“Now that the singer is gone…..where shall I go for the song?”
The question was posed by lyricist Robert Hunter in the aftermath of the death of his writing partner and Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. If history is any guide, the question was answered long ago. Just go on the road. For the past two decades, the surviving members of the band have re-surfaced in many incarnations such as The Other Ones, Furthur, The Dead, and now Dead and Company.
Standing in the interminable lines outside the gates of the Jiffy Lube Live amphitheater in Bristow, VA, there was a sense of community that pervaded decades past and that has endured for more than fifty years. It was hard to count how many generations were represented. But there was familiarity and tradition handed down to millennial Deadheads raising their right index fingers in unison without the need for translation: Just one ticket. And when a sign appeared on the video screen during “Hell In a Bucket,” a woman flashed a sign that measured time and distance: “Conceived 30 years ago at a Grateful Dead Concert.”
I have friends who have openly said they will have nothing to do with this version of the Dead. I will admit I had my issues. When the surviving members of the band played their improbable fare thee well shows as the Grateful Dead at Wrigley Field with Trey Anastasio, all the while rumors circulated (soon proven true) that they were going back on the road with John Mayer. But at least they didn’t call it Grateful Dead.
I pretty much laid aside any baggage or conscience to consider a post-Jerry incarnation the very first time I saw John Mayer. When he stepped onstage with a slight bow of humility, he quickly fit in, dazzling with his understated enthusiastic playing. Tonight, Mayer in white socks, cargo shorts and hiking shoes looked like the boy who went to summer Dead camp, learned some tunes and never took his backpack off. In the humid summer night, Mayer stood in contrast to the ghostly Weir, enveloped by his overgrown white mane and beard which made it impossible to read his lips as he muttered and snarled his way through the night.
The show began with a hypnotic seductive groove of “Shakedown Street” that was propelled by bassist Oteil Burbridge and the dual drums of founding members Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann who are like the guys in the back of the office. They’re always there but they hardly get in the way.
Mayer doesn’t try to be someone he’s not and during a slowed down version of “Bertha,” he seemed to savor his vocal enunciations, injecting his own soulful take with every line. Taking off his sunglasses early in the set, he dueted with Weir on “Friend of The Devil. Weir donned an acoustic guitar and sang in almost spoken word as if he was sharing old folklore by the campfire. Where Jerry Garcia once sang the traditional folk song “Peggy-0,” Weir led in an impassioned and memorable reading. By the time they launched into “Cumberland Blues,” it felt like a freight train was coming down the tracks. Such is the interplay between Mayer and Weir that after an extended intro, a simple glance from Weir to Mayer brought them both to the mic.
Weir’s vocals are understandably more limited and in the set’s first closer, “Throwing Stones” it was like a spoken recitation. But Weir is like a sleeping bear waking up and barked out an anti-government line on the night of the first Democratic Party debate. “We’re on our own,” he kept snarling and repeating with the stitched on emblem VOTE noticeably visible on his guitar strap. Mayer’s piercing licks and Weir’s smile ended the first set with Weir saying the familiar words that is a half-century tradition: “We’re gonna take a short break and we’ll be right back.”
When they returned the band sang a cappella to the intro of “Here Comes Sunshine,” a song that ended in all vocals on its last word. As night had come, Weir’s dark recessed eyes looked almost raccoon-ish. “Playing In The Band” began with an extended jam and Mayer raised his eyebrows to keyboardist Jeff Chimenti to bring him back into the song that segued into “China Doll.” It was a highlight sung by Burbridge who was faithful to its brooding, rueful melody, accentuated by Mayer’s bended punctuated notes playing to the sense of the song’s torturedness. Following “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider” was a spoiler alert as it appeared on Chimenti’s monitor shown on the video screens. The ritual of “Drums” began shortly after 10:00 as the rhythm section of Hart, Kreutzmann and Burbridge stood in percussive unison with their backs to the audience. Hart broke away to his own electronic toy workshop for an abbreviated “Space” which was too short to summon outer worldly spirits.
Weir and company returned to the bandstand ramping up into a swinging “New Speedway Boogie.” Weir’s best moment of the night came during “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” with its age-old refrains as relevant as ever in the current political climate and world disorder.
Weir played slide through a rollicking “U.S. Blues.” Summer is here and the time was right, at least here tonight, for dancing in the aisles. The band ended the second set and then came back for an encore with Mayer and Weir both playing acoustic guitars to the gem from American Beauty, “Ripple.” There was a bow and the band left stage right. The exit gates were held until the band’s bus circled around the amphitheater within just minutes from the time they waved goodbye. And as it passed, they bid us good night.
Set List: Shakedown Street/Dire Wolf/Hell In a Bucket/Bertha/Friend of The Devil/Peggy-O/Cumberland Blues/Throwing Stones (Break) Here Comes Sunshine/Playing In The Band/China Doll/China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider/New Speedway Boogie/US Blues/ Encore: Ripple