Brent Mydland was born in Germany in October 1952 and moved to California at age one. His father was an army chaplain and his mother a nurse. After graduating high school in 1971, he worked with Batdorf and Rodney, and when John Batdorf formed Silver in 1976, Brent went with him. On the recommendation of bassist Rick Carlos, Weir hired him in February 1978 to play keyboards in the Bob Weir Band (he would later play in Bobby and the Midnites), and when Keith and Donna left the Grateful Dead in early 1979, Brent got the spot. Over the years, he recorded with Silver, Eric Andersen, Matthew Kelly, and a California band named New Frontier. He also contributed vocals on Silvio (along with Weir and Garcia), from Bob Dylan’s unpopular 1988 album Down In The Groove.
Aside from the twelve songs Brent contributed to the GD catalogue, there are eighteen others to his name. He co-wrote nine with Barlow, one with Matthew Kelly, and one with Lesh/Petersen. The untitled album, recorded over the course of a year with Betty Cantor, and completed sometime in 1982, comprises eight songs he wrote exclusively. Tons of Steel and Maybe You Know figure in the track list, predating their entry onto the GD repertoire (the latter very different from the Dead version, a rocker with barn-burner guitar leads).
The album itself, fully mastered and ready, has a familiar early-80s-rock-album sound, with the bass and drums up front and punchy, arena-rock guitar and a lot of reverb. I could not find out who played bass or drums, but Silver’s Greg Collier handled the guitar parts. Brent’s keyboard work is not featured heavily on the album until the second half. He stands out most on the fifth track, “Nobody’s,” an anthem about rebellion and self-assertion, with lyrics complemented by a strong synthesizer intro, a big piano solo, and a motorcycle.
Most of the lyrics center on love and strong female figures, but there is a notable exception on track 7. “Long Way To Go” is the only ballad on the album, a song about the insecurities of early adulthood: “Outside you’re a winner/ But inside you’re losing/ Just a beginner/ With a long way to go.” Brent was 29 when he recorded those tracks, having joined the Dead at 26. He was already ensconced behind that great big beard, and insecurities would plague him for the rest of his life. Phil, who spent a lot of time hanging out at the studio, listening to the album’s development “with a big grin on his face,” would write later about Brent’s many demons, and the difficulty with which he handled the Deadheads’ criticisms.
The album, which Betty-Cantor called “the best of Brent and the best of me,” is a lot of fun, once you get past the shiny production veneer. There are a couple of awkwardly-worded lines, and there isn’t much in the way of flashy piano solos or big organ riffs, but it fits Brent’s character. He was a modest person, a very talented and diverse keyboardist, and a prolific songwriter. Though the record is relatively conventional, it’s worth a spin to confirm that Brent could well have fronted a band of his own.