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Vince Welnick and Missing Man Formation
Jubilant Reinvention
By Toni A. Brown

When that Dark Star crashed, it was hard to find the light. Many of us spent more time in reflection and speculation, and less time on creative endeavors. And so was the course left to Vince Welnick when Jerry Garcia died. He took the loss very hard. "I never wanted to leave his side from the moment I met him," remarked the keyboardist. "Jerry's the missing man."

When Welnick took over the keyboardist seat in the Grateful Dead following Brent Mydland's untimely death in 1989, he had a big task ahead of him. The Dead had just spent its most successful years touring behind its platinum album, In The Dark. Its subsequent album, Built To Last, was dramatically influenced by Mydland's work, featuring his strong performance and originals. But Vince slipped into the family with little fanfare, and little criticism. He was welcomed by the same Deadheads who, in light of Brent's death, felt pangs of guilt over their sharp vitriol of Mydland. Welnick, who had previously been with the Bay Area band the Tubes, was welcomed with open arms.

When Garcia died, Welnick sank into the depths of depression. He admitted to not being able to play the piano for quite some time. But eventually the sorrow began to lift, and with a rejuvenated spirit, Welnick formed his own project with Steve Kimock (guitar), Prairie Prince (drums), Bobby Strickland (sax, flute) and Bobby Vega (bass), calling it Missing Man Formation in honor of the man he was missing. The band began playing in the Bay Area, but within two years, the original band came to a halt...on the heels of its debut release. The band members all had other projects and found it difficult to commit to Missing Man Formation full time. This led to canceled tours and no time for rehearsals.

Bobby Strickland is the only hold-over that has remained with the band. "I was working in my garden," he remembered, "and I got a call from Vince and he said, 'The New Year's show is off and that gig at The Fillmore on November 15 is off, too. The other guys had to go out and do some tours.' I was stunned. When we hung up, I had this voice that kind of spoke to me and said, 'You know, you're 35 years old. It's time for you to step up to the bat right now.' I called Vince immediately and said, 'Let me put something together around you, and let's see if we can make this thing work again. They have to be great players, people you want to spend time with and they have to be willing to take the time to make something happen.' And Vince said, 'Go for it.'"

Drummer Trey Sabatelli had been switching off gigs with Prairie Prince for years, playing with both the Jefferson Starship and the Tubes. When he was contacted, he was immediately interested. "I got the call from Vince," he recalled, "and he and I got along so well, he just said, 'I'd better snatch you up before you're gone.'" In talking about the band's musical evolution, Sabatelli is as enthusiastic as he is articulate. "When we rehearse, it's more an exploration of finding out where everyone else is in the music," he explained. "These guys are such incredible musicians that we can really go in just about any direction. There's a lot of nodding and tipping your hat to one another and seeing who wants to go where and who wants to take the lead. It's a very positive musical experience."

"Music is nothing more than meditation, and we're trying to evoke certain feelings," added Strickland.

Welnick cites the band's musical style as "Jubilant Jammification." He is exuberant when speaking of the band. "This is so happening, so exciting and so new and wonderful that it erases any darkness that I derived from Jerry's death. I really feel this is what Jerry would do in my position. We talked about it many times. There's no retirement. I'm just grateful that I'm back in the saddle again. This is my new family, and it feels really nice. It's a great band, and I'm too excited about it to be bummed out about anything in life. There's nothing that can get in the way of us doing this. Everybody's dedicated themselves to this. And everybody can sing! We've got a huge set list already."

Robin Sylvester is an English bass player who has been living in the Bay Area for 20 years, doing session work with many of the music industry's luminaries. He got the call from Strickland, and the timing was right. "I've been happy free-lancing," he revealed. "But now I'm getting to play tunes more than once. You do a song at a recording session, and you never hear it again. It's a whole different thing, and (with MMF) the improvisation is very strong."

The trickiest part of reinventing Missing Man Formation was enlisting a guitarist. Replacing Steve Kimock wasn't easy. The new MMF lineup actually rehearsed for five months without someone in that role. Ultimately, John Wedemeyer proved to be the natural candidate because of his eclectic background and varied musical taste. "I met Trey a couple of years ago. We did an R&B gig together," he said. "He called and filled me in on Missing Man Formation, but I didn't know anything about it. I'd been on the road with Charlie Musselwhite and doing other blues gigs, and this sounded like something I wanted to check out. I have a copy of Workingman's Dead and a couple of things on tape, and that was the extent of my Grateful Dead knowledge, until now. I'm discovering a bunch of great music that I never heard before, so it's paying off."

"We're giving it to him a little bit at a time," Vince added when discussing Wedemeyer's foray into the MMF repertoire. "I've got a new take on it, too, because he's not copying Kimock or Garcia. He's doing John and I'm going, 'Wow, this is really great!'"

Missing Man Formation has been doing Welnick's originals in addition to some tasty covers. "The only prerequisite for us to do a cover of a song is if, in most of our opinions, it's one of the finest songs of all time," Welnick justified. Needless to say, some classic Grateful Dead material has made it into the band's set list-"St. Stephen," "Here Comes Sunshine," "Cosmic Charlie" and "Attics Of My Life" are a few. And with five-part harmonies available, the songs take on dynamic proportions.

The new Missing Man Formation debuted at The Fillmore last April and followed up with a headlining spot at the Humboldt campus in Arcata, California. The band spent a day on the bus with the Pranksters and played at Hollywood Taxi in Springfield, Oregon. MMF also just completed several dates in southern California, including a date at the House Of Blues, and has been invited north again. Mid-west and East Coast tours are currently in the works.

Welnick is facing the future with an optimistic fervor. "I've never loved music more than I do now," he said. "I think I've gotten an appreciation from being in the Grateful Dead and the fact that I've gotten to continue on past that. I've got a whole new set of values, an appreciation of what we're doing. It's really so gratifying. It never felt better in my life. Thanks, Jerry. He's still Santa Claus, and Santa still lives in my heart."

The most rewarding aspect of Missing Man Formation is its music, but one very important dividend is evident…Vince has learned how to smile again, and with good reason. Missing Man Formation will make you smile, too!

This article originally appeared in Relix Magazine, Volume 25 #4 (August, 1998).

Copyright © 1999-2004 - Toni Brown

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