“There’s nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.”
It’s been this Deadhead’s mantra for many, many years. The band first found me in Houston in October of 1988. Their music and the magical tribe that traveled with them endeared themselves to me nearly immediately. In fact, so much so, that the following day I tagged along with friends in a vehicle of questionable road worthiness for the 225 mile jaunt up I-45 for the show in Dallas. Since those first few shows, and over the following years I have seen the Grateful Dead and its various incarnations more than any other band. In fact, easily so. There’s simply no other band that ever managed to capture my heart and soul like the Grateful Dead have. Yet, for a variety of reasons, I had yet to see the current incarnation, Dead & Company, perform live. As things often do in the Dead universe, everything comes full circle and happens for a reason. I finally saw Dead & Company this past week in Dallas, some 31 years after those very first shows.
The band rolled into Dallas’ Dos Equis Pavilion for the next-to-last stop of their Summer 2019 tour. The band has gained traction and momentum with each year and subsequent tour since their 2015 debut. The band is led by original Grateful Dead members, Bobby Weir, Billy Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart. Rounding out the band is longtime Weir collaborator, Jeff Chimenti on keys, Oteil Burbridge on bass, and of course John Mayer handling guitar and vocal duties.
Part of the fun of a new tour or even the specific dates is speculating the set list and song rotation. The band kicked things off with a rollicking “Bertha” that allowed the band to stretch things out a bit. As expected, the Texas references were abundant, and following “Bertha,” the band delivered “New Minglewood Blues” and its “wanted man in Texas” lyric.
Over the remainder of the first set, the band also dropped Texas references with the tour debut of “Deep Elem Blues,” “Friend of the Devil,” “El Paso” (another tour debut), and the set closing “Jack Straw.” That initial trio also included some really tasty acoustic licks from Weir and showcased some slide play as well. The real highlight of the first set though, was a jam filled “Sugaree,” that was the first song of the night to really showcase the improvisation that fuels the band and creates a desire to catch multiple shows of a tour.
With the night’s Texas songs out of the way, for the second set the band returned with an extended “Shakedown Street” that then evolved into a meaty “Uncle John’s Band.” The second half of the song saw Chimenti introduce a jazz theme that would weave its way back into the musical explorations throughout the remainder of the evening. “St. Stephen” followed and included the “William Tell Bridge” furthering the journey into “The Eleven.” Kreutzmann and Hart’s Drums segment on this night saw Burbridge joining in for the first portion. The groove that developed was another well-executed highlight of the show for me. The percussions were melodic and hypnotic, and the spell continued via the chaotic nature of Space before morphing into “Black Peter” and the set closing, vibrant “Good Lovin’.”
“When I can’t hear the song for the singer.”
When Mayer recited that lyric in the beautifully delivered “Black Muddy River” it took on a new and different interpretation to me. There’s an element of fans that dislike this incarnation of the Grateful Dead for reasons ranging from the pace of the music, or even the simple presence of Mayer himself. Those people are absolutely entitled to their opinion. But for me I think those dismissing this band are missing out the what I see as perhaps the most inspired version of the band since the passing of Jerry Garcia. These musicians are pushing one another to new plateaus, all while sharing a unique, special musical chemistry.
In the end, it really should be about hearing the songs rather than the singer, and celebrating that these men still want to share them with us. No other songs can reach me like these songs do. It’s the nuances and inflections. It’s the faulty nature and imperfect method in which the band presents them. These songs have become part of who and what I am and I can’t imagine my life without hearing these songs live and continuing to evolve. While on paper the Dallas show may not look as “exploratory” as say, the Wrigley Field stop, I’d argue that it was handily their equal in its own unique way. Dallas was well played and featured a band that seemed fresh, energetic and inspired. They covered a lot of ground, and left their Texas audience with smiles and memories that will linger for some time.
There really is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.
Keep track of all things Dead & Company here: https://www.deadandcompany.com/