Dead and Company: Dallas and Houston, October 2021
Thirty-three years ago this month marks a rather significant day in my musical development. In October of 1988, I saw my first two Grateful Dead shows, and if I’m being honest, it left much more than just an impression on my music tastes. Those first two shows changed me. Maybe not overnight, but it certainly jump started a whole bunch of shifts in my psyche and approaches towards life that has guided me ever since. I’ve seen the band and it’s various offshoots countless times over the years. I’ve traveled, met and made friends with people all over the country and abroad. I’ve met several members of those bands, and discovered all kinds of great music. There are all kinds of myths and tales of coincidences surrounding the Dead, so it really shouldn’t have been a surprise that almost three decades to the day, Dead and Company would return to play Dallas and Houston once again. You just can’t miss something like that right? I geared up to hit the road again.
Covid 19: “Hold my beer.”
When Dead and Company’s fall tour went on sale, it sure looked like there was a light at the end of the tunnel in regards to the pandemic. Unfortunately, that light kinda ended up being a gorilla with a flashlight. Another round of the plague amped up, and with each day, and more bands canceling tours, it didn’t look promising. Thankfully, the tour went on with the band taking some unprecedented steps to try to keep fans safe. To access the pit, you had to have proof of vaccination. Period, end of discussion. Those in the seated areas or on the lawn needed the aforementioned proof of vaccination, or results of a negative test within the past 48 hours. These protocols may have varied depending on the state and local requirements where the band played, but you get the idea. Was the process successful? I think so. I’ve not heard or seen data of any significant increases in cases where the band has played, and I actually discussed this with some of the heads following the tour. Certainly there were lapses in the protocols. Certain staff at the gates barely glanced at the documents provided. In my case, I utilized the testing process. Despite paying for testing on site in Dallas, once I got to the venue in Houston I was told I had to test again, but waived another fee. Fine. But wait. Now somebody realizes I’m photographing. So, it was decided that now I had to test yet again with the venue staff. Say what? Huh? Then this person says no, “he’s good for 48,” then gets overruled by another. It was like herding cats. Chaos. So yeah, I ended up taking two tests within a hour or so. Keep in mind, while the most significant rise in cases has been breakthrough cases, none of those with proof of vaccination had to take a single test. Much less three. Regardless, the majority of both venue and testing staffs were great. They were friendly, accommodating, patient, and most seemed to actually enjoy the atmosphere. They did an admirable job under less than ideal circumstances.
Wasting absolutely no time, and in the shadows of the Texas State Fair, the band kicked off with an obvious statement in the form of “Man Smart, Woman Smarter.” As recognition of the song and its intentions set in motion, a wave of cheers and applause began swelling through the crowd. A rollicking “Bertha” followed, with a tour debut of Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately” on its heels (complete with complimentary Bobby vocal flub in the first verse).
“Brown-Eyed Women” and “Peggy-O” came up next and it became pretty apparent that the band were playing a statement set themed around women. A nice “Cassidy” followed with a bit of inspired jamming. Back in the 2019 Dallas summer stop, John Mayer led the band through an insane first set “Sugaree.” This one was good, but to my ears paled in in comparison. After “just a little bit,” the band returned to the Dos Equis Pavilion stage with an oddly placed “Deep Elem Blues” to open the second set. I’ve always loved the song, but it’s one I catch damn near every time. If the band comes to Dallas you’re going to hear it. Plan accordingly. A much more enjoyable “Help>Slip>Franklin’s” followed though, Mayer botched the first verse. Still it was a tight, fast (in Dead and Company terms) and version that menacingly slid into a ridiculous “Other One>Drums/Space>Cumberland Blues>Death Don’t Have No Mercy”. The later, was a highlight of the Texas run. Weir’s vocals were absolutely impeccable, with the band giving him plenty of room. It’s worth noting, that both night’s Drums segments were outstanding. Kreutzman and Hart are masters of their craft. The addition of Burbridge on percussion only adds to the segment, resulting in the fact that in each D&C show I’ve seen, Drums has been a highlight.
What better to drive the preceding heaviness of the previous segment than an always rambunctious “Sugar Magnolia.” With Bobby foregoing the predictability notion of leaving the stage for the encore, the band presented us with the notion of “Liberty” to consider on our journeys home or onward. The previous 2019 show was better overall. I thought the flow of the first set kinda suffered from the novelty of presenting the message they did. By no means forced, rather just kinda clunky and disjointed. Still, there was plenty of inspiration to be found if you were looking. The second set really began to come together during H>S>F, and simply got better and better. All in all a good show. I’d give it 3.5 out of 5. Those of us headed to Houston had high hopes and anticipation for an even better night of music.
Houston was my home for 30 years and I loved growing up there. I barely recognize it anymore. I ended up getting a motel room up on the northside, near my old stomping grounds in Spring. before the Friday night show I drove around a bit hoping to spark some recognition, but it wasn’t really any use. All of my old landmarks are long gone in the name of progress, and ultimately I was left with a flood of memories, both good and bad. Thankfully, an old Mexican restaurant, El Palenque, was still there, right where it was supposed to be, and I dropped in for a pre-show meal before hoping on I-45 and heading up to the Woodlands Pavilion. The Cynthia Woods Mitchell pavilion is situated in a upscale designer community, that as the name The Woodlands conveys, is surrounded with a literal forest of pine and hardwoods. It’s a beautiful area, that’s continued to grow much like Houston to it’s south. Once again I found myself somewhat lost before tossing my pride and relying on my GPS to get me to the parking lots. Getting into the Pavilion has always included a lengthy walk. Regardless of where you park, and tonight was no exception.
Once I finally made my way in to the venue to collect my credentials, I was able to wander about a bit just before the gates opened for fans. Despite all the exterior changes, here was, for the most part the same venue I spent many an evening at. Right there was the place a guy projectile vomited “The Exorcist” style, during the Pavilion’s very first rock concert, David Bowie’s ChangesBowie tour. There’s the backstage area my wife and I had a remarkable conversation with Blind Melon’s frontman, Shannon Hoon. Over there was where the booth where we sold cds and tapes, and managed to pull off an after show autograph signing with Eric Johson and Steve Vai after the second G3 tour. Good times, but that’s not to say there weren’t some bad times either. That wall over there was were, yours truly, sat down against hoping to sober up a bit after an all day, booze-fueled summer party before that evening’s Sammy Hagar concert. You see, just behind that gate over there, where now my photography equipment rests, was the medical area where the Sheriffs dragged me to after I passed out. I still remember that hangover, and that reminder as to why I no longer drink. Good and bad, the memories subsided a bit as the gates opened up and fans made there way to their seats and began spreading colorful blankets down to claim a piece of real estate on the lawn.
Even in October, Houston can be a sweaty, humid mess. Not tonight. One of the first cold fronts of the season had managed to push it’s way into the area, and while still somewhat warm, it was a welcomed relief. A sky of colors setting behind the lawn added to the effect. Dead and Company started the night with a combo of “The Music Never Stopped>Easy Answers.” The later, primarily a Hunter/Weir composition, has been much maligned over the years. Justly, and perhaps more likely, unjustly. Weir has continued to throw it out there post Grateful Dead, through all of the various bands he’s been a part of. Last year I watched a Weir and Wolf Brothers livestream, and was blown away by the version of the song they performed that night. Not quite on that level, this one was nonetheless more fun than I would have previously given it credit for. The song jammed out for a bit before returning to a reprise of “The Music Never Stopped” I missed a good portion of the following “Dire Wolf” with Mayer on vocals, while returning my camera gear to the secure area, but what I heard sounded great. Bobby dropped in “El Paso,” obliging both the expected Texas content as well as fulfilling Weir’s typical first set cowboy tune. A beautiful “Row Jimmy” preceded the powerhouse duo of “Jack Straw” (another Texas content song) and “Mississippi Half-Step, Uptown Toodeloo” that closed out the first set.
Having arrived at the venue fairly early, I was rewarded with an opportunity to hear the band soundcheck. Already in the first set the band had played a couple of those, “Row Jimmy” and “Half-Step,” which had undoubtedly benefited from the extra attention. In fact, each song they soundchecked ended up in the night’s show. “St.Stephen,” “The Eleven,” and perhaps the one I was most excited for, with the colorful sunset fading, and a stunning ¾ moon above the stage, the band kicked off the second set with a remarkable “Here Comes Sunshine.” “Truckin’” came up next, and with the “Houston, too close to New Orleans” lyric the lights went up and the crowd roared. Hot damn. what a crowd it was. Easily the biggest audience I’d ever seen at the pavilion.
As the band slid into some exploration of the cosmos during “St. Stephen>William Tell>The Eleven” I found a spot in the wings of the seated area. The spot afforded me an opportunity to watch the remarkable light show and observe the massive crowd. As I did so, I noticed another fan; one of the touring heads, glancing about like I was with probably the same bewildered grin on his face that I had. For half a second I wondered if he was thinking the same thing I was, before we made eye contact, laughed, shook our heads and at nearly the same time, “Man, ain’t it beautiful?”. It really was. We both moved on, and I had big fun watching the “normals” gawking and attempting to navigate the spinners that claimed the walkway for their performance art. Coming out of the Drums/Space, the band dabbled with a “Milestones” theme for a bit, having a grand time and with Weir donning a cowboy hat.
The jam wound down, and transformed into what was probably the best “Days Between” I’ve seen Weir perform live. It’s a deeply personal song, one that most consider Hunter/Garcia’s final masterpiece. For that reason, there are those that dislike Weir covering the song, Or, any Garcia song for that matter. Personally, I’ve never minded, and love the ability to see these songs continue to evolve. Vocally, this was Bobby at his finest of the run, and as the song swelled climatically, it felt therapeutic. This was one of the final songs I saw Garcia perform, and somehow this felt cathartic even. A rambunctious “U.S. Blues” followed, with one of the best light shows I’ve seen the band do. A skeletal Uncle Sam appeared and morphed on the screens behind the band, as lights of red, white and blue flooded the stage and audience. Huge shout out to the light crew, as both Texas shows were visually stunning. Here, despite the previous night’s admonishment of the encore process, the band did leave the stage briefly, before returning for Mayer to deliver a magnificent “Black Muddy River.”
It was only 10:30pm, and many of us were hoping for a special treat of a double encore, but alas, the band retreated as the houselights came up. But not before an acknowledgment of the next day birthday celebrants Weir and Mayer who share October 16 birthdays, with a disjointed serenade of the song.
Lots of Deadheads have a negative view of Texas as a whole. There was a reason the Grateful Dead hadn’t played Houston or Dallas after 1988. The Drug War and mandatory minimums. Frankly, Texas law enforcement has always played hardball with Heads. So, while many surrounding states have moved into forms of legalization of marijuana, Texas hasn’t, and believe me the touring heads know this. That, combined with the current over-politicized culture likely resulted in countless fans staying home in protest, or just skipping Texas altogether out of an abundance of caution. Security and staff were pretty chill though, only engaging to keep aisles clear and help fans into their seats. Outside the venue though was a different story though, pre-show, one of the Woodlands’ finest ticketed a fan for speeding on the road near the box office, but more frustrating, did their best to shut down the vendors. Dallas did the same, refusing to allow a dedicated lot to morph into “Shakedown Street”. Post show, lots were blocked off and police herded fans away from anywhere the market tried to come to fruition.
Considering all this as I drove back to my motel, I realized that I hadn’t seen a single jam band stickered vehicle on nearly the whole trip. We used to count the number of fans on the road, in a punch buggy kind of game. This simple process of acknowledging other fans on the road might result in making road buddies and connections with like minded individuals. It was odd to not see it, but I suppose it is a different world these days. Thankfully, the environment inside the venues remained the same. Strangers stopping strangers, just to shake their hands. People discussing favorite shows and song versions, or acknowledging another fans clever lot shirt from back in the day. Friends reunited, and new friendships forged. Somehow, this collection of original (Weir, Kreutzman and Hart) and new (Mayer, Chimenti and Burbridge) have trapped lightning in a bottle. Not just musically, but also in regards to the scene. There’s something different about this configuration, something that has sparked new interests in the music and culture of the band. No, it’s not the Grateful Dead, rather an evolution of the band that is bigger than itself. I hope it continues. The band seems to be having a hoot, and is enjoying the moment as much as the fans. In the end, I keep coming back to that shared comment with my friend that I’d never met before. “Ain’t it beautiful?” It’s changed in a lot of ways, but yeah…it’s still beautiful.