Thoughts on The Long Strange Trip

Over the weekend I watched the Grateful Dead documentary Long Strange Trip. My expectations have been high for this project ever since Martin Scorsese’s name was attached in 2014. After I heard about the four hour runtime I was elated at what this movie might be. Since the new year the documentary has made the rounds at film festivals. The word definitive has been tossed around. Upon seeing it, I realized I’ve been mistaking the word definitive with the word encyclopedic. Long Strange Trip is definitive of the entity that is the Grateful Dead. It is not however, encyclopedic of it.

To start, the film by Amir Bar-Lev has high credentials. As mentioned earlier, Martin Scorsese who has done some of the best music documentaries of the last half century was involved. In addition, filmmaker Justin Kreutzmann (son of Bill the drummer) who has been an unofficial videographer for the band since the 90s produced this film. Based off the book by Dennis McNally, it not only includes interviews with all four surviving members of the Dead but several more reclusive members of the Dead family including Sam Cutler, Steve Parrish, Brigid Meier, and Trixie Garcia.

The movie appropriately bookends with Jerry Garcia. Jerry is an easy subject. He and Ron Pigpen McKernan founded the band. The former would die 8 short years into the band’s career and it was Jerry’s death that ended the band in 1995. But that story has been the subject of numerous pieces of media. Although Amir Bar-Lev illuminates more flaws In Jerry’s character and lifestyle, it certainly doesn’t paint anything close to his full story, instead only weaving it in tandem with Dead.

That is to say, Jerry Garcia’s story is one that is worth telling. His early life was tragic and unconventional. He was in the epicenter of one of the most tumultuous cultural movements in our country’s history. And with a single focus and songbook, he amassed a business and following that would ultimately crush him.

Long Strange Trip on the surface can be mistaken for a Jerry Garcia document. And as a documentarian I can see how separating The Grateful Dead from Jerry Garcia is a challenge. His decisions, drug use, and personal life directed the band more than any other member. And Bar-Lev’s representation of Jerry Garcia though not complete is very compelling. But clearly Amir is not trying to make a complete Jerry Garcia movie. For anyone who is looking for that story, there are a number of books and a delightful VH1 Jerry Garcia Behind the Music from the early 2000s. And it’s possible the content simply wasn’t there to go further down the rabbit hole. Bar-Lev does talk to Brigid Meier and Trixie Garcia. They are wonderfully insightful but both admit their own questions of both Jerry and the wonder of the Grateful Dead. It’s possible Amir felt it was a lost cause. The remaining members of the Dead can be overly dramatic about things. Jerry’s writing partner Robert Hunter is a recluse. Though interviewing the long list of woman Jerry Garcia was married to or romantically involved with may make for a more thorough document, it muddies the narrative.

It’s commendable that Amir was able to finagle his studio to make a four hour documentary. To create a piece of media that dives further than surface level on the Grateful Dead would be a daunting undertaking that would take time. Their 30 year history spans multple distinct periods and depending on your counting up to 14 members. To dissect any one part of the Dead’s mystery whether it be the Acid Tests, biographies, the resurgence in the eighties, the crowd control, or the band’s tragic downfall could easily fill four hours and be entertaining. The movie works this question: Does it effect the band as a whole? If yes, it can be left in, if not leave it out. That is the only way you can leave out people like Bruce Hornsby, Dan Healy, Candace Brightman, and shockingly Vince Welnick. That is also how the death of Brent Mydland can only framed as a juncture eventually leading to Jerry Garcia’s fall back into heroin. Although gripping, as I watched this movie I found myself thinking ‘Oh, I guess we’re not going to touch on that’.

I’m a sensible person and realize that to be definitive with the Grateful Dead you’d need to invest a lot more time and money. And although a multi-season show about the Grateful Dead would appease the fanbase, but such a lengthy documentary would not be as beautiful as Long Strange Trip. Any more length or indulging the fanbase may not have mass appeal nor be as strong of a story. Additionally, many of the key players have passed on and their story cannot be framed in their own words. The definitive Grateful Dead documentary may be too ambitious of a project and conceivably to late.

With those critiques aside, the end result is captivating. Amir was able to pull a delightful amount of material from the vaults. The Grateful Dead have released most of their footage in one form or another so it’s still surprising to see something new. My favorite was the extra footage from the Grateful Dead Movie. Bar-Lev spends an unusually long amount of time focusing around the early 70s and specifically their time in Europe. I suspect it’s because former road manager Sam Cutler is such good interview but also because that’s where most of the never before seen footage lied. Surprisingly there isn’t much new footage towards the end. I was even more perplexed as to why they included fan shot footage from the last show but didn’t include the pro-shot video which is readily available.

Divided into six chapters. The movie points it’s focus at six different topics around the Dead while moving through their 30 year career only moving back when it needs to within topic. Threaded throughout is archival footage of Jerry Garcia waxing poetically about the ideals of drugs, music, and what he hopes his legacy will be.

In addition to a wealth of new content, the soundtrack selection and visual artwork are outstanding. Amir and his team’s chose to soundtrack the film with concert recordings. They did so with period accuracy and a selective ear pulling the most gripping interpretations. The Dead’s music has always been more dynamic and emotional live and to use it was almost a parlor trick in how hypnotizing it is when accompanied with the narrative. Visually, Grateful Dead iconography can always be hit or miss. Being and early explorer or concert poster art and symbolism, the Dead’s art style stretches beyond dancing bears and lighting bolt skulls. Those that try to expand upon it may find their work jarring and out of place. The art direction hits the nail on the head. It’s clear that the people behind the film gave it the upmost respect to the fans to get it right.

I think this movie is beautiful and it rejuvenates why I loved this band. I wrote on a forum that we’ll continue to get the more tell-all stories as the surviving members move further down the road. And that’s fine, I’ll continue to read Grateful Dead news until it stops being written. But as Jerry hopes in the movie, it’s inspiring to see this continue on in some form or fashion. Whether it be looking at the band itself or what their music and legacy may become.

My Years of Umphrey’s McGee

It occurred to me that all of these posting circulate around the Grateful Dead. They’ve been a bit distant from my experiences in the jamband world. I wanted to talk about my time following a band around. I had that right of passage similar to Phish or the Dead. But it was with neither. It was with Umphrey’s McGee.

My college years coincided with Phish’s breakup between 2004 and 2009. I don’t anguish in not having Phish around during the period of time. Yes, those would have been great touring years. But I saw other bands. In fact, I don’t know that I would have seen as much diverse music as I did if Phish were around. I cherish those years not only as my coming of age but as a golden age for other bands to blossom. But that is not to say there wasn’t one band I loved to see more than the others.

On Halloween of my Junior year in high school my friend Brooks convinced a group of us into seeing a band called Umphrey’s McGee. I knew nothing about this band. To prepare myself I listened to a little music and blindly stared at their setlists. From what I could gather, they didn’t shy away from playing covers and they played a song called Jimmy Stewart a lot. Being a Halloween show for a band I had never heard before, it was a bit overwhelming but incredibly fun. I don’t know if I was enamored but I was definitely intrigued to want more. I started collecting tapes and after seeing them in parking lot show the next year I was hooked.

For those unfamiliar, Umphrey’s McGee was founded in South Bend Indiana in 1997. The band consisted of Brendan Bayliss on guitar, Ryan Stasik on bass, keyboardist Joel Cummins, and drummer Mike Mirro. In 2000 the band added lead guitar player Jake Cinninger and auxiliary percussionist Andy Farag. In 2002, Mike Mirro left the group and was replaced with Kris Myers. The lineup has since remained unchanged.

That Halloween show was 10 months after Kris joined the band. In their documentary Reel to Real released in 2016, the band alludes to this replacement allowing a revitalization of the band’s music and energy. They were a band with upward momentum. They were a six year old band with two records selling self printed T-shirts and stickers. They were scruffy a bit loose and fun. And whereas many bands lore had already been written, Umphrey’s was just forming. We could be part of the book as it was being written.

Umphrey’s does have their unique story to tell and show to put on. In the wake of Phish’s breakup, a handful of improvisation oriented bands saw an increase of their fanbase. Money that was once spent on Phish summer tour could be spent on the booming festival scene or more shows from a single band. Within that community Umphrey’s McGee was the most progressive and arguably most technically proficient. Combining that proficiency with improvisation, composition, and pop sensibilities across all genres makes them a band to marvel at. Combing the right amount of heart, humor, and spectacle, I always left their shows with a smile on my face. And in a community where transferring that energy to a record is an uphill climb, they seem to it better than the rest. Rolling Stone after the break-up of Phish declared that “Umphrey’s McGee have become odds-on favorites in the next-phish sweepstakes”. Regardless of how they felt about that title, as someone who has always felt a little low on cultural capital, there was a bit of a thrill seeing a band in a parking lot that Rolling Stone felt would be playing amphitheaters sooner than later.

There was a strong community too. Their forum the Bort was an interactive, tight knit, but welcoming group. Umphrey’s would occasionally disseminate information through their online postings. I remember reading the bands pleas to stop bringing glowsticks to concerts and to help find Jake’s lost licks book. They were a reachable band. I would eventually meet all the members in one way or another. While attending Indiana State I had a chance to interview Andy Farag and later published that interview in the school’s IQ Magazine. Later I met both Andy and Kris and watched a Terry Bozzio show in LA. They weren’t rockstars. Just guys on the road trying to make something of their music.

Umphrey’s tours a lot. During their 2003 to 2009, they were playing upwards of 130 shows a year not including side shows. Going to an Umphrey’s show was absurdly accessible, especially for someone in the heart of their home turf. They would play multiple nights. They would string shows close to one another and tickets were affordable. On occasion by happenstance, the band had an uncanny ability to be in town whenever I traveled. Because of all this, I saw at least 3 dozen shows between 2003 and 2009. Some of the highlights I was able to watch were that first Halloween show, a great pair of shows at Navy Pier in Chicago, and New Year’s 2005.

Unlike other bands with grueling touring schedules, Umhprey’s discovered an avenue for writing new music on the road through their Jimmy Stewart and Jazz Odyssey jams. In short, pre-selecting riffs or musical ideas and working them out live on stage provided a space and time to work and formulate songs while touring. This allowed the band to be prolific. Releasing 6 studio records, 2 solo records, 3 live records and 3 DVDs from 2002 to 2012 gave a wealth of content to digest. In addition, Umphrey’s has always welcomed and encouraged live taping of their shows. With unique setlists, Jimmy Stewarts, and covers there was always some riveting new content to discover.

In addition to new content, Umph does covers. They do A LOT of covers. But unlike Phish or the Dead who took particular covers into their repertoire and made them their own, Umphrey’s utilized them as an ice breaker. Spanning everything from GZ and hustlas to Rosanna by Toto Umhprey’s would cover equally well. Carefully placed in a setlist, they would always send a jolt of energy back into a show.

I had a lot of love for that band. And that is why I’m a little surprised I have I haven’t seen them since 2009. I’ve thought a lot about what happened. Whether I grew out of the band, the shows became a bad experience, or if I started to dislike the band on a personal level have all crossed my mind as reasons. Ultimately I attribute to it being the major loss of camaraderie between those friends whom I’d seen the band since high school. After graduating college many of my friends moved away and Umphrey’s was no longer a reunion. I did go to shows alone and reflecting back, I’d make friends at those shows with those around me. It was always a positive community to be a part of.

I’ve replayed their records and tapes in a hope to rekindle a desire to see them again. I’m happy to report that the blistering Triple Wide off of the Live from Murat album forced me to stay in my car and listen to it play through. Hopefully they’ll play in my area soon or fate will make it convenient once again.

Jerry Garcia’s Custom Guitars

I have more than a couple of reasons to be fascinated with Jerry Garcia’s guitars. Though Jerry is most identified with the lightening bolt guitars he played for the last 15 years of his career, he used over two dozen different guitars on stage with the Grateful Dead. Using a variety of guitars isn’t unique. But Jerry sought a guitar that could do everything. He was not one to switch guitars between songs and rarely switched them in shows at all. He was fiercely loyal to any guitar he felt was up to the tasks. In addition Jerry’s tonal journey also spans the history of the electric guitar itself. He began playing guitar only a few years after the Telecaster came to market and passed away playing with a MIDI pickup built into his guitar. And the wake of guitars within that path is something I find worth diving into.

Jerry Garcia played a variety of Les Pauls and Stratocasters early in his career switching them out on an almost monthly basis. However by 1971, and unsatisfied with off the shelf guitars Jerry with the help of Alembic guitars decided to try modding a Strat to his liking.

Jerry’s first modded guitar was Alligator. Alligator is a 1957 ash strat with a 1963 maple fretboard. It gets it’s name from the alligator sticker on it’s pickguard. The guitar was purchased and given to Jerry by Graham Nash. It was a thank you to the numerous studio sessions he had played on. Alembic guitars, a custom builder in San Francisco added a stoptail bridge system similar to a Gibson guitar, removed a tone knob, added a powered booster into the guitar. Jerry played Alligator on and off for three years. Though the shortest run of the guitars we’ll discuss, it holds a place in notoriety for Jerry making it his own. I believe Alligator is still owned by Jerry’s Estate though I have no idea where it is. I absolutely thing Fender should release a tribute model.

Through his experiments with Alligator, Jerry was a guinea pig for at least one Alembic guitar. Alembic was a stellar bass guitar company but their guitar designs left something to be desired. An employee their named Doug Irwin took it upon himself to redesign the Alembic guitar and his first design ended up in Garcia’s hands sometime in 1972. Encouraged by the guitars playability and feel Jerry commissioned his first custom guitar. Delivered in 1973, the guitar that would become Wolf was nothing like Jerry had played before.

Built from alternating layers of purpleheart and highly figured Maple, Wolf is a monument to both wood craftsmanship and luthiery. Taking aesthetics from his time at Alembic, Irwin dropped many of the features successful in their bass designs but detrimental to their guitars. Starting with an asymmetrical cutaway, it’s through neck design offered Jerry an extended sustain over his stratocasters without the weight of his Les Pauls. Irwin also included a top mounted pickup cavity for Jerry to switch from humbuckers to single coils with few modifications.

Jerry immediately pleased with the instruments and commissioned more from Irwin. He would play Wolf exclusively from 1973 to 1975. After several tumbles and damage to it’s finish, Jerry returned the guitar to Irwin. During it’s 2 year break off the road, Wolf underwent an extreme overhaul of it’s electronics. Always ahead of his time, Jerry desired more tonal options from his guitar and asked Irwin to incorporate an effects loop, split coils, and 3 tone knobs on his revision of Wolf. In addition, Doug was able to permanently inlay the Wolf sticker that had given the guitar it’s name.

Wolf returned once again in 1977 in time to play with the Grateful Dead in front of the pyramids of Egypt and for the closing of the famed Winterland Ballroom. Jerry would play his beloved guitar for another 3 years until it was replaced by Doug next guitar, Tiger. However, when Jerry decided to experiment with a MIDI setup in the late 80s, he again turned to his faithful Wolf to take up the challenge. Installing a Roland MIDI pickup and incorporating a module, Jerry would continue to utilize Wolf as a back up and MIDI guitar until it’s last show in 1993.

While wolf dominated Jerry’s guitars during the 70s, there were others. Most notably was Jerry’ foray into Aluminum neck guitars. If you’ve ever talked guitars with me for any length, I’m sure I’ve talked about my interest in aluminum as a guitar material. Their necks offer a wealth of sustain and tone that you simply cannot find any place else. Travis Bean was an aluminum worker living in San Francisco who decided to design and build guitars using an aluminum neck that would become a center block for the guitar. The pickups would mount directly into the block. He would then use a solid 2 piece body around the block to create the guitar. It’s a truly outside of the box idea that works surprisingly well.

Jerry’s Bean guitars are essentially factory models incorporating his unique electronics setups. I’m a bit perplexed that Jerry would return to a factory made guitar but not surprised that it was an aluminum neck that made him do so. I am curious why it was so quickly abandoned with the return of Wolf. Jerry played at least 3 Beans during this time but after the Travis Bean guitars dissolved, Jerry did not look to keep playing these engineering wonders and simply gave the guitars away and abandoned the platform altogether.

Jerry’s next guitar Tiger is consider the Doug Irwin’s magnum opus. Taking seven years to build, Tiger was both beautifully ornate and offered a huge amount of tonal options. For Tiger, Doug incorporating a similar sandwich design as wolf except using Cocabola and maple. Stunning fretboard inlays, the elaborate inlay on the back, and the tiger inlay giving the guitar it’s name add to the beauty of this functional piece of art.

The electronics pick up where wolf left off. They incorporate Jerry’s effects loop and split coils. It’s binding is made of brass which though stained from years of playing offer an amazing neck feel. When finished, Tiger would be a set neck design similar to a Les Paul. Both Tiger and it’s follow-up are designed as such.

Tiger is the guitar most recognizable to Deadheads for it’s signature lightening bolt cutaways. All of Jerry’s guitars moving forward would incorporate this shape. Through the years aside from pickup changes, Tiger remained relatively unchanged for the decade it was the main guitar. When delivered, the preamp built into the guitar were 18 volt run on two 9 volt batteries. Jerry preferred a lower voltage and the preamp board was redesigned leaving extra space in the guitar. Rumors have circulated that Jerry would store his drugs in this additional room though the rumors are unfounded. Another misreport is that this was the last guitar Jerry would play live. From every picture and every discussion I’ve had from people who were there, Jerry finished the show with Rosebud the next guitar built by Doug.

If Tiger is the museum piece, Rosebud was the workhorse. Pushed out and delivered as a back up in 1989, and got everything right that he was unhappy with on Tiger. Doug only had to incorporate the MIDI pickup as new electronics and was able to route out portions of the body to make it a lighter guitar for Jerry. He also abandoned the brass binding that had already began to wear and stain on Tiger after 10 years of use. Rosebud would be Jerry’s main guitar for the rest of his life and would be the last guitar he would play live.

After a 20 year relationship with Doug Irwin, 1993 Jerry said he “Found the guitar he’s been searching for his whole life”. Ironically, it wasn’t Doug’s. Lightning Bolt was built by Steven Cripe a Florida boat maker and part time luthier. It was the 7th guitar built by Cripe and built totally by feel. Copying Irwin’s lightning bolt cutaways it incorporates the through neck design of Jerry’s Wolf with less layers for the body and more layers for the neck. Jerry was in love with the pliability and weight of the guitar and immediately took it to be modified for stage use. Making it’s debut in 1993, it would be Jerry’s main guitar until he passed. As I mentioned earlier, it did make a return to the shop for the 1995 tour where Rosebud returned and was not used during Jerry’s last shows.

Cripe would meet Jerry only once. Jerry expressing love for his guitar commissioned a back up along with “anything else Cripe thought he’d like”. Steven would deliver Jerry’s backup rather quickly in the form of Top Hat. Jerry though pleased with it would never play it live. Steven passed away not long after Jerry in a fireworks accident that annihilated his shop. Two guitars that would make it out of the shop were supposedly started as Jerry Garcia projects. First is a 3rd of the lightening bolt series later named Tribute. Though similar to Lightning and Top Hat, Steven closed this design’s book with a beautiful diamond inlay on the fretboard. The last guitar is named Eagle and would have been an interesting Garcia guitar. In a strat body semi-hollow body through neck design, it’s a breathtaking guitar with an eagle inlay on the body. Unfortunately we won’t know what would have been.

I have gotten some flack for my fascination with these instruments and I do walk a line between them being pieces of wood and relics. But Jerry loved these instruments. And in my research I like to think that I can at least see what he loved about them. And maybe that’s a good enough reason to care.

 

Trading Tapes

In 2005 my family got their first cable and we were upgraded to a much faster internet connection. Although this was overall a positive upgrade, it was the beginning of the end for a hobby and community that I had deeply invested into. I don’t know anyone who didn’t have a collection of something between middle school and college. I have a set of Bunnykin figurines stashed in my garage that my wife hasn’t been able to give up. I once helped a friend move an unhealthy amount of beanie babies. I still have a friend rounding out that shot glass collection. But me, I was a tape trader.

Tape trading is the activity of collecting live music concerts on CD or cassettes and then duplicating those concerts for friends or to trade with other people. Podcaster Harris Wittels said collecting these shows fills the portion of your brain mostly reserved for sports statistics or Star Wars trivia. Towards the beginning of those years I had a reputation for being the guy who had the show, could get the show, or knew of the show. I don’t think I have ever been involved or committed to any community as deeply. I’m also surprised at how quickly my passion died off after moving to college. As I look back at the massive undertaking and the amount of content that passed through my fingers, it is bittersweet not being in involved anymore.

The original roots of tape trading began in the mid-seventies. Based around music with a unique live performances tapers were eager to capture what has happening on stage and eventually a network of show collectors and recorders was formed. With cassette tapes and tape duplicators hitting mass markets, the ability to get involved in trading became more accessible to even the casual fan and trading within the jam band scene boomed.

Before the internet, magazines like Relix or The Golden Road would offer a penfriend network to connect through. I could get into the idiosyncrasy of taper equipment and it’s evolution through the years but it’s a bit boring. But the culture and production line from show to home has remained relatively unchanged since the 80s. A taper with his rig will go to a show and record it using (typically) a pair of mics into some sort of recorder attempting to capture the essence of that particular show. They will then take it home and process it as they see fit until they have a listenable version of the show to their liking. They will then disseminate that show how they see fit either offering it as a torrent, giving copies to friends, offering to send copies on a website, or just keeping it for their own personal enjoyment.

I had always known about the concept of tape trading but never knew how to get into it. Through middle school, my parents were not entirely on board to help me talk to strangers on the internet to trade Grateful Dead shows. I remember going into a bootleg record store and finding a bunch of live shows in the back and thinking ‘Oh I get it! This must be it. Buy these, trade them around.’ But was wrong. I did start freshman year of High School about the time Phish ended their hiatus in 2003. That was also the time I started seeing shows with my friends. And after going to these shows, I wanted to have them. The internet just wasn’t at a point where high quality audio files could be downloaded in a timely manner yet. The only way you could get them quickly was to use US Mail.

There are two ways to start massing a collection. First, B&P or blanks and Postage. You could get onto a place like Phishhook.com or any of the other trader websites and post that you are looking for a particular show. You’d find someone willing to burn them for you and you would mail them an empty mailer envelope with postage on it and blank discs. That person would then burn these CDs for you and mail them back only costing the burner his time. The second way to build your collection was through Trees and Vines. Someone would offer up a show or a group of shows on a forum. Then in the order of signing up, you would receive the discs, burn them, and then mail them to the next person in line. I signed up for tons of these over the years and picked up some of my favorite shows from saying, sure why not? Looks interesting.

Over time, you would build a list and through email and forums meet up with like minded people to send discs back and forth through the mail. There are some rules to trading. I broke all the cardinal sins on my first trade. First, don’t trade anything copyrighted. The reason any band allows tapers is a hope to grow their fan base and not infringe on fans purchasing their official releases. This became a gray area around 2005 when the Grateful Dead argued that none of their shows recorded from the soundboard should be traded. This was a big point of contention but we’ll get into that later.

Second, don’t write on the discs. Everyone has their own method of filing or special cover they like to do, don’t take that away from them. Over time I met a guy who would make disc covers and liner notes for his favorite shows. Others would write the setlist or have a very specific format. My uncle gave me some tapes he had from a Grateful Dead Chicago Rosemont show which had beautiful hand drawn artwork. Despite getting rid of most of my CDs, I still kept those tapes.

Third, format should be Flac or SHN in a paper envelope on a Sony or Taiyo Yuden CD. It probably wasn’t a topic most people thought about, but the quality of CDs and their longevity was a concern during the early 2000s. My first big CD case was lined in this awful plastic that destroyed all the CDs that were in there over a couple of years. In hindsight, believing that CD-R discs were going to be a long term solution for data storage is kind of silly. Sonys and Yuden discs were considered to be some of the longest lasting and most durable CDs on the market and they still became scratched or flaked. I think we all learned to live with each CDs quirks back then. But as a trader, it was assumed that you could burn a flawless copy of anything you were offering.

Lastly, you should know where your shows came from. I was happy if high quality shows came into my procession but I never sought out the cleanest of clearest recordings. Some people do. Some collectors in fact are very particular about what microphones were used, how they were recorded and transferred. I never really cared but I’ll admit I can look at a source before downloading a show and predict fairly well how it will sound.

At my high point, I had hundreds of shows from The Grateful Dead, Phish, Medeski Martin and Wood, Umphrey’s McGee, Moe., Miles Davis, and more. I’ve always been amazed at the amount of content that is out there. Much later I met a guy who casually mentioned he was at a Jimi Hendrix show in Dallas and we were both astonished that it was a recorded show that I happen to have a copy of. Sometime into year 2 or 3, two people had offered up their entire cassette collections if I simply paid the postage. Although by 2003 cassettes were a bit dated, I only had a cassette player in my car. I would grab a bag of tapes anytime I’d jump in the car and listen to any random Phish show. I totaled them up at one point that I had over 150 complete Phish shows on cassette alone.

As with anything, there was a desire to cut out the middle man. As cable internet became more prevalent, torrents became the faster way to get content. Tapers would load shows up within a day or two and could be downloaded on sites like BT.Etree.org. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, the Grateful Dead’s archivists had put nearly every Grateful Dead show up on Archive.org. In another marvel of innovation, bands like Moe. And Umphrey’s McGee were offering concert CDs produced on professional duplicators as you were leaving a your show. For $20, you could have a un-tradable yet flawless copy of the show you just attended.

As more of us moved to directly downloading our shows, some websites tried to keep the community going. Some websites requested you have an equal amount of uploads as you did downloads. If you were taking, you needed to be giving. Others attempted to keep their most prized recordings off of the downloading websites. This isn’t anything new. The Grateful Dead over their 30 year career have some runs of shows that are sonically better for one reason or another. And as the community of traders grew, so did the desire to keep these tapes from as prized possessions.

And it was a protection of that community along with the Grateful Dead’s desire to maintain value in their collection of live shows that the Grateful Dead decided to pull all of their soundboard quality shows from immediate download. This became a large point of contention within the community. Many understood it. As a non-touring entity, the Dead’s merchandise and CD sales were the most valuable portions of their legacy. Others were angered that a collections largely maintained the fan base was being taken back by the band to officially release at a later date. In addition, The Dead’s own operators would often let fans plug into their board not thinking of the ramifications later on. Ultimately a compromise was made where fan recorded shows are downloadable, soundboard recordings are available for streaming only.

By the time the Dead drama had started, I had already moved to college. Having my own computer and via the networking within my dorms I phased out of the trading community pretty quickly. I had enough CDs that I wasn’t listening to and was slowly archiving onto hard drives and Ipods. Eventually, through moving and carelessness most of my collection became scratched and unreliable. The last trade I did I was embarrassed that my Grateful Dead 1987 was damaged, ended up re-downloading the whole show and resending. Afterward I thought, what’s the point? In a fond farewell to the cassette collection, I took them all on tour for Phish in 2009. I handed out most of them during the setbreak storm at Deer Creek and to see the smiles on faces is something I’ll never forget. A kid who also only had a cassette player in his car took most of them. I felt they went to a good home.

Yo Vinnie

Yo Vinnie

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Vince Welnick, the 4th and final full time keyboard player for the Grateful Dead. His tenure is not my favorite time with the Dead and his song Samba in the Rain is one of my least liked Dead songs. But when I started listening to The Dead, I remember Vince had the notorious distinction of surviving the curse of the Grateful Dead keyboardists. And although that was ultimately not the case, for someone like me who felt they had missed the party he was a living relic.

The more I listen to Vince’s work, the more I like him for his work with The Tubes. I can only think of a handful of bands that can be labeled as quasi-pornographic on their Wiki page. The Tubes spanned from the early pure punk ‘White Punks on Dope’, to peaking with the top-10 hit ‘She’s a Beauty’ produced by Toto’s Steve Lukather. In 1980 they were also featured in Xanadu with Olivia Newton John. They were a progressive experimental rock group with a wild live show. The band with literally something for everyone.

Aside from his infamous first band, he was a great keyboard player. He was classically trained and was a great fit for a band as funky and hard sounding as The Tubes. Continuing down that path, Vince could have been a great sideman. His post Tubes career saw him working with the producer Todd Rundgren but unfortunately Todd did not not tour enough to pay the bills. So somehow Vince found himself auditioning for the Grateful Dead.

Previous to Vince joining the band, the keyboard spot was held by Brent Mydland. Brent had joined in 1980 after piano player Keith Godchaux and his wife Donna decided to depart the band to regroup their marriage. Brent brought the band through a revitalization. He was already playing with Bobby when he was called up and immediately changed the tone of the band playing electric piano and organ. Though only in the band for 10 years, he is third behind Jerry and Bobby in song credits and his vocals are easily picked out on any Dead recording.

Brent died of a heroin overdoes in 1990. He was the third Grateful Dead keyboardist to die young. His death was a huge blow personally, musically, and possibly professionally. Despite their share of tragedy, Brent was the first current member to pass away. The Grateful Dead had also been touring nonstop since 1976 and felt they could not stop at the risk of putting many of their friends out or work. To not cancel their upcoming fall tour the Dead immediately went about finding a replacement.

The details about Vince’s audition are murky. But after the death of Brent, the story is the auditions were small and quick. Vince was hired because he could sing third part harmonies and had a wide vocal range. The Dead were very generous towards Vince’s membership. He was given a large signing bonus and was listed as a full member upon starting. The Dead was a money making operation in the early 90s and Vince saw the profits. It was a huge turnaround from someone living in a barn considering a life off of the grid.

Vince played with the Dead from 1990 until the last show in 1995. I don’t think he ever hit his stride. The first couple of years as he learned his parts he was supplemented with pianist and long time Dead collaborator Bruce Hornsby. Bruce left the group during the summer of 1992 leaving only 3 years for Vince as the solo keyboard player. It’s also been rumored that like Brent and Keith before him, Vince was asked not to play in the style or tone of his predecessors and instead find his own sound. Vince’s choice of keyboards is a point of contention. His tone is one of the reasons many Deadheads site him as their least favorite keyboard player. Again, given more time I would have liked to have seen where he ended up.

After Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. Vince joined Bob Weir’s Ratdog. Battling depression from the loss of his friend and a cancer diagnosis, Vince attempted suicide around Christmas of that year while on tour. He was immediately dropped from the band and never played with them again.

Vince recovered, got into rehab, and was put on anti-depressants. He seemed to be in a good place starting his own band The Missing Man Formation and recording his own material. In his post recovery years Vince discussed how his suicide attempt understandably put a rift between him and his former band. He sites being barred from using the Grateful Dead rehearsal space and studios as a result. But there are conflicting reports to how manic and obsessive his desire to play with his former band. Rumors of him calling the Dead offices obsessively with ideas for reunions and wrote music to unreleased lyrics have been mentioned.

Vince would play with both Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart in the late nineties. But in 2002 when the Dead hosted a family reunion with all Dead associated band and the four other members reunited, they excluded Vince. There are two distinct different omissions here. First, the four original members excluded Vince from their touring reunion. Second, they omitted him and his band from the family festival entirely.

I can’t fault the band for the decision to not include Vince in the band. They went with Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti. Both were logical choices. Bruce was once a touring member and his style fit with The Dead. Jeff grew up in the school of the Grateful Dead and comparing him to a minor league player getting called up to the majors isn’t too off. Though Vince did hold the piano bench last, he never truly gelled with the band. There just wasn’t enough time to see what would have developed.

The omission from the reunion was rather brutal. Bobby and Billy have been pretty public about their issues with Vince. I can’t remember which one said it, but the sentiment was along that lines that if he was allowed backstage, he would have walked out there with them and forced himself on stage. That may be the case, you never know he was never given the chance. I can speculate what conversations were or were not had but at the end of the day it’s either that they were harsh and possibly vindictive or that Vince was so manic that a clean break was the best decision. Either way it’s sad to watch.

I’ve read books on the band, watching interviews and hearing stories I get that the band had a history of letting people deal with their own problems away from everyone else. It was an unwritten rule of deal with your own problems privately. It started as a tradition when Pigpen cut ties with the band when he was dying and why Keith and Donna left when they were having trouble. It’s how Phil found his wife and sobriety and why it took a coma to get Jerry clean. Vince didn’t play by those rules. He was too new and too needy to continue to be included.

In hindsight, Vince’s membership was a bit too hasty. Brent had big shoes to fill. He had the longest tenure of anyone at the piano bench and arguably contributed more than any other keyboardist. I think they should have asked Bruce to do his temporary stint and figured it out from there. Perhaps they would have found someone who was a better fit. Regardless, I’m not entirely sure Vince would have stayed on if Jerry had lived. It’s easy to point to Jerry’s death as a start but it really could have been anything.

Vince committed suicide in one of the most horrific ways possible in the summer of 2006. Bobby and Phil gave heartfelt tributes. I believe that they sincerely wished they could have done more. They were really pushed into an inescapable association with someone who had demons they weren’t equipped to deal with.

In his last years, Vince floated around between his own band and sitting in with Grateful Dead cover bands, and the festival circuit. I’m curious what Vince liked so much about the Dead that it became his focus. It’s hard to believe he found any kinship with anyone aside from Jerry. The music was outside of Vince’s wheelhouse and though he played it a lot, it was a short time to his overall career. Was it the fame? It’s possible. I’m sure Vince received more accolades during his time in the band than any other point in his career. I’m just surprised that a tumultuous 5 years with a band filled with stress and personal problems would want to be the basis for the rest of your career.

Regardless whether he should have been there or whether he was mistreated, he was there and his alienation is self evident. I’m sure that by now, I would have seen him and been one of the many Deadheads who thanked him and been able to walk away with a story about his kind spirit. That’s a common thread when researching Vince, he was always kind.