By the 1990s, the Grateful Dead had become a mammoth travelling ode to the 1960s. Bringing the values of the flower power generation to stadiums across America, the Dead began to fully embrace a jukebox approach to their live shows. Although covers had always been a central part of the band’s live sets, the Dead’s later years were less about making older songs fit within their established identity and more about just playing songs they liked for fun.
Whether that was the party-starting push of Sam Cooke’s ‘Good Times’ or the ad-hoc power of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’, the Dead weren’t just a band from the 1960s: they were now every band from the 1960s. Toward the end of their career, that included one specific nod to another group of survivors who shared the stage with the Dead at Woodstock: The Who.
Starting in 1992, the Dead began playing The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ as an encore. Every performance of the song was a medley, with the song immediately going into The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. The two-song voyage was spearheaded by Vince Welnick, the band’s final keyboard player.
Welnick was struggling to find his own voice within the band: during his initial years, he often played second fiddle to Bruce Hornsby, the band’s original choice to replace deceased keyboardist Brent Mydland in 1990. Hornsby baulked at joining the band full-time but toured with them for roughly two years, during which time Welnick provided second keyboards and high harmonies. Welnick wasn’t even allowed to choose the settings on his keyboards during his first few years with the band, a reflection of his relatively modest standing within the group.
Once Hornsby left the band for good, Welnick began to find his footing. He managed to get two original songs, ‘Samba in the Rain’ and ‘Way To Go Home’, included in the band’s setlists, although those tracks weren’t always greeted with enthusiasm. Most importantly, Welnick was able to have autonomy over his instrument. He also briefly helmed a cover of The Beatles’ ‘It’s All Too Much’ during the Dead’s final year of touring in 1995, but ‘Baba O’Riley’ was briefly Welnick’s signature track.
Welnick was game to belt out the classic rock-friendly sounds of ‘Baba O’Riley’ to ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, and his key change of a lyric from “They’re all wasted” to “We’re all wasted” almost always prompted a giant cheer from the crown. In total, the ‘Baba O’Riley’ to ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ medley saw only 12 total performances between 1992 and 1994, with Welnick favouring ‘Samba in the Rain’ or ‘Way To Go Home’ as his solo spotlight in the band’s final touring years.
Check out the Grateful Dead’s version of ‘Baba O’Riley’ from Dick’s Picks Vol. 27 down below.