On Saturday, Dead & Company, the Grateful Dead spinoff band featuring guitarist/vocalist John Mayer, bassist/vocalist Oteil Burbridge, and keyboardist/vocalist Jeff Chimenti alongside Dead alumni guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, played the first night of Grateful Dead music at Hersheypark Stadium since a rain-soaked night on June 28, 1985, when the Dead delivered a definitive version of “The Music Never Stopped”.
As the band took the stage to a mostly-filled stadium with several rollercoasters from the adjacent amusement park visible above the grandstands, Weir channeled that 1985 Hershey show right away by kicking off the show with the tour’s first version of “The Music Never Stopped”, with Mayer singing the vocals originally handled by vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux. The jazzy 6/8 interlude in the middle gained momentum before the song’s upbeat closing jam took over, and the song doubled as a nice start to the show and a welcome nod to history.
Dead & Company – “The Music Never Stopped” – Hershey, PA – 8/28/21
From there, Weir steered the song directly into ’90s-era Dead tune “Easy Answers”, a complex Weir rocker that never fully caught on with Deadheads in its initial incarnation. However, the song fares much more favorably during its occasional appearances with Dead & Company, whose players effortlessly negotiate the song’s twists, turns, and backing vocals, and another lengthy jam also unfolded nicely over several minutes before a final verse and a transition back into a reprise of “The Music Never Stopped”. The pair of songs made for a cohesive 23-minute start to the show, and “Touch of Grey” followed without a pause, making its second appearance of the tour and remaining a welcome anthem of resilience.
A trio of Europe ’72-era classics followed, with the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter-penned “Tennessee Jed” kicking things off at a slower pace before concluding with a gently surging guitar solo from Mayer. The Ron “Pigpen” McKernan-written “Mr. Charlie” followed, with Mayer delivering a brisk, bluesy reading of this welcome little demon of a song. Weir completed the trio with his own mid-paced classic and ode to American travel “Black Throated Wind”, one of his best works with longtime collaborator John Perry Barlow.
Dead & Company – “Tennessee Jed” – Hershey, PA – 8/28/21
[Video: Keith Wilson]
Dead & Company – “Mr. Charlie” – Hershey, PA – 8/28/21
[Video: Ryan DeSain]
Weir stayed on lead vocals for a second straight song with “Cassidy”, his classic that first appeared on his 1972 Ace LP before becoming a live fixture from 1974 onwards. After an extended take on the structured solo between verses, the band took an eventful six-minute wander through the improvised section of the song before Chimenti led the charge to the closing vocals with a series of thick, dramatic piano chords. “Don’t Ease Me In” closed out the first set, which was notable for its consistency and for its inclusion of four complex Weir/Barlow songs, a change from the predominance of Garcia/Hunter material in typical Dead & Company setlists.
The second set kicked off with the second version of “Here Comes Sunshine” of the tour, and it would be one of the two highlights of the night. This wholesome title of the 1973 Garcia/Hunter vehicle obscures the rustic, optimistic survival tale of its lyrics, but Mayer has successfully absorbed both of these themes and this song has become another Dead & Company signature song for him, alongside “Althea”, “Brown-Eyed Women”, “Cold Rain and Snow”, and “Deal”.
Dead & Company – “Here Comes Sunshine” – Hershey, PA – 8/28/21
During the long, upbeat, kaleidoscopic instrumental section, Mayer traded notes and smiles with Chimenti as the two of them continued their entertaining onstage bromance. Several minutes later, Burbridge generated a nice surge of notes from higher up on the neck of his bass, which prompted a similar surge from Chimenti and in turn led to Mayer dropping into the song’s main riff to usher the band into the final verse.
Weir countered with another of his best original songs, “Estimated Prophet”. It was a unique version of the song that emphasized exploration over power during its 16 minutes of controlled murkiness as well as an exceptionally long take on the mid-song solo that slowed down and threatened to stop before a burst of energetic piano from Chimenti got everyone back up to a trot. Weir then chose to forego the usual surge and power chords in favor of singing the final verse and an extended vocal outro before ceding to a second Garcia/Hunter classic from 1973.
“Eyes Of The World” picked the pace right back up, with the tempo of the song coming in a little faster than the Grateful Dead’s early, epic versions on which Dead & Company’s typical readings are based. Chimenti’s emphatic jazz piano solo after the second verse would be the song’s peak, and it was yet another moment during the past week that increased the volume of the whispers that Chimenti is having the best Dead & Company tour of his career.
Following Burbridge’s signature bass solo to close the song, Mayer counted in the aforementioned “Althea”, which was bolstered by his soaring guitar solo and a full slide guitar solo from Weir before the final verses. The “Drums” segment that followed took a heavier, consistent, and powerful approach from Kreutzmann and Hart for its duration, but Hart would provide counterpoint by making his solo Beam segment comparably softer and and heavier on the drones. Following a few minutes of a free-form “Space” segment by the guitarists and Chimenti, the drummers returned for a run of songs that featured covers by four legendary American music figures alongside one Weir/Barlow original.
First up was the second highlight of the show, a headlong flight through the Miles Davis-penned “Milestones” that lasted 10 minutes and featured Burbridge, in an outsized role, offering up lead bass lines that wove between runs from Mayer and Chimenti while Weir played a series of chords that felt like ongoing reactions to whomever he happened to be focused on at the moment.
The set’s closing run of songs kicked off with Woody Guthrie’s “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad”, with Dead & Company opting for the less frantic approach taken by the Grateful Dead in their classic 1971 versions of the song. Each of the four vocalists sang a verse, with Chimenti’s gruff vocals generating the loudest cheers.
From there it was straight into a solid and well-received reading of the Reverend Gary Davis’ somber lament “Death Don’t Have No Mercy”, which hadn’t been played since the tour’s opening night in Raleigh. The set closed with a quick run through Weir’s “One More Saturday Night”, and the band stayed in place to knock out a snappy version of Bob Dylan’s “Quinn The Eskimo” as the encore finished the show less than two minutes before the venue’s hard curfew of 11:00 p.m.
Dead & Company’s tour continues September 2nd with a two-night run at the Xfinity Center in Mansfield, MA. Head here for tickets.
Setlist: Dead & Company | Hersheypark Stadium | Hershey, PA | 8/28/21
Set One: The Music Never Stopped > Easy Answers > The Music Never Stopped, Touch Of Grey, Tennessee Jed, Mr. Charlie, Black Throated Wind, Cassidy, Don’t Ease Me In
Set Two: Here Comes Sunshine, Estimated Prophet > Eyes Of The World > Althea > Drums > Space > Milestones > Going Down The Road Feeling Bad > Death Don’t Have No Mercy > One More Saturday Night
Encore: Quinn The Eskimo
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