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By Lauren Wise
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Vince Welnick was never cut out to be a Deadhead. While the young "beautiful people" of the Sixties were hitching rides to San Francisco, wearing flowers in their hair, Vince was cruising Phoenix's Central Avenue with his older twin brothers, packing a tear-gas pistol in his belt. Sure, he had the same long hair as the Haight-Ashbury hippies. But Welnick never quite got the hang of cooing "Make love, not war" and flashing peace signs at the squares and rednecks who made fun of his long locks. You messed with Vinnie, and you got sprayed with a solution that'd make you pull your pickup to the side of the road and chip-seal the pavement with the remnants of your lunch.
"I only saw them a couple of times," says Welnick from his home in Sonoma County, California, just north of San Francisco, where the Bourgade High dropout settled after achieving moderate success with the Phoenix-born Tubes in the late Seventies. "In fact, the last time I saw them was in the Sixties. Back when Pigpen [nee Ron McKernan, the band's original lead singer] was still alive."
It wasn't surprising, then, that when the 39-year-old studio pro had the opportunity this past summer to audition for the spot left open by the death of Brent Mydland, the Grateful Dead keyboardist who succumbed July 26 of an apparent drug overdose, Welnick was less than enthusiastic about the gig. "I kind of went in with the idea that I'd try out and see if they wanted to hire me, then I'd check them out and decide if I wanted to play with them." It wasn't until he met the affable Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and the other brotherly bandmates that Welnick really became interested in becoming a Dead man. "Once I met Jerry and Bob and the other guys--and even the crew people, the people that worked for the band--I was sold," Welnick says. "They're very much a family, and that's something you don't find much in rock 'n' roll anymore."
Passing the audition for the band was one thing. But as Welnick sifted through hours and hours of live tapes, learning not only the Grateful Dead's extensive catalogue of songs, but also the unique ways the band continually reshapes its tunes in concert to fit the individual mood of each crowd, the keyboardist began to consider the other audition he would eventually have to pass. The one for the Deadheads, that intense fellowship of fans--among the most fervent and dedicated in rock--that ultimately casts the final vote on any new direction or collaboration the band tests out. (See related story on page 6.)
Would he play all the right chords but somehow, unknowingly, destroy the "vibe" that has become so essential to the Dead's shows? Would he spoil the magic that the keyboardist himself, as a newcomer to the scene, still had trouble dissecting?
"I started worrying about whether or not the fans were gonna like me," Welnick recalls. "Especially in lieu of the circumstances, you know. I knew everybody was missing the hell out of Brent, but there was nothing I could do about that. All I could do was try to make the best of the situation, and that was to try and get in the groove with these guys."
And keep a low profile. The first night Welnick took the stage with the band on its current U.S. tour, he says, "I was just hoping they wouldn't start throwing things at me."
But then, a few songs into the Dead's first set in Richfield, Ohio, Welnick spotted something a young man in the crowd was passing out to the other fans. "They looked like little miniature bumper stickers," Welnick remembers, "and on them it said, `Yo, Vinnie!' All of a sudden, everybody was holding up these `Yo, Vinnie!' stickers," he laughs. "And then the same thing happened when we got to Philadelphia--there were those `Yo, Vinnie!' stickers. And just between that and the audience's response when I started playing my first solo, I felt really good. There was even this big banner at one show: `Welcome, Brother Vince.'
"After that," Welnick adds with the heartfelt sincerity of a new in-law carving the Thanksgiving turkey, "I felt like I had really been accepted into the family."
WINNING OVER THE Deadheads is a concern that has weighed heavily on the mind of any musician who's ever played with or opened for the legendary Bay Area band.
"The Deadheads are an intense thing out there," says the band's longtime publicist Dennis McNally. "When they love you, it's just the most amazing thing. And when they don't like you, then obviously it can be pretty painful. I've never seen them not like somebody who played with the band, although I did watch them shut down Warren Zevon once, around twelve years ago in California when he was drunk and behaving very badly. But he was opening for the Grateful Dead, not playing with them.