Before the sixth song of the first set on March 29, 1990, in the Nassau Coliseum, Weir announced, “Well ok. We got a special guest tonight…You all want to welcome Branford Marsalis.” The applause would have been ten times louder if Dylan, Santana, or Pete Townsend were the special guest. Outside of name recognition as a member of a famous jazz family, it’s likely that few Deadheads were acquainted with Branford’s music. After this evening, he would become an instant legend in the eyes of Deadhead Nation.
Thanks to a Phil Lesh invite, Branford agreed to sit in with the Dead. Even though Branford wasn’t familiar with “Birdsong,” he blew sax that flowed with Jerry’s singing. His experience of touring with Sting came in handy. During the long jam, Branford was in his element, conversing and trading licks with Jerry. Garcia’s radiant smile indicated he was thrilled by the horn maestro’s virtuosity. Branford thought he was done for the night, but the band coaxed him into sitting in for the second set. It was obvious to all that Branford and the Dead were kindred musical spirits and this was an opportunity that had to be explored.
Set two kicks in with “Eyes of the World,” and Branford knocks down sweeping melody lines as the song begins. His confidence is astounding. The “Eyes” tempo is perfect; slower than the speedy versions throughout most of the ’80s. The band creates space for Branford to drop in as he pleases, and as Garcia sings, Branford’s applying brush strokes.
A euphoric buzz filled the coliseum as Deadheads knew a young lion was on stage with the band. Stepping into the first solo, Jerry’s sound is robust and spirited and at the same time, intentionally subdued. As Branford plays in rhythm with the band, Garcia’s solo shares the genetic makeup of “Eyes” with his musical brother. Everything Branford needs to know is there: the emotions, colors, texture, and temperature of the tune. All great improvisers are keen listeners. Although Branford wasn’t familiar with “Eyes” when he stepped on stage, he absorbed the professor’s lesson.
Without any visual or verbal cues, Garcia steps off and Branford glides in at the 3:35 mark. The next 90 seconds comprise my favorite solo by anyone not named Jerry Garcia. With the ease of Coltrane, Branford’s blowing and everyone in the Nassau Coliseum is glowing. Branford’s connecting riffs and licks in a rapturous vacuum à la Garcia in a language that any Deadhead can relish.
After scaling crescendo mountain, Deadheads roar and Jerry and Brent pick up the conversation. Jerry throws out a lead, Branford answers, and Brent pounces on that cue. Brent’s at his best here. This sublime give-and-take lasts ninety seconds, and there’s a final blast of joy from Branford right before Jerry sings, “There comes a redeemer, and he slowly too fades away.”
The first seven minutes of this “Eyes” is so spectacular, it obliterates the remaining ten minutes. Garcia switches on the MIDI effect in the middle of solo two. If you have Branford on stage, I’m not sure why you’d want your guitar to sound like a flute, but that’s the way Jerry was rolling in 1990. Commenting on Jerry’s MIDI experimentation, Branford said, “Jerry found a way to adapt to whatever the situation was and add a color. When he switched to the [MIDI] guitar synth, I never felt he needed it. Intrusion is too strong a word. It obstructed his sound.”
The outro solo contains clever fiddle-faddle between the musicians. The 3-29-90 “Eyes” is extraordinary and transcendent, and it’s also unbalanced because the opening segment soars into another dimension, and then gravity pulls it back to the Nassau Coliseum. What goes up must come down. A few different versions of this masterpiece have been officially released. My favorite mix is the superb recording that appears on the Without a Net compilation.
Reversing the tradition, “Estimated Prophet” follows “Eyes.” Branford’s next astounding solo unfolds in the “Estimated” outro. There are few hints of what’s to come. Suddenly, the band authoritatively launches “Dark Star.” Branford recalls, “They started playing the song and the audience went absolutely apeshit. They went bananas. I’m looking at them going bananas and I’m going, ‘OK, this must be an anthem.’ Then I got all these telephone calls on my private number [from] Dead Heads. The phone would ring and I said, ‘How’d you get this number?’ and they’d say, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’re harmless, we just love the music.’”
Branford had no idea people keep track of these things, but that was the first Estimated Prophet > Dark Star, and the first “Dark Star” of the year. In the prior decade, “Dark Star” was played once in ’81, once in ’84, and four times in late ’89. These offerings don’t come close to matching the majesty of the versions from Europe ’72, but they provided a manic thrill for those on hand. There’s reflexive interaction between Branford and the band in Nassau as they move towards the opening verse. This “Dark Star” is eighteen compelling minutes in length before it goes into Drums. The final segment sounds like Miles, McLaughlin, Shorter, and Corea jamming in a jazz joint.
This was an excerpt from Deadology: The 33 Essential Dates of Grateful Dead History