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Relix Revisited: The Brent Mydland Years: An Appreciation of the Grateful Dead in the 1980’s

Blair Jackson | October 21, 2016

In celebration of what would have been the 64th birthday of Grateful Dead keyboardist Brent Mydland, who passed away in 1990 after playing with the band for over a decade, we present this piece that originally ran in our August 2005 issue. Here, longtime Dead journalist Blair Jackson, author of Garcia: An American Life and former editor of Golden Road, revisits an unappreciated era in the history of the group.

Dick Latvala, the Grateful Dead’s famous vault-keeper and namesake of the Dick’s Picks series of historic Dead recordings he shepherded from its inception in 1994 until his death in 1999, once told me that he would be happy spending all his waking hours listening to Dead music recorded between 1968 and 1974. “There are a few shows from ‘77 I love, a couple from ’78, various others scattered through the years, but I don’t need the other stuff. For me ‘73-’74 was the peak.” And he laughed the deep, rumbly laugh of someone who had spent much of his life sucking on bongs and cigarettes.

This is not an uncommon view among older hard-core Deadheads – that the late ‘60s and early ’70s represent the apex of the Dead’s career in terms of the quality of their songwriting, their onstage chemistry and the adventurousness of their playing. Fundamentally I agree with that assessment, too, and it’s not just because I first heard the band in 1969 and started going to shows regularly in the spring of ‘70, so that version of the band corresponds with my own Coming of Age. Clearly, the music of that era is a cut above.

But here’s a secret: I loved every period of Dead music, and I actually had more fun going to see the Dead in the 1980s than in the ‘70s. The ‘80s was a very different kind of Golden Age of the Dead: It was the era of the Dead’s greatest popular growth and of widespread networking among Deadheads; and creatively, it found the band moving in a number of interesting and compelling directions. The vast majority of Deadheads never saw Pigpen (who died in 1973), never saw Keith and Donna (who left in early 1979). No, for hundreds of thousands of Deadheads, the lineup with Brent Mydland on keyboards defined their live experience, and they loved that band with all the passion and mystical fervor of the few Heads who first encountered the psychedelic beast at the Carousel Ballroom in 1968 (or even earlier). And why not? The Dead with Brent was a great band, too, and obviously as capable of blowing minds as earlier incarnations had been. It was the perfect band for that time and those fans – for the decade of the staggering growth of the loose, laissez faire Deadhead counter-culture, and the concomitant rise of the band’s own commercial fortunes during a period when so many forces in American society were moving in the opposite direction, towards rigidity and conformity.

For a band that evolved gradually through the years, constantly adjusting to minor and major changes in personnel (T.C.‘s brief tenure, Mickey leaving for five years, the Godchaux’s saga) the addition of Brent actually represented a fairly major shift in the group’s sound. The somewhat monochromatic keyboard approach of Keith Godchaux (particularly his last couple of years) was replaced by a much more colorful and insistent keyboard sound: Brent was a Hammond B-3 master of the first order and also adept at synthesizers; both opened up the Dead’s music to exciting new possibilities. He was a much better onstage singer, technically, than Donna Godchaux had been, so immediately the group’s harmonies took on a new power and vitality. He also was a dynamic performer, throwing himself into his singing and playing with abandon, his long blond hair flying with each emphatic pounding of the keys. Garcia, who was still at the beginning of a long slide into addiction when Brent joined the group, was clearly buoyed by his presence.

At the same time Brent was joining the band, there was a major transformation, too, in the percussion section. This wasn’t a personnel move; it was a shift in equipment and approach. In the early spring of 1979, Mickey Hart had been asked to create a percussion underscore for parts of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War film then in post-production, Apocalypse Now. Mickey responded to this challenge by assembling a huge number of percussion instruments from around the world and also having a number of custom ones built. He brought fellow “Rhythm Devils” Bill Kreutzmann, Greg Errico, Brazilians Flora Purim and Airto Moreira and others into the recording studio, and together they spent days exploring different aspects of the film’s story through percussion, jamming for hours on end. From small woodblocks and bells to giant frame drums and the marvelous contraption known as The Beam (which had piano wire stretched across and aluminum I-beam; when amplified it was perfect for simulating the sound of a napalm attack or other sinister sounds of war), they tapped into the primal power of the myriad instruments. The percussion journey didn’t end with that soundtrack, however. Mickey and Billy used the occasion of Brent’s joining the band to re-structure their percussion setup onstage, incorporating many of the instruments they had employed for the film, including The Beam, various gourds and shakers and the great circle of huge, thundering drums which became known as The Beast. From the first shows with Brent in the April of 1979 through the final Dead concert in July 1995, Hart and Kreutzmann completely re-defined the rock show “drum solo” by opening it up to the entire world of percussion and, in later years, using advanced electronics to alter the sound even more. It was music with roots as deep as mankind’s own, and with literally no boundaries. In the 1980s, the Rhythm Devils’ portion of the show, along with the group space jams that always followed, were some of the freest, most mind-bending music being made on planet Earth, and its legacy is as important as the Dead’s rockin’ side.