Jerry Sunday: Branford Marsalis joins the Grateful Dead for “Eyes of the World”

It was March 29, 1990 when saxaphonist Brandford Marsalis joined the Grateful Dead at Nassau Coliseum for much of the show. Notably, the version of “Eyes of the World” stands out, as it was released on Without a Net in September 1990, and later rereleased on Spring 1990 (The Other One) box set in 2014.

Marsalis had not planned to sit in for more than “Bird Song” that night, as he recalled in talking to Rolling Stone in 2014.

“I came up for “Bird Song,” and after the set was over, I said, ‘Thanks for letting me play, guys.’ And they’re like, ‘No, no, stay! Play the second half of the show. We’ll do “Dark Star”.’ That had no significance to me. I’m like, ‘ “Dark Star”? Okay. What is it?’ ‘Oh, you’re gonna love it. It’s free, it’s out.’ ‘Great, I can play out.’ They start playing that lick, and the audience goes fucking bananas. Later, I started getting these phone calls on my private number: ‘Man, you were great last night. Thanks for getting them to play “Dark Star”. They haven’t played it in six months.’ I’m like, ‘Who are these people?’… There was almost nothing [the Grateful Dead] couldn’t play—and make the shit sound authentic. When they played a song by The Band or Bob Dylan, they played it with the same spirit as The Band or Dylan. They didn’t feel the need to write their own arrangement of it. They were all listeners. There is a point where musicians who establish themselves stop listening to music and start listening to their own rhetoric. The Dead didn’t do that. It was obvious in the way they approached a song.”

Brandford Marsalis, to Rolling Stone magazine

Anyone who experienced the Spring 1990 shows, or has listened to Without a Net can attest to the benefit Marsalis brings to this version of “Eyes of the World.” The extra element of saxophone layered within the Dead classic gives it a proper place on a pedastal as one of the best versions of the song.

Fred Thomas of AllMusic said of the evening,

“After they whip through a bright first set featuring mostly live staples like ‘Bertha’ and ‘Ramble on Rose’, Marsalis joins in at the start of the second set for stellar, extended takes on the more exploratory side of the Dead catalog. His airy improvisations on classics like ‘Eyes of the World’ and ‘Dark Star’ sound brilliantly natural here, and what’s most palpable is the sense of exhilaration and mutual respect between these two forces of sonic trailblazing.”

Fred Thomas, AllMusic.com

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