As folks know, the keyboard chair seems to have been somewhat ill-fated for the Grateful Dead, and at this point in time the wound of Brent’s passing was still remarkably fresh. He’s Gone stands as a cathartic song at this juncture, an opportunity for the band and their fans to commune and to remember their fallen comrade.
For the Grateful Dead He’s Gone hit close to home multiple times over the span of their career in several different contexts. The idea of He’s Gone being tied to the loss of life is a natural connection to make and has been used in that capacity many times since Jerry’s passing.
I won’t belabor the point any more here, ceding my time to let the music do the talking.
The sounds coming from the two keyboard seats are much different in this version than those from their previous occupant. Of course doubling the number of keys players will do that. Phil bounces along pleasantly, not letting the song fall into lethargy. Vince’s high harmonies are much sharper (in tonality, not pitch) than Brent’s and take some getting used to. Weir has an interesting effect on his guitar in this version as well. When he plays certain passages it’s much more evident, but I’m at a lack of words to describe it so I will leave it at “interesting.” Jerry’s first solo is a more direct and tied to the main melody at first. I tend to think that with the two keys players trying to find their roles it may have behooved him to keep it a bit simpler. Indeed, Vince and Bruce can over-crowd each other a bit here, but it’s not too bad. One of the things that dawns on me as I continue to listen is the sustain that Vince’s playing adds to the song. On the one hand you have Phil’s punchy bass and on the other Vince’s sustaining keys providing an almost ethereal environment. It’s just a bit… odd. Luckily with the Grateful Dead odd isn’t a bad thing. Half way through the song and the band is already bringing down the vibe and hitting the “nothing’s gonna bring him back” outro. Vince steps out a bit here on keys almost as a hat tip to Brent. In fact the two most prominent instruments in this section are Vince and Bruce for a quite a while. The vocal jam starts to take some turns, and the ad libs keep coming. It seems like the boys are giving this song a little extra at this point for the New York crowd and for Brent. The vocal jam lasts for almost 4 minutes, until the band just settles in for a bit of a jam. Phil seems the most intent on this, and Vince steps up too, apparently eager to prove his chops. The jam carries on with occasional punctuations from Bruce, but mainly it’s Phil, Jerry, and Vince leading the way here. The song dies down rather quickly as the band heads into the drums and space segment for the evening.