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.
- Playing with jazz musicians (1993-1994, Welnick)
- Improvisation during the month of the final “Dark Stars” (1994, Welnick)
- Blues-boogies and subtlety (1991, Hornsby and Welnick)
- A nearly perfect second set (1992, Welnick)
- Highlights from an almost randomly-chosen show (1993, Welnick)