Perhaps my biggest musical regret in life is that I didn’t get into the Grateful Dead until my senior year of high school. Jerry Garcia passed away less than a year after I started devouring Dead tunes as fast as I could. At the time, I would scour Jack’s Music Shoppe in Red Bank, NJ, for any live Dead they had. After Garcia died, I lamented the fact that I would never experience a Grateful Dead show in person, but continued to listen to everything I could get my hands on.
In an attempt to get as close as possible to the “Grateful Dead experience,” I have been to countless shows featuring the surviving members of the band: The Other Ones, Phil & Friends, Ratdog, The Dead, and The Rhythm Devils (not to mention GD cover bands such as Dark Star Orchestra). The 50th anniversary celebration Fare Thee Well shows in Chicago last July were pretty close to the real thing, but still no Jerry, as a friend of mine frequently likes to point out. Many thought that would be it for the “Core Four,” never to hit the stage together again. The Chicago stage would be the last time Phil, Bob, Mickey, and Billy would share in this special music together.
However, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Billy Kreutzmann decided to forge ahead with a new iteration of the band, this time called Dead & Company. The original band members brought forth John Mayer to take on the lead guitar role, Otiel Burbridge (Allman Brothers Band) to play bass, and Jeff Chimenti to man the keys, a role he has held down for Ratdog for some time. (Jeff shared the piano duties with Bruce Hornsby at the FTW shows last year.)
After a successful fall tour last year, Dead & Company hit the road for a 25 show summer tour which kicked off in San Francisco last month. The show they played in Washington DC last fall was pretty rockin’, so we decided they had earned another listen. We picked up the tour in a very warm Camden, NJ, at the
Blockbuster Tweeter Susquehanna Bank BB&T Pavilion, only two shows removed from their performance at Bonnaroo.
Camden, NJ, does not have the greatest reputation as far as east coast cities go, but the waterfront entertainment center, situated across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, is one of my favorite outdoor venues. The 25,000 seat venue features an expansive and comfortable lawn with great sound and beautiful sight lines. The Philly skyline to the west is a cool backdrop as the afternoon turns to evening. As this was our first summer show of the 2016 touring season, excitement was rampant in the car on our way north from Baltimore.
With showtime listed as 7:00, we headed from the steamy tailgate to the venue around 6:45. The line to get into the venue was long, and the anticipation of the patient crowd was palpable. While waiting for drinks, the band opened the show at 7:19 with a fun 10 minute run through of Bertha. As we stepped out onto the lawn, Dead & Company dropped a surprising and thundering Shakedown Street. Weir’s vocals were strong, and the funky, deliberately played fan favorite got the crowd grooving in the late day sun. West LA Fadeaway followed Shakedown, and John Mayer put forth a solid performance on guitar as he and Bobby mingled their sound effortlessly. Mayer seems to have really embraced the music and spirit of the Grateful Dead, despite a lack of exposure or experience with their catalog prior to 2011.
Mayer remained on vocals for Row Jimmy, and the slow, methodic pace of the evening continued into Crazy Fingers. The band was in no hurry to get through anything on this Summer Solstice Monday, and the appreciative crowd enjoyed every note and every word coming from the stage. The group picked up the pace slightly with short I Need a Miracle that included a sweet Mayer jam toward the end. He and Bob huddled for a few moments before breaking into the set-closing Big Railroad Blues, which had the crowd singing along with John as the sun set over the Delaware River and Philly skyline.
Monday was not only the Summer Solstice, it was also a full moon. This was not lost on us as we discussed possibilities for the second set, and we all figured what would be in play as the band came back out to begin the set at just after 9:00 pm. The group started up with Playin’ in the Band, one of the most noted Grateful Dead tunes in the catalog. Otiel Burbridge stepped up for a nice solo during the 13 minute version, filling in the bass licks admirably. Phil Lesh is hard to replace, there is no question about that. However, Oteil has done a great job providing the backbone to this amazing and historic music collection. The Wheel, also clocking in at over 13 minutes, followed Playin’. The end of The Wheel featured a few lines from Jefferson Airplane’s Won’t You Try, which was a nice surprise for fans on this evening.
Eyes of the World was up next- a personal favorite of mine- and this version did not disappoint. Weir’s vocals were again solid, and the band hit all the right spots over the 16 minutes they focused their energy on this one. The inevitable Standing on the Moon, sung by Mayer, was emotional and sweet, and felt perfectly placed as the full moon rose over Camden. I was in luck, as Let It Grow followed next. This, (and all of the Weather Report Suite) is one of the songs that hooked me to the Grateful Dead back in 1995, so I am always happy to get this one.
One aspect of the Grateful Dead that remains unchanged from the original, pre-Jerry-death days, is Drums–>Space. Mickey and Billy can completely change the tone and scene at a show when the rest of the band leaves them to their devices-literally- during drums. I was struck by this while at Soldier Field for Fare Thee Well last year, and this evening’s Drums were funky, groovy, rave-ish, and managed to keep most of the crowd hooked into the stage. Space saw the return of the rest of the group to the stage, save for Otiel, who had stayed out to assist Mickey and Billy. Space transformed into All Along the Watchtower, and the Bob Dylan tune had fans rejoicing up and down the lawn. Slowing things down with Morning Dew, the band stretched out a bit as the crowd sat down, but sang along to the ballad, which clocked in at 12 minutes. The familiar riff of Not Fade Away got everyone back on their feet as the music played the band for the end of the second set. The crowd sang along, adding the appropriate claps, and the energy that filled the venue boiled over into the summer night. After clearing the stage briefly, Dead & Company returned for a passionate Ripple encore, which left the entire crowd feeling joyous and grateful as the house lights came on just after 11:00.
Dead & Company stay true to the legacy of the Grateful Dead, and while nothing will be “the Grateful Dead,” this is pretty close. The song selection has been solid and well played. John Mayer is respectful of the music but he definitely brings some fire and he can rage these tunes. While I am not the biggest fan of his vocals, his guitar work more than compensates for any shortcomings I might find. The three original members of the Grateful Dead have chosen this band well, and it was great to be outside on the first day and night of summer, dancing and singing along to some good ole’ Grateful Dead.
The Dead & Company tour continues June 21 at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, NY, followed by shows in Virginia (June 23, Bristow), Citi Field in New York (June 25 & 26), and Hartford (Xfinity Theater, June 28). Check out the complete list of tour stops.
Dead & Company: BB&T Pavilion, Camden, NJ June 20, 2016
Set One: Bertha, Shakedown Street, West LA Fadeaway, Row Jimmy, Crazy Fingers, I Need a Miracle, Big Railroad Blues
Set Two: Playin’ in the Band, The Wheel->Eyes of the World->Standing on the Moon->Let It Grow->Drums->Space->All Along the Watchtower, Morning Dew, Not Fade Away