Brent Mydland always saw himself as the new guy on keyboards for the Grateful Dead. He held that keyboard position longer than anyone before or since, but could never rid himself of the feeling of not completely belonging in the group. He cut his teeth in the LA-based band Silver and then with Bob Weir’s “Midnites.” His arrival came after the Dead and the Godchaux’s decided to mutually part ways in 1979. The band wanted to utilize the then-new sound of electric keyboards while keeping the high harmonies that Donna handled (with varying degrees of success). Brent was able to fil both jobs, although his voice sounded more like a soprano version of Gregg Allman.
With his voice, he brought a rough-hewn edge to the music while his synthesizer gave it more polish. After some rehearsals on April 16, 1979, Brent was thrown into the fire in San Jose six days later. The next studio album, Go To Heaven, would contain two of his compositions. Even though it was a commercial failure, his influence would continue to grow on stage and in the studio.
He seemed to have the biggest effect on Jerry. Video of any of the summer shows from ‘87-‘90 that have been officially released show amazing chemistry between the two. Brent was able to push Jerry on stage and was often the recipient of his biggest smiles. But Brent wasn’t able to make himself happy offstage and his death in 1990 symbolized the end of sustained excellence for many ‘Heads. He may have felt underappreciated, but Glide commemorates what would have been his 65th birthday on October 21, 2017 with his 10 best songs.
1. “Dear Mr. Fantasy->Hey Jude Finale” – These could really have counted as two separate entries. “Fantasy” was premiered on 6/14/84 at Red Rocks and the band played it without the Beatles ending until ’88. Not only did Brent sing the hell out of it but it also brought some of the raunchiest Jerry solos after the band stopped playing “Passenger.” Of all of the songs he sang, including his own, this was the song most identified with Brent. He always sang it with so much conviction that you’d think it was about him.
2. “Gimme Some Lovin” – This was the song that brought Phil Lesh back behind the microphone on 11/2/84, Berkeley Community Theatre. Out of a raging (and surprising pre-Drums) “Wharf Rat”, Phil and Brent showed off their vocal blend on this debut of another Steve Winwood song. The first version was far from the best, but the tune fired up many a second set until Brent’s passing. The band tried it once without him at Bruce Hornsby’s first show, but it just wasn’t the same.
3. “Blow Away”- This was one of Brent’s many love songs. He knew how to sing about pain, that’s for sure. But it was Jerry’s wicked guitar solo that turned the studio version into a monster on stage. The last night at the Cap Centre in Spring ‘90 (the whole tour has since been officially released) they end the first set with a 12-minute version that truly brought the house down. Brent’s rap made it far more than a simple rave-up as he pleaded with the crowd to heed his message. The band even walked off stage as he kept going and returned to finish.
4. “Hey Pocky Way” – From their many on-stage collaborations with the Neville Brothers came this cover on the Fall ’87 tour. Like “Mr. Fantasy,” this one never disappointed. It would often open a set and hit the crowd with some New Orleans funk. “Feel good music in your soul/Make your body wanna rock and roll,” indeed.
5. “Keep On Growing” – This was another duet with Phil. The band only did it from’85-’86, but every version was great. They premiered this Derek and the Dominos classic at their 20th Anniversary show at the Greek Theatre on 6/14/85. Once again, Phil and Brent combine to make the song sound more like an anthem than the original. Jerry’s solo, while nothing like Clapton’s, was a pure delight. To hear the evidence, check out the version from Merriweather Post on 6/30/85.
6. “I Will Take You Home” – This was one of the few Dead songs to have no guitar solo whatsoever. It usually appeared out of “Space” and was written as a lullaby to his daughter who he brought on stage twice to sit next to him. The second night of the MSG run in 1988, and at Shoreline Amphitheatre on 6/17/90 are two standout performances as a result. Bassist Aaron Gibson did a touching version of the song as well for the 2012 “Dead Covers” project.
7. “Never Trust A Woman/Good Time Blues”- Besides “Far From Me,” this was Brent’s longest-tenured song with the band. It never made an album, but allowed the band to dig deep early in the set. Brent brought out the bluesy side of Jerry. The lyrics were a little cheesy (“never trust a woman who wears her pants too tight”), but Brent’s wailing delivery usually made up for it.
8. “Easy To Love You” – This song took a ten-year hiatus but came back refreshed. By 1990, Brent’s keyboards sounded less synthy and his voice had dropped a few octaves. The result was a pretty ballad once it had been stripped of its early ‘80s qualities. The “Backstage Pass” film that Justin Kreutzmann put together in 1992 featured a nice version of the tune.
9. “Just A Little Light” – The Dead only did this one from ’89-’90. But like “Blow Away,” the song allowed Jerry to showcase a different tone on guitar. It also gave Bobby and Phil a chance for some nice harmonies in the bridge. It was really through Warren Haynes that this song got its most recognition. With both “The Dead” and “Phil And Friends,” he not only paid homage to Brent, but took the song to places never originally imagined. Along with Jimmy Herring at the Beacon in 2000, he stretched it out to over fifteen minutes.
10. “Don’t Need Love”- Another song that was only in the rotation for a couple of years. It almost always directly preceded “Drums” and came out of a particularly fiery tune. But with its distinctive organ intro, it allowed Brent to really let loose. As was the case with almost all his songs, its subject is a relationship gone bad. However, when he sang at the end that “I don’t need love and I don’t need you,” the audience always sympathized with him. You never felt like he deserved the bad treatment he felt he was getting. That was a testament to the soulfulness of his performance.
Earlier this year, Brent’s daughter Jessica performed some of his songs in his hometown of Layfayette, CA. Her voice is as pretty as his was raspy, but you can hear the conviction in her singing. Brent seems to get more love each year since his passing, so go out and fire up one of these tunes on Saturday in tribute.