After the Grateful Dead's third keyboardist, Brent Mydland, died on July 26, 1990, the band replaced him with Vince Welnick and also brought in pianist Bruce Hornsby on a part-time, temporary basis. So, when the group arrived at Madison Square Garden in New York for a series of shows in mid-September, the sound was beefed up considerably, and so was the musical approach, as the new members brought different musical ideas into the mix. The Grateful Dead's archivists sampled this run of shows previously on 1997's Dick's Picks, Vol. 9, which chronicled the September 16 show. Here, the Road Trips series assembles a two-disc set primarily out of the September 19 and 20 performances. By this point, Welnick and Hornsby had managed to find their places and both were proving to be exploratory instrumentalists. In fact, although the CDs are given sequencing numbers, most of the songs here earn the "greater than" symbol that Deadheads like to use on their set lists, indicating that one song just blends into the next. On the first disc, a string of selections from September 19 properly should be considered a 54-minute medley of "Playing in the Band/Ship of Fools/Playing in the Band/Uncle John's Band/Let It Grow/Jam," and, similarly, a stretch of the second disc taken from September 20 is really an hour-long continuous set of "Jam/Dark Star/Playing in the Band/Dark Star/Throwing Stones/Touch of Grey." It wasn't unusual for the Grateful Dead to segue from a song into an improvisation; in these shows, they reversed that, basically playing lengthy improvisations from which songs occasionally emerged. These improvisations, given the spark and invention of Hornsby and Welnick, sometimes provide riffs that sound like they could have been developed into new songs; at other points (notably in the second pass at "Dark Star"), they are the most esoteric of musique concrète. Adding to the invention is the MIDI synthesizer modification occasionally applied to Jerry Garcia's and Bob Weir's guitars, such that they sound like horns or reeds. The only weak spot in these two special nights comes with Garcia's vocals. Most of the time he sounds weak, tired, and hoarse, which may explain why his voice is so low in the mix. (The only exception is the album-closing "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," which is also the only song taken from the September 18 show.) But it's not the vocals that matter on this album. It's the instrumental interplay by some musicians accustomed to playing together, joined by a couple of talented ones who are new to the ensemble.
AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann