Dead & Company, the Grateful Dead offshoot consisting of rhythm guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir, drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, bassist/vocalist Oteil Burbridge and lead guitarist/vocalist John Mayer, kicked off their final year of touring with the first of three nights at their annual Playing in the Sand destination event at the Moon Palace Resort in Cancun, Mexico.
This year’s event commenced as planned, and it made for a welcome return to “normal” after the cancellation of 2022’s two-weekend, six-show event. As a quick recap of that mess: after a rare decision by the event’s organizers to offer opt-out refunds just nine days before the first weekend due to overwhelming concerns relating to the surge of the Omicron strain of the COVID-19 virus, the entire event was subsequently called off due to a Covid outbreak amongst venue staff the day before the first show, after thousands of guests had already arrived at the resort. But this time, bad news did not intervene, and at around 7:40 p.m. the band ambled onstage to play their first show since last year’s summer tour.
As was often the case with the Grateful Dead and is still the case with Dead & Company, the first show after a longer layoff will sometimes have the feel of a public rehearsal at times, where the occasional lack of polish gets traded for a genuine look at how the members of an improvisation-heavy musical act re-establishes their onstage relationships in front of a crowd. It’s a custom and practice that Deadheads have long been willing to accept and appreciate, and on this evening the band responded with some big surges to round out the occasional rusty patch. It also didn’t hurt that Mother Nature cooperated by providing a clear, breezy night whose temperature started in the 70s and cooled off to the high 60s over the space of the show’s four hours.
Dead & Company – “Sugar Magnolia” – 1/14/23
As Weir counted in his signature rocker “Sugar Magnolia” to open the show, video screens revealed the first big surprise of the evening: Mayer seemed to be playing the late Grateful Dead lead guitarist Jerry Garcia’s Doug Irwin-built “Wolf” guitar, whose full tones are instantly familiar to longtime Deadheads. Looks can be deceiving, however, and the guitar in question was actually an exact replica of Jerry’s famous instrument. Prior to the show, Mayer posted on social media explaining that he would be using the recreation, which was commissioned by Irwin himself and crafted by Bill Asher using Irwin’s original drawings and templates.
“The result is pretty unbelievable. How unbelievable? I have to make sure to post this before tonight’s @deadandcompany show to make sure people don’t mistake it for the real thing!” Mayer wrote. “As someone who was lucky enough to play Jerry’s Wolf guitar for a show back in 2019, I can confidently say Doug and Bill nailed it.”
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The extended versions of “Deal” and “Shakedown Street” that followed both had enjoyable ebbs and flows that allowed Mayer ample room to solo, with Chimenti’s piano prompting the surges on the former and Burbridge’s thick bass lines enhancing the latter. The set’s clear highlight followed when Weir introduced Country Music Hall of Famer Wynonna Judd to sing “Ramble On Rose” with him. The two have a long history of collaborations, including a version of “Ramble On Rose” released in 2020. They collaborated earlier in the week at the Girls Just Wanna Weekend destination event at the nearby Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya, where Weir sat in on a few tunes along with event host Brandi Carlile.
Judd’s full, powerful vocals absolutely floored the crowd from the first line. It all gave Mayer a tough act to follow when he started the ensuing “They Love Each Other”, but he pulled it off with a great solo before Weir led the band through solid versions of “Tennessee Jed” and “Jack Straw”. The 85-minute set closed with a lively, upbeat version of “Casey Jones”.
After the usual intermission, the second set launched with the late-’60s psychedelic classic “St. Stephen”, whose complex twists and turns led to a couple minor stumbles before a lengthy, surging jam. However, instead of the expected transition into “The Eleven”, the band offered up the sole non-Grateful Dead-penned songs of the evening, a two-song medley of Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” combined with the coda of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”, and they would be the set’s highlights thanks to the surprise appearance of drummer Jay Lane, who for all intents and purposes has become the seventh member of Dead & Company, having subbed for Kreutzmann for around 20 shows since October of 2021. However, on this night he played Hart’s kit with an energy and physicality that resembled that of the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl while Hart prowled around behind him playing various drums from the band’s “wall of drums.” The genuine joy amongst all seven players was palpable.
Dead & Company – “St. Stephen” – 1/14/23
After a version of “Estimated Prophet” with a couple of rough patches and a smooth version of “Eyes of the World”, complete with the now-expected bass solo from Burbridge, the final major surprise of the night came during the “Drums” segment, when Kreutzmann, Hart, and Burbridge were joined by Lane, Timbuk3 drummer Wally Ingram, and Tedeschi Trucks Band drummer Isaac Eady for a frenetic, intense, six-man drumming workout that seemingly made use of every last percussion instrument onstage. Hart then took his customary solo spot playing low, gentle tones on The Beam before a short “Space” segment with strong hints of “Dark Star” gave way to a closing trio of “Cumberland Blues”, “Stella Blue”, and the widely-expected “One More Saturday Night”. A gentle semi-acoustic “Ripple” encore closed the show and sent the crowd back into the resort to pursue customary post-show activities deep into the night.
The Playing in the Sand event continues tonight with a show by special guests Goose before Dead & Company play their second and third shows on Monday and Tuesday. You can stream all of the shows via nugs.net.
For a complete list of upcoming Dead & Company The Final Tour 2023 dates, head here. Revisit Live For Live Music‘s full coverage of Playing In The Sand 2023: Night 1 | Night 2 (Goose) | Night 3 | Night 4
Setlist: Dead & Company | Playing In The Sand | Moon Palace | Cancún, Mexico | 1/14/23
Set 1: Sugar Magnolia > Deal, Shakedown Street, Ramble On Rose (with Wynonna Judd), They Love Each Other, Tennessee Jed, Jack Straw, Casey Jones (One More Saturday Night tease)
Set 2: St. Stephen, Dear Mr. Fantasy (Traffic) (with Jay Lane) > Hey Jude (The Beatles) (with Jay Lane) (Coda only), Estimated Prophet > Eyes of the World > Drums > Space > Cumberland Blues > Stella Blue, One More Saturday Night