Road Trips, Vol. 2, No. 1: MSG, September '90
Madison Square Garden - New York City
First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2009, Volume 16, #3
Written by John Metzger
Tue March 3, 2009, 06:30 AM CST
No one would have blamed the Grateful Dead if it had canceled its extensive plans for a fall tour in 1990. After all, Brent Mydland had been with the outfit longer than any of its keyboard players, and when he pulled the plug on his own life in late July, he left the band with little time to find a replacement. In the preceding years, though, the Grateful Dead finally had managed to escape from relative obscurity. Fueled by a strange combination of events — including guitarist Jerry Garcia’s resurgence, the ensemble’s longevity, and the commercial prospects of In the Dark as well as the outing’s first single Touch of Grey — the group suddenly found itself commanding audiences that grew larger and larger with each passing day. After decades of merely living from paycheck to paycheck, the members of the Grateful Dead now were running a successful business, and having weathered personnel changes in the past, there was no way the collective was going to allow Mydland’s death to become anything more than a small bump in the road.
The members of the Grateful Dead acted quickly, and after a brief series of auditions, they surprised everyone by selecting Vince Welnick to fill Mydland’s shoes. Welnick’s previous claim-to-fame had been with the Tubes, a group that followed a significantly different approach to performing and recording. Plunged into the midst of the Grateful Dead’s musical maelstrom, he essentially was forced to learn on his own how to fit into the well-established framework of the band. Considering his background, Welnick did an admirable job when he stepped on stage with the outfit in Cleveland and Philadelphia in early September, though it certainly helped that the ensemble’s shows were scripted more tightly than usual. A few nights after he made his official debut with the Grateful Dead, during the second show of a six-night engagement at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, Bruce Hornsby began a two-year run with the collective that not only provided Welnick with additional support, but also bought him more time to learn its repertoire and assimilate himself into its style.
Even before Mydland had died, Garcia had his mind set upon adding Hornsby to the Grateful Dead’s line-up. When he finally convinced his pal to join the group, at least on a temporary basis, it must have seemed like a coup. Not surprisingly, a jolt of electricity shot through band and crowd alike when Hornsby took the stage on September 15, and the subsequent night, which was preserved for posterity on Dick’s Picks, Volume 9, proved to be the most cohesive and consistent performance of the Grateful Dead’s fall tour. There were plenty of other moments, though, that also deserved to be enshrined, and sure enough, Road Trips, Vol. 2, No. 1: MSG, September ’90 culls together an additional slate of highlights from the ensemble’s extended stay at Madison Square Garden.
There is no doubt that, throughout the 1980s, the Grateful Dead had become quite set in its ways. Forced to perform in cavernous arenas, the group lost some of its connection to its audience. Likewise, the hardened existence of life on the road took its toll on the health of the musicians. As a result, the Grateful Dead assumed fewer risks on stage, and the structure for its concerts became clearly defined. The infusion of ideas that Hornsby brought to the table, however, managed to shake the Grateful Dead to its very core. At every turn, he pushed and prodded at the ensemble, and as Road Trips, Vol. 2, No. 1: MSG, September ’90 demonstrates, he spurred the collective’s creative reawakening and helped carry its music to an entirely different level.
Throughout its stay at Madison Square Garden, the Grateful Dead continued to trot out its old warhorses and fan favorites, but it immediately was apparent that there was more at stake than usual. Truckin’ was punchy and vibrant, and freed from the anchor that forever had relegated the song to the band’s opening sets, Let It Grow prospered as Garcia tossed tightly coiled spirals of notes through the shimmering, icy textures that sprang from Welnick’s synthesizers. During a customary pairing of China Cat Sunflower and I Know You Rider, the Grateful Dead settled into a relaxed groove that left plenty of room for improvisation. Hornsby added a touch of New Orleans grandeur to the silvery streams of moonlit melody that Garcia sent dancing through the dense arrangement. Elsewhere, Garcia used his MIDI-enhanced guitar to lace Uncle John’s Band with a flute solo, while horns and saxes playfully drifted through Turn on Your Lovelight.
Since embarking on its fall tour, the Grateful Dead had tackled Playing in the Band on several occasions, which gave Welnick a taste of its freewheeling spirit. Hornsby’s presence, however, leant the band a longer leash with which to work its magic, and on the final two nights of its stint at Madison Square Garden, the Grateful Dead used the song as a thematic touchstone from which to explore the intricate peaks and valleys of its material. Within the jam that followed Let It Grow, for example, Garcia, Hornsby, and Welnick seemed to test the waters as they painted an impressionistic pastiche of the group’s canon. On September 18, even the improvisational foray that had climbed from the giddiness of Foolish Heart provided an indication that, for the first time in years, no one was permitted to coast through a performance.
Coming out of its Space segment on the final night at Madison Square Garden, the Grateful Dead plunged headfirst into the murky depths of Dark Star, its most adventurous song. Although it was relatively tame in comparison to the renditions of the tune that appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the band still managed to cover a lot of ground as it took a leisurely stroll across familiar melodic terrain. Split down the middle by a brief return to Playing in the Band, the latter half of Dark Star pushed slightly further into the abyss. As its central theme disintegrated, the tune conjured the mood of a cosmic radio on the fritz. Yet, order quickly emerged from the chaos as blues-y piano riffs gave way to a repeated rhythmic cadence and the soul-driven sound of a saxophone.
In order to cram as much music as possible onto Road Trips, Vol. 2, No. 1: MSG, September ’90, portions of one show abut sections from another. Although attempts were made to present the material without interrupting its continuity, there are moments when the transitions are apparent because energy levels shift and trains of thought are abandoned. Likewise, the Grateful Dead’s renewed interest spawned a kind of exuberance that was positively youthful, though it also sometimes threatened to get the best of a cast of characters that were still developing methods of communicating. In other words, Road Trips, Vol. 2, No. 1: MSG, September ’90 isn’t a perfect endeavor, nor do its contents supplant the towering achievements of the band’s heyday. Nevertheless, it succeeds in making a strong case that the Grateful Dead’s latter day concerts ought not be dismissed so readily.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
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