Dead & Company returned to Texas for the first time since December 2017 to play their first show at Dos Equis Pavilion on July 2nd, a 20,000-capacity amphitheater that opened in 1998 but whose name has changed six times in 21 years via the coming and going of corporate sponsors. Unsurprisingly, an outdoor show in Dallas in July brought some seriously hot weather with it, as it was still 90 degrees with 54% humidity when the band took the stage at around 7:20 p.m.
Lead guitarist John Mayer made a strong statement simply by walking onstage in a Stevie Ray Vaughan tour t-shirt from 1989, which was sure to endear him to the locals. (Vaughan, a Dallas native and one of the premier guitar players of the 20th century, was killed in a helicopter crash at the age of 35 in 1990 after leaving a show with Eric Clapton at Alpine Valley Music Center in 1990) Mayer also got the first lead vocal of the night and led the band through a solid reading of “Bertha”.
Not to be outgunned in any way, rhythm guitarist, vocalist and band leader Bob Weir, who was clad in a D’Angelico Guitars t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, responded with “Minglewood Blues”, a song he’s been singing since at least 1966 as well as the the first of four songs in the set containing references to Texas in the lyrics. The chugging, mid-paced version fit the vibe perfectly and allowed the crowd to take in Weir’s filthy, careening slide guitar solo as the early evening sun shined onto the stage. “Row Jimmy” followed and allowed everyone to slow down a bit as Mayer led the band through its verses. This song has undergone a resurgence on this tour, starting with its prominent second set placement at the opening run at Shoreline Amphitheatre, and somehow this song made perfect sense in the middle of the Texas summer and its nearby Trinity River.
Weir donned an acoustic guitar before leading the band through a bang-bang-bang trio of songs. “Deep Elem Blues” got its first airing of the tour, an appropriate choice given that the actual (and legendary) Deep Ellum district was only 2 miles away. The opening line got the expected large cheer from the crowd and Weir, Mayer and bassist Oteil Burbridge each sang a verse. It was a shorter version with less soloing, but before anyone had a chance to think about that Weir, now covered in sweat, guided the band straight into “Friend of the Devil”, whose outlaw desperado lyrics were not out of place in this location. Keyboardist Jeff Chimenti stole this version the song with some barrelhouse piano augmented by a couple of subtle Burbridge runs on his lowest strings. At its conclusion, Weir then launched into a third straight song, and also the third song in the set with a Texas reference: “El Paso”. This Marty Robbins classic has been in Weir’s repertoire since 1970 and received its first airing since its performance at Dead & Company’s legendary show in Eugene last summer. This version waltzed along beautifully as Mayer peeled off a beautiful solo where he effortlessly alternated between playing with a pick and with his fingers.
As the sun finally began to set behind the crowd, Mayer was able to doff his sunglasses and start “Sugaree”, which in its now-customary late-first-set position allows a fully warmed-up band to back Mayer’s guitar pyrotechnics. If someone got the idea that Mayer might be thinking he needed to knock this one out of the park while he was paying homage to the best guitarist to ever go out of this city? You’d be right, but you wouldn’t know it from the solo after the first verse, which was pretty quick or the solo after the second verse, which was longer and more relaxed. However, the solo after the third verse one quickly became much more bluesy and forceful, and once Mayer caught a wave and started rolling, it became obvious from a couple of stylistic flourishes that this was indeed his nod to Stevie Ray. As Mayer jumped back and forth between his own distinct style with with SRV-style licks in between, it became one of the set’s two high points. As Mayer sang the last “Meeeeee…..” to close the song, he sang it with a smile. He knew he’d nailed it, and it could have been the end of the set.
But it wasn’t, as the band opted to deploy “Jack Straw” as a set-closing knockout punch instead of saving it for the tour’s final shows in Boulder. The crowd responded with the expected enthusiasm, to the point where they sang so loudly on the “Leaving Texas, 4th day of July” verse that they were clearly audible to those watching the show remotely via webcast. Once the second jam started, Mayer turned toward Chimenti to play off one another as they so often do, but then a very good thing happened on the way to the border. Drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann significantly sped up the tempo of the song, and by the time Weir played his power chords with his windmill-like flourishes and Burbridge dropped bass bombs to match, the tempo had reached that spot in Grateful Dead versions of the song, and the response was euphoric. All in all, it was one of the most enjoyable first sets of the tour. Aside from the inclusion of four songs with Texas references, a close look at the setlist revealed that it was filled with some of the oldest songs in the Grateful Dead’s repertoire: with the exception of “Row Jimmy”, which first appeared in 1973, every song in the set dated back to 1971 or earlier.
The second set started with a decidedly different flavor, with the funky “Shakedown Street” kicking off a second set for the first time since Dead & Company’s set with jazz legend Branford Marsalis at LOCKN‘ last August. It was a peppy, upbeat version of the disco-infused song from 1978 and the long jam at the song’s conclusion took a decided turn towards “Slipknot!” for a few seconds while Burbridge punctuated the passage with a popping bass run, but ultimately the song wound to a close after 16 minutes.
At this point, anyone yelling out “play the old stuff” would have had their plea answered in a huge way. The rest of the second set was comprised entirely of songs from the Grateful Dead repertoire from the 1960s. It began with “Uncle John’s Band”, which turned up late in 1969 and started out as a shorter acoustic number on the Workingman’s Dead LP, but later evolved into a longer number in electric form. This version was longer and more relaxed, and the jam out of “Uncle John’s” was unusually long and floaty, and by the time the band eventually it circled back to the vocal reprise and finished the song a full 13 minutes had drifted by.
The set took a strong turn towards the psychedelic world with the first appearance of “St. Stephen” since it opened the “Wolf” show at Citifield in New York, and like “Uncle John’s Band” it was a sprawling version made to be heard while withstanding Texas summer heat. The song’s extended jam contained an excellent highlight when a quieter part that became curiously insistent allowed Mayer to start repeating a hypnotic, bluesy guitar phrase. Chimenti picked up on it and built on it while Weir dropped in strange chords at the right times and Burbridge’s bass lines skittered along in the background, and through it all Kreutzmann’s masterful drumming, complete with perfectly changing time signatures, kept everyone moving forward. It was so distinct from what was around it that a listener who’d dropped into the middle of it would have a difficult time knowing it was part of “St. Stephen”, eventually Mayer strummed the chords to signal the return to the vocal reprise and the song’s conclusion after almost 16 minutes.
The late-sixties journey continued with “The Eleven”, which curiously remains broken into “William Tell Bridge” and “The Eleven” on band setlists, and after the band got quickly through the “William Tell” verses, they headed straight back right back to the exploratory territory that was characterizing the set. Once again, the initial jam took its time and explored its territory, and for the second straight song, a listener who dropped into this song might have had a very hard time guessing which song the band was actually playing. At one point the jam slowed down to a complete stop, raising the possibility of the “Drums” section starting or Weir starting a ballad, but instead he strummed the opening chords to the eleven-beat chord progression that gives the song its name.
After Weir sang the verses to “The Eleven’ the jam increased in intensity for a short bit before settling back to a more shuffling tempo while Chimenti and Mayer locked eyes, made faces at one another, and complemented each other’s playing and finishing each other’s musical sentences. Chimenti has become to Mayer in Dead & Company what “early Keith Godchaux” and “later Brent Mydland” each were to Jerry Garcia in the Grateful Dead – a keyboard player who became the ideal musical foil for the lead guitarist.
After 15 minutes had passed, Mayer, Weir, and Chimenti left the stage as Hart, Kreutzmann and Burbridge began the “Drums” kicked into play with what sounded like crickets chirping over some early 80s-style synthesizer tones, while Kreutzmann skillfully flailed away at his kit. He soon grabbed a large pair of mallets to pound away with Burbridge at the large set of drums that comprise The Beast for a much louder, tribal segment before yielding to Hart, who gently sawed on the string of The Beam with a violin bow to generate a nice underbuzz as an electronic loop pulsated gently in the foreground. Hart was soon twisting knobs on another synthesizer as the guitarists and Chimenti returned to the stage for “Space”, and for a few seconds it all sounded like a lot of chatter in some cantina at the end of the universe. The short segment maintained a mellower, more harmonious vibe, and Chimenti’s overlay of piano chords provided nice accents near the jam’s conclusion.
The set’s intergalactic journey made its way back to earth via the arrival of the somber death ballad “Black Peter”, which, along with “Uncle John’s Band” also debuted in December 1969 before its inclusion on Workingman’s Dead. This was a slower version that lacked steam at first, but there was a strong finish courtesy of Mayer’s guitar solo and Burbridge’s insistent bass thumps during its closing jam.
The set closer came in the form of “Good Lovin’”, which started out as a vehicle for Grateful Dead vocalist/keyboardist Ron “Pigpen’ McKernan’s raps in the 1960s before its reappearance as a standard (and sometimes too-standard) second-set closer of Grateful Dead shows in the 1980s. Tuesday’s version was only the 9th time it had closed the second set in 130 Dead & Company shows and it made for an enjoyable finish of a remarkable run of vintage tunes. And what the set lacked in over-the-top intensity was more than made up for by the sheer amount of jamming that was packed full of subtlety and attention to musical detail. It was a listener’s paradise, and a set to really get lost in. The set may have started and finished in Dallas, but in between it went to a lot of other places that were gently off-planet.
“Black Muddy Rive”r served as a quieter, reflective encore for the fans who love the song, while giving those who felt otherwise a chance to get a head start to their cars. Along with “Althea” and “Brown-Eyed Woman”, Mayer gets inside this Garcia/Hunter song so well that it feels at times like it had been written for him and he brought the song and the show to a satisfying close.
Dead & Company’s Dallas show featured one of the tour’s best first sets, during which the band took great care to tip their hats and show respect to Texas and its rich tradition of spawning great songs featuring desperate criminals. Meanwhile, the second set may not have been as explosive as others on the tour, but it was a listeners’ paradise for well over an hour and a set to really get lost in.
Dead & Company’s summer tour concludes with two shows at Folsom Field in Boulder, CO on Friday, July 5th and Saturday, July 6th. Head to the band’s website for ticketing and more information.
Setlist: Dead & Company | Dos Equis Pavilion | Dallas, TX | 7/2/2019
I: Bertha > Minglewood Blues, Row Jimmy, Deep Elem Blues, Friend of the Devil, El Paso, Sugaree, Jack Straw
II: Shakedown Street, Uncle John’s Band, St. Stephen > William Tell Bridge > The Eleven > Drums /Space > Black Peter > Good Lovin’
Encore: Black Muddy River