The Dead: Brent & Jerry’s Best Work

by Peter Wendel
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JerryBrentOnstage SongMango.comThe chemistry between Jerry Garcia and Brent Mydland was undeniable – a powerful musical force that could rip across the stage and streak up to the rafters like a brush fire in a dry wind.

Brent’s contributions to the band were enormous – his haunting Blues-swept vocals (backup and lead), his rollicking keyboard play and his strong songwriting abilities. His talents added a bright layer to The Grateful Dead’s sound and repertoire – a dimension that hadn’t been fully realized during Keith and Donna Godchaux’s tenure (particularly the songwriting piece).

Some even say, and I agree, that Brent still hadn’t reached his peak when he left us in 1990 at the age of 37. Oh what might have been.

Jerry, in his self-deprecating way, said this of Mydland during a Gavin Report interview: “He’s the only one of us who is really a good singer. Weir and I sort of croak our way through stuff after years of default singing. But Brent is a serious singer. He can really sing.”

JerryBrentStage SongMango.comMydland joined the band in April 1979, replacing Keith after years of heavy drug use had deeply diminished his once-brilliant talents. Brent, 26 at the time, stepped into big shoes with Pigpen, Tom Constanten (briefly) and Godchaux setting a dauntingly high bar.

Mydland was much more varied and progressive than Godchaux in terms of his instruments and sound. While Keith stuck with piano, Brent would play a range of different instruments and synthesizers, such as the Hammond B-3 (organ), Fender Rhodes (electric piano), Yamaha GS-1 (digital synth), Yamaha CP-70 (electric grand piano) and a Kurzweil Midiboard, an E-mu Emulator and a Minimoog.

Although his onstage contributions – delivered with runaway intensity – were invaluable at a time when the band needed it most, Mydland never seemed to gain the full acceptance of the old-school Deadheads and never, in my opinion, reaped the level of praise he deserved. Many detractors have said Brent introduced commercialism to a band that was, at its core, all about being anti-corporate and unburdened by commercial concerns, like generating Top-10 hits.


Brent out front in ’81

I remember many a night when Jerry would look over at Brent and lean in with a ripping lead, then Brent would smile and lay down one of his own. They pushed each other higher. It was a beautiful thing to see, and hear – a contagious fusion reaction that rippled through the crowd leaving burnt, elated synapses in its wake.

Jerry and Brent seemed to be cut from the same cloth, both carrying a heavier burden than most and both fighting their powerful personal demons. Their playing and singing simmered with emotion – a raw authenticity that few other artists ever achieved onstage.

At the time of his tragic death, Mydland had been with The Grateful Dead for more than a decade during which his contributions grew dramatically in scope. His material includes: early ballads, like “Far From Me,” to robust additions to Built To Last, like “Blow Away” and “Just A Little Light,” to a parade of covers, like “Hey Pocky Way,” “Mr. Fantasy,” “Louie Louie” and “The Weight.”

JerryBrentDead SongMango.comMydland’s last show with The Dead was July 23, 1990, at The World Music Theater, in Tinley Park, IL. The very last song he sang that night was “The Weight” by The Band. His vocal piece ended an era: “I gotta go, but my friend can stick around” (see the footage below).

Jerry took Brent’s death extremely hard. Although both men are gone, their legendary, magical interplay lives on in thousands of live recordings. Here are some of the best (in alphabetical order).

One of Brent’s most powerful – and characteristically tortured – contributions to The Dead catalog, released on Built To Last in October 1989. “Blow Away” is one of four songs that Mydland and lyricist John Barlow teamed up on for the band’s final studio album. It’s a big arena-busting, love-lost anthem that Brent took to towering heights. The band would play it 23 times.

June 20, 1988 – Alpine Valley Music Theatre, East Troy, WI
This was the very first one, and it was hot as hell. Not even a hint of debut jitters. It was the third song in the 2nd set between “Cumberland” and “Ship Of Fools.” Listen (archived track 11).

July 7, 1989 – JFK Stadium, Philadelphia, PA
Fantastic footage. Brent rips the vocals, running up and down his emotional range. He preaches the gospel, and we eat it up. Watch it blow a-way!

March 16, 1990 – Capital Centre, Landover, MD
Brent gets all over it, delivering his signature vocal power and fiery, flamboyant keyboard play. Jerry loves it! Mydland goes off at 7:02 and never looks back. This is why we love Brent!

March 26, 1990 – Knickerbocker Arena, Albany, NY
A superb version with fantastic interplay between Brent and Jerry. It closed out the 1st set in style.

This is a perfectly suited cover for Brent – a Traffic tune from the trippy 1967 album, Mr. Fantasy. Steve Winwood and Chris Wood wrote the music and Jim Capaldi wrote the lyrics. The Dead broke it out at Red Rocks June 14, 1984, playing it 58 times before Brent’s death in July of 1990. This song features Mydland’s much-heralded vocal range.

December 27, 1987 – Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, Oakland, CA
Easy and relaxed version out of “Space.” Brent and Jerry’s vocal interplay stirs the soul. Killer drum barrages from Bill and Mickey. Jerry rips it open with a super-charged solo going into the close.

July 2, 1989 – Sullivan Stadium, Foxboro, MA
Simply amazing. Brent cuts loose and the rest of the band joins in and takes this one over the rainbow. Jerry lays down soaring solos as Mickey and Billy pound away in approval. Sets the stadium on fire. Listen (archive track 19).

April 1, 1990 – The Omni, Atlanta, GA
As close to technical perfection as they come. Builds and explodes. Brent’s incredible vocal range is in full bloom on this one. Commercially released on Without A Net.

This relatively short ballad – one of his brightest and most uplifting – is the second song Brent wrote as a member of The Dead. It’s an early Mydland-Barlow collaboration from Go To Heaven (1980), and although the album failed to attain critical acclaim (not that we care), Brent’s contributions were considered a bright spot. As with many of Mydland’s songs, “Easy To Love You” is a heartfelt, soulful tribute to a would-be lover (perhaps the notion of the perfect lover). The band broke it out for the first time in Denver on August 14, 1979, and went on to perform it 36 times over the remainder of that year and into 1980. The band would take the song off the setlist for nearly a decade only to break it back out in March of 1990 just months before Brent’s tragic death.

September 3, 1980 – Springfield Civic Center, Springfield, MA
This was the last performance of the song for nearly a decade. It’s a rendition that showcases Brent’s monster talent – his voice, his keyboards and his magical musical interaction with Jerry.

March 22, 1990 – Copps Coliseum, Hamilton, ON
Only the second time the band had played it since taking the song off the setlist in September 1980. As close to a flawless performance as the band ever got. “You don’t know how easy it is…”

Brent’s very first contribution to The Grateful Dead’s repertoire, which he wrote without lyricist John Barlow’s help. “Far From Me” would offer an early glimpse inside Mydland’s mind, revealing his penchant for difficult, even tortured, themes. The ballad – sung to a lost lover – is about the heartache of a broken relationship and the pain of trying to move on. The band debuted the song on March 31, 1980, at the hallowed Capitol Theatre in New Jersey. Brent performed the song live more than 70 times, with the big breakout years being ’80 (24 times) and ’87 (17 times).

This is the last time I wanna say so long
This song is my last song for you
There’s just nothing here to hold on to
Baby, nothing to hold on to

May 15, 1980 – Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY
Brent puts his vocal muscle on full display. Jerry provides stellar, crispy clean guitar work. Commercially released on Go To Nassau.

July 14, 1990 – Foxboro Stadium, Foxboro, MA
A magnificent version – the second-to-last performance of the song. Brent’s voice, like Garcia’s, has become more gravelly and somehow more soulful than it was in the early-’80s. Listen (archived track 7).

The Meters’ “Hey Pocky Way” is New Orleans-based Funk, and it fit beautifully with Mydland’s rollicking keyboard play coupled with his bluesy voice, as he worked the rap of a (deranged) southern preacher. “Pocky Way” would debut as the 1st set opener on September 9, 1987, at the Providence Civic Center. The band didn’t play it all that much, just 25 times from September 1987 through July 1990 – the last one performed at Brent’s second-to-last show.

October 3, 1987 – Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, CA
Fantastic, professionally shot footage of one of the band’s best performances of “Pocky Way” – showcasing the legendary back-and-forth between Brent and Jerry. Check out how Mydland’s play brings a smile to Jerry’s face at 2:40. There’s no doubt that he thoroughly enjoyed having Brent in the band.

March 31, 1989 – Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, NC
Here’s a rockin’ 2nd set opener. Brent just kills it, start to finish! The interplay between Mydland’s keys and Garcia’s guitar is priceless. Commercially released on So Many Roads.


Brent and daughter Jessica [photo: Ken Friedman]

Brent’s most endearing and heartwarming piece of work – the most cherished of his collaborations with John Barlow. Mydland wrote the song as a lullaby to his 3-year-old daughter Jessica. It is the final cut on Built To Last (1989). The Dead would play the song more than 30 times, first breaking it out at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in Wisconsin on June 22, 1988. It was usually positioned in the setlist coming out of “Drumz.” Jerry plays MIDI trumpet during live performances. “Take You Home” poignantly sums up the promise every father makes to his children:

Just when everything gets scary
Daddy’s come ’round for his darlin’ again
Hold my hand with your little fingers
Daddy’s loving arms gonna gather you in

September 30, 1989 – Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, CA
A magnificent version complete with pro-shot footage.

June 17, 1990 – Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, CA
Talk about a tear jerker. Here’s Brent singing to his daughter Jessica, who was brought onstage to join him. Brent would be gone less than six weeks later. Listen (archived track 16).

March 25, 1990 – Knickerbocker Arena, Albany, NY
Ethereal and hugely poignant. Commercially released on Dozin’ At The Knick.

A group-effort cover of Sam Cooke’s 1964 classic, featuring Brent’s Blues-fueled vocals. He opens with this verse:

The evening sun is sinking low
The clock on the wall says it’s time to go
I got plans, and I got plans for you 
I tell you exactly what we’re all gonna do 

July 17, 1989 – Alpine Music Theatre, East Troy, WI
Crispy show opener (check Brent’s perfectly placed f-bomb at 4:14).

March 16, 1990 – Capital Centre, Landover, MD
Here’s a spectacular version that opened the show. Commercially released on Spring 1990: So Glad You Made It.

Bobby and Brent share lead vocals on this red-hot Blues standard originally recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in 1961. The Rolling Stones covered it in 1964. Many others would follow. The Dead would perform it more than 260 times, breaking it out for the first time (since 1965) on August 19, 1980, at the Uptown Theatre in Chicago.

July 7, 1989 – JFK Stadium, Philadelphia, PA
Amazing version. Brent steals the show.

October 9, 1989 – Hampton Coliseum, Hampton VA
Smoking! Serious attitude from Brent, and it burns the (hen) house down.

Here’s a rare one. The Dead only covered this 1955 R&B rocker a handful of times in the late-’80s with Brent on lead vocals. In addition to the six times Mydland performed “Louie Louie,” the band played it in 1969 with Joey Covington from Jefferson Airplane on lead vocals (listen to archived track 7). Most widely recognized as The Kingmen’s 1963 hit, “Louie Louie” is a first-person ballad sung by a Jamaican sailor to his love as he’s returning home after a long voyage.

See Jamaica, the moon above
It won’t be long, me see me love
Take her in my arms again
Tell her I’ll never leave again

May 1, 1988 – Frost Amphitheatre, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA
Brent plays it slow and slinky on The Dead’s home turf. Tasty deuling leads from Mydland and Jerry. Listen (archived track 11).

September 20, 1988 – MSG, New York, NY
Brent busts the Big Apple wide open.

April 9, 1989 – Freedom Hall, Louisville, KY
Brent opens the 2nd set with it. His steamy piano play and smokey vocals are perfect, massaging the lyrics for the local crowd: “Louis Louisville…” This is the last time the band would play it. Here’s some great raw video:

A simmering rocker that the band broke out for the first time at San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium on December 28, 1984. Brent uses a runaway train as a metaphor for his woman and their relationship – a theme that many can relate to. It is Mydland’s only song on In The Dark, which was released in the summer of 1987 and became The Dead’s only top-10 album. The band played it a total of 29 times – all but seven coming before the release of In The Dark. Final performance: the Spectrum, September 23, 1987.

And 100,000 tons of steel
Made to roll
The brakes don’t work
And this grade’s too steep
Her engine’s sure to blow
And 100,000 tons of steel
Out of control
She’s more a rollercoaster
Than the train I used to know

December 31, 1985 – Oakland Coliseum Arena, Oakland, CA
Here’s an early one. Brent comes out rolling, and Phil is definitely feelin’ it.

July 26, 1987 – Anaheim Stadium, Anaheim, CA
Strong vocals from Brent, not to mention some impressive harmonizing from everybody. Jerry throws down soaring guitar work for his brother. Sandwiched between “Minglewood” and “West L.A.” Listen (archived track 4).

The cover of The Band’s 1968 classic was the last song Brent sang with The Grateful Dead before he died of a drug overdose. It’s a song about a traveler’s experiences on the road. The Dead would play “The Weight” more than 40 times all told, right up until Brent’s last show on July 23, 1990. In hindsight, the very last words he sang onstage are extraordinarily prophetic:

I picked up my bags, I went looking for a place to hide
When I saw old Carmen and the Devil, walking side by side
I said, “Hey, Carmen, c’mon, let’s go downtown”
She said, “I gotta go, but my friend can stick around”

March 28, 1990 – Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY
This was the first one, and it rocks! Brent unloads his fiery vocals, both lead (1:14) and backup. He adds so much to the band’s sound. Beautiful Jerry solo (3:56).

July 18, 1990 – Deer Creek Music Theater, Noblesville, IN
A brilliant vocal performance from Brent.

July 23, 1990 – World Music Theatre, Tinley Park, IL
The last song of the night – and it was Brent’s last ever. He said his goodbye in the final verse he sang: “I gotta go, but my friend can stick around.” We miss him.

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Peter Wendel is a journalist and PR consultant. He's attended hundreds of concerts and festivals, including the Peach, Mountain Jam, the All Good and Lockn'. He's ridden legendary Grateful Dead runs from Ventura County Fairgrounds to Irvine Meadows (CA) from the Nassau Coliseum (NY) to the Boston Garden (MA). Peter is a former U.S. Marine who – after running into trouble with every last one of his commanding officers – received an honorable discharge and a direct order never to return. Born in California and raised in New Jersey, Peter lived in Boston and Joshua Tree (CA) before settling in the nation's capital. Find him on tour at