateful Dead that could be as compelling as any of them. Respect.


9 responses
"Nearly every band other than The Dead is measured in years and periodic albums. If The Dead had released one distinctive live album every year of their existence, I suspect we’d all consider each one amazing, different, and canonical. Even the 1986 one. What you can demonstrate in a curated 90-minute album has no meaningful relationship to everything that was played in 80+, two-to-three-hour, consecutive shows. Everyone throws most of their selfies into the trash. You, me, Miles Davis." I realize this is entirely in keeping with your philosophy to date, but for some reason it really hits home with these later years, which I'm generally not interested in at all. It's a bummer that the Dead didn't stick with the original concept for the Road Trips series, which accounted for an outsized number of their '80s and '90s releases. The first two sets from fall '79 and fall '77 are GREAT listens, and if they'd continued with the compilation approach I bet they could've gone some way toward rehabilitating the reputation of the Welnick/Hornsby years. A new official series with, say, two discs of performances from every year would be a concept I could get behind. They could even just start it in 1980. I'd buy them right up. Anyway, I haven't listened to all of these yet, but I'm actually more likely to do so now that there are five of them that I can place in a slightly larger context. Thanks as always!
Tom, we're on the same page. I thought the "Road Trips" approach was great, though they blew it by making limited edition 3-disc sets that they immediately reduced to 2-discs. I don't think all the possible approaches to official curation are mutually exclusive. I like whole shows, too. I've subscribed to "Dave's Picks" for a long time, and I buy a good number of the boxed sets. But that leaves all sorts of holes in the 30 year history, which your 1980-1995 "Road Trips" idea would fix. I guess my position is that there ought to be at least one amazing little brick of music from every year that just hangs around permanently - like "Europe '72." Something that an old guy like me or a new Head can use as a gateway drug to each chapter of live Dead. Something that locks down the legacy at each point. Also, I appreciate your comment about the added value of five of these late-term mixes, touching each year, 1991-1994 (no 1995 mix yet). That's what motivated me to put up an overall post on them: "Hey, you don't need to fear the late years, people! As always, you just gotta poke around."
every time you mention Bruce Hornsby I just think of his solo stuff - when was that? early 90s? i had no idea he had been playing with the Dead. once he hit "pop-stardom" for those few moments it seems all that came before was lost - at least for the top-40 fandom. incredible keyboards, for sure - that's what attracted me to his work (i was classically trained in piano from around 7 years old).
Phoebe, I find Hornsby to be a pretty anodyne solo artist, while being a very impressive and thoughtful musician. He had the right, big ears for The Dead, and he was arguably their most versatile keyboardist of all. I'm curious about his influence on the band during his tenure, since he was doing them a big favor and didn't need them to live his artistic life the way he wanted to. I've heard that he talked truth to the band a few times. I can't get behind a lot of (what I perceive to be) his accordion playing with The Dead, which often seems mush-mouthed and overwhelming to me.
Thank you so much for these mixes! As you've said, they're a great gateway to the gems scattered throughout the Vince years. I've heard some astounding playing because my ears have been opened to this era.
Big fan of your work on the Welnick Era. Recently listened to all of June 1994, and was for the most part pleasantly surprised. I agree with you that much of the negativity surrounding this period is bandwagoning/groupthink, although yes sometimes the vocals are not so great. But I also wonder if some of the negativity is related to Garcia's shift in guitar tone to the almost faux acoustic sound of the Cripe Lightning Bolt. Your thoughts?
Benjamin, I really don't know why there's such a dismissive attitude toward the end-times band. I LOVE all the new tones of the post '89 period, and I like the less dense sound of the final years. Electric-acoustic-sounding is exactly right for a lot of stuff. I'm not even sure if the generally low-to-moderate "hit rate" of quality performances (song by song) is really the answer, because just about every era containing excellence contains a lot of crap. Garcia's singing is certainly problematic, but then again, the group vocals tend to be really great, whereas a correct harmony was rarely to be heard circa 1972-1974, and people are happy to give that chronic awfulness a pass. (I think it would be eye-opening if I made mixes out of the '72-'74 stuff I've CUT - it sucks.) Anyhow, if I'm part of small tribe of 1993-1995 defenders, that's okay with me! Thanks for being in that tribe, too.
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