Last fall, Vince Welnick joined The Grateful Dead as its regular keyboardist after Brent Mydland, who had been with the band for 10 years, died of a heroin overdose. At the time, he was faced with the daunting task of learning over 100 songs before The Dead's annual fall tour.
Despite the band's enormous playlist, the complexity of its signature improvisational jams and the fact that Deadheads are some of the most attentive fans in popular music, Welnick says he was not frightened at the job that lay before him.
"It was a big departure from what I had been doing previously, which was accompanying Todd Rungren on several albums and tours--but it was not frightening," Welnick says. "Everyone in the band stressed that we were all in this for the the fun of it, for the pleasure of playing."
Best known for his keyboarding in the now-defunct band The Tubes, Welnick is starting to get adjusted to his new role working on the world's top-grossing concert attraction.
"Now, when we play live, I like to let the established voices, the other members of the band, play on their own for a while. I've been coming in late and focusing my energy in the middle of the song, which is often where we do our most interesting work," he says.
"In the beginning, I felt that I had to play all the way through every song or I wouldn't be doing my job," recalls Welnick.
But learning to play the band's repertoire was not easy. "When I joined the band, they said they'd send over some tapes for me to listen to. That night, I received every CD, and two crates full of tapes of concerts they've played over the past two years," he says.
"They included at least one, and often two or three versions of every song they played in 1989 and 1990. We'd rehearse 10 songs a day, so I would try to learn those 10 songs the night before."
The band, explains Welnick, would rehearse by playing each song once through, "feeling it out so I could get a sense of what it felt like to play it with them."
"It was a lot of work," Welnick says.
As far as how the band decides what to play, Welnick says The Dead have never gone on-stage with a set list.
"Sometimes we'll talk about what to play beforehand, but when we get on stage, if it doesn't feel right, we just throw it out and do something else," he says.
"Bob [Weir, the band's rhythm guitarist and occasional lead singer] is the hardest to read. When he's going to play a song, he just counts it out with the drummers and jumps right in," Welnick says.
While Welnick is the band's regular keyboardist, he is often joined on stage by Bruce Hornsby, who plays the grand piano and accordion with The Dead when his schedule allows.
Welnick says he plans to do some more singing and writing for the band in the future. "The other night, while talking to Jerry [Garcia, the band's lead guitarist/guru], he was saying I should write some songs for our next album."
"I'm looking forward to that," he adds. "The whole experience so far has been very positive. It's a big, beautiful thing."