On the 29th anniversary of Brent’s death, here’s a tribute that contains excerpts from Deadology, and quick thoughts on some of his most memorable performances.
Brent Mydland’s tenure as Grateful Dead keyboardist began in Spartan Stadium, San Jose, on April 22, 1979. Brent was in Weir’s solo band, and he had two weeks of studio practice with the Dead before his debut. Some Deadheads have identified 1977 as the year when the group began to pursue a more conventional arena rock sound, although stamping these sonic crusaders with a label as banal as arena rockers is absurd. But the music was transforming with the times, and a more structured motif of Grateful Dead weirdness emerged.
Mydland’s Hammond B-3 organ and superb backing vocals energized the band. During his era, there were minimal creative innovations for the Dead, and there was a limited amount of new original songs compared to the abundance of new compositions from the Keith era. Although, this had nothing to do with the change at keyboards. With the help of John Perry Barlow, Mydland contributed seven new tunes to the Dead’s last three studio efforts. However, Brent is best remembered for his live contributions during his eleven-year run, which ended with a fatal drug overdose on July 26, 1990.
The Spartan Stadium show on 4-22-79 is a solid performance and extended workout as the band introduced Brent to standard material. They played twenty-four songs, four more than the average for the year. The biggest surprise of the night was the double encore of “U.S. Blues” followed by a crisp performance of “Shakedown Street.” The overall sound was more synthesized, but the rest of the band seemed unaffected by the change, carrying on as if it were just another show. Brent’s vocals and Hammond B-3 blended in effortlessly, although it took some Keith fans years to get used to Brent, and some were never fond of his sound at all.
After opening set two with I Need a Miracle > Bertha > Good Lovin’, Scarlet > Fire is the hottest performance from Brent’s debut. The “Scarlet” outro fizzled prematurely into “Fire,” and it was here that Brent and Jerry bonded as the intro jam materialized. Garcia boiled, bobbed, and weaved on the swishing, cushioned mound of Brent’s organ sound. The mingling of the Mu-Tron III filter and the Hammond B-3 added an extra dimension to one of the band’s great rhythmic numbers.
Madison Square Garden 9-21-82
The transition into “Crazy Fingers” is magic, one of the coolest segues I’ve ever heard. These ’82 versions of “Crazy Fingers” are richer than the ’76 offerings, and Brent’s keyboard is an important ingredient in that mix. This instrumental intro has an abracadabra, sprinkling pixie dust aura. Garcia’s moved as he restates the opening theme. Half of the Garden is cheering, the other half is breathless in suspended anticipation. “Your rain falls like crazy fingers.” As Jerry lets Hunter’s lyrics fly, Madison Square Garden is the happiest joint in the galaxy. “Crazy Fingers” has all the ideal and idiosyncratic Grateful Dead ingredients: evocative lyrics, a fleeting and hypnotic melody, and pure Jerry on guitar. After Garcia’s melancholy between-verse solo, he starts singing the wrong word for a split second, recovers, and delivers the remaining chorus as beautifully as he’s ever sung. The almost blown lyric is a lovely mole on a gorgeous face.
The emotion in Jerry’s voice on the last verse stops time in its tracks. “Midnight on a carousel ride. Reaching for the gold ring down inside. Never could reach. It just slips away but I try.” The outro solo rides the enchanted vibe and virtuosity, and unexpectedly dashes into “Me and My Uncle,” the most-performed Dead song of all time. “Uncle” never received a grander intro than it did on this night.
10-12-84 Augusta, Maine
“Cold Rain and Snow” and Lost Sailor > Saint of Circumstance provide an enticing start to set two. The next revelation of listening to this show was Brent’s performance of “Don’t Need Love” in the fourth spot. It’s an original written by Brent that was played a handful of times between ’84 and ’86. I was disappointed by this selection in the moment. After revisiting the tapes, I couldn’t get “Don’t Need Love” out of my mind. The tune has a haunting, hypnotic groove, and it features some heartfelt, bluesy singing by Brent. It’s a nice mood piece that could have become a substantial song if some lyrics were added or if the band took time to work on it.
3-29-90 Nassau Coliseum Eyes of the World
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.”
3-31-88 Fire on the Mountain Brendan Byrne Arena
This is an extraordinary Fire on the Mountain. The Dead had a nice run of Fires in March 1988. Check out 3-16-88. The 3-31 Brendan Byrne Fire features a spectacular first solo from Jerry. Towards the end of the solo, Jerry unleashes a lightning run, pauses, does it again with a slight variation, and after another pause, lightning strikes a third time. In solo two it's the Brent and Jerry show. Jerry starts a sentence and Brent finishes his thoughts—an advanced call and response by two musical brothers who had a special bond on stage. I could listen to the 3-31-88 Fire repeatedly without ever getting bored.
9-24-82 Syracuse Far From Me
This is the night I discovered what a great little tune Far From Me is. In Syracuse, it was an entertaining prelude to Playing > Crazy Fingers to open set two. I loved Jerry’s backing vocals and the tune always seemed to have an uplifting quality. And with the exception of its first year, 1980, Far From Me was never overplayed.
6-29-84 Cuyahoga Falls Dear Mr. Fantasy
This is the second version of Dear Mr. Fantasy, and as it materializes, it's a shared lead vocal between Jerry and Brant. Jerry’s voice was sweet but a tad timid on this night. Jerry starts off the final verse and when he hands it off to Brent, Mydland emphatically poured his soul into an outrageous vocal, and Jerry responded with a stunning guitar solo. This was the night Dear Mr. Fantasy became a Brent tune.
7-7-89 JFK Stadium Blow Away
Many Brent fans will point to this as Brent’s greatest performance, and they’re right. Brent’s intensity is off the charts. This is easily the best Blow Away. I may not love the improvised words in Brent’s rap, but the performance is so powerful and emotional that he could have been singing nonsensical lyrics and it wouldn’t have mattered. Jerry’s tasty and perfectly placed licks enhance this minor masterpiece. Pure Brent. Chilling and poignant!