Dead & Company returned to New York City on Halloween night to play the first of two shows at Madison Square Garden as part of their 2019 Fall Fun Run. Their first time back at the venue since 2017, the boys performed a stacked setlist of Robert Hunter songs and embraced the weird vibes in a spooky concert for the ages.
Dead shows are always a magnet for weirdness, but this particular Halloween show was a real freak parade, and extravagant costumes took center stage whenever the music wasn’t playing. Colorful life-sized bears danced with skeletal Uncle Sams, zombies mingled with hippies, and bloodstained tie-dyes adorned heavily makeuped…what were they supposed to be? Everybody created quite the scene outside the Garden as Deadheads gathered to show their true colors. For those of us who live in the Concrete Jungle, it was quite refreshing.
Rhythm guitarist Bob Weir emerged onstage to thunderous applause, wearing a green plaid kilt and a rare smile. He and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart soon kicked off the show with “Ripple”, as the big screens flashed a photo montage of Hunter, who passed away in September. Lead guitarist John Mayer, bassist Oteil Burbridge, and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti soon joined the original band members to complete the American Beauty classic in a moving but lighthearted tribute to the Dead’s late lyricist. Every song the band played last night, except for the encore, was a Hunter tune.
The set then gained some steam with “Shakedown Street”, with Mayer playing a new gray quilted PRS Super Eagle that he wound up using for the entire show. The boys did a good job of funkifying a lagging tempo during “Shakedown”, but the set ramped up significantly when they launched into an energetic “Bertha”, which featured some of the most seamless soloing from Mayer to date. Arms outstretched and with a huge smile across his face, former NBA player and well-known Deadhead Bill Walton stuck out from the floor crowd like, well, someone who’s close to seven feet tall.
“Loser” came next, as gorgeous and mournful as anyone could’ve hoped for. The band followed this up with “They Love Each Other,” which saw Chimenti’s organ playing at its best. “Tennessee Jed” followed and evolved into a thumping rollick before swinging back into the endlessly singable refrain. Dead & Company closed the first set with an unexpected “Terrapin Station”. Impressively, Mayer laid down nearly pitch-perfect vocals on “Lady With a Fan”, a beautiful, yet tough song to sing that doesn’t always get its due. An ethereal instrumental bridge brought the band into “Terrapin”, which was excellently delivered save for a bit of a fumble during the outro.
Dead & Company – “They Love Each Other” – 10/31/2019
[Video: Matt Frazier]
While usually their first sets are 8 songs long, the band seemed to rush off the stage last night for the set break after 7, likely to make more time for the second set with MSG’s curfew looming. Their setlist printout, posted on social media with a final song in the first set redacted, seems to indicate that they would have played “Deal” after “Terrapin,” but that’s just the author’s educated guess. Perhaps they’ll play it tonight?
Hart and Kreutzmann soon took the stage during the set break, clad in devil costumes, and called for Burbridge to join them. In a hilariously weird, yet touching surprise, the veteran drummers officially inducted their bandmate into the Rhythm Devils in a “horning ceremony”, sliding a pair of Halloween devil horns onto his head. “I got my horns!” Burbridge yelled to a raucous applause.
The band started off the second set with “Playing In the Band”, which grew into a jam that drove to a fantastically intense crescendo. The band sounded tighter and more together than they had in the first set, and this trend continued throughout the rest of the show. From the echoes of their set opener screamed a gritty “Truckin’”, which ultimately evolved into a jam with hints of “The Other One” and eventually transitioned into a very neatly delivered “Uncle John’s Band”. With a great tempo and wonderful interplay between Mayer and Chimenti, it was as close to a definitive live performance of “Uncle John’s Band” as one could get.
The set continued with the Burbridge-sung “China Doll”, a spooky beauty that fit the Halloween vibe perfectly and showcased the bassist’s exceptional vocals. As the final notes rang out, Mayer led the band into an uptempo “Eyes of the World” and lavished attention on Chimenti throughout, his melodic sparring partner for the evening. Following a choreographed sonic dissipation, Burbridge took up the reins and improvised a bass solo that drew the rest of the band back into the structure of the song for a crashing finish.
“Drums” followed, featuring the newly-initiated Burbridge along with the original Rhythm Devils. Eventually he and Kreutzmann left Hart alone onstage, and a real moment of sublimity occurred as Mickey stood hunched over The Beam, capturing Madison Square Garden with its interdimensional vibrations. From the depths of “Space” emerged “The Wheel”, and the clear tones and arpeggiations of Mayer’s PRS were a welcoming contrast to the previous chaos.
“Standing On the Moon” came next, powerfully delivered and full of reverence for its writer. This late second set tune also takes the night’s “Filthiest Guitar Solo” award; although not particularly virtuosic, Mayer’s guitar work in the latter half of the tune absolutely dripped with emotion and was perfectly suited to the energy of the tune being played, making “Moon” the most soul-stirring, dramatic song of the night. Performances like this one highlight the band’s good instinct in trusting Mayer. Finally, “Sugar Magnolia” wrapped up the second set with its frenetic “Sunshine Daydream” outro. Pressed for time and already a minute or two over the 11pm curfew, the band barely left the stage before returning to play a romping cover of Warren Zevon‘s “Werewolves of London,” the night’s only non-Hunter tune and a fine way to end an iconic Halloween concert.
Dead & Company – “Werewolves of London” – 10/31/2019
[Video: Matt Frazier]
Enjoy a gallery of photos from Thursday night’s show below courtesy of photographer Chris Capaci.
Dead & Company take the stage at Madison Square Garden again tonight, Friday, November 1st, at 7pm for the second of two NYC performances. Head to Dead & Company’s website for a full list of the band’s upcoming tour dates, ticketing, and more information.
Setlist: Dead & Company | Madison Square Garden | New York City | 10/31/2019
Set One: Ripple, Shakedown Street, Bertha, Loser, They Love Each Other, Tennessee Jed, Lady With A Fan > Terrapin Station
Set Two: Playing In the Band > Truckin’ > Uncle John’s Band > China Doll, Eyes Of the World > Drums/Space > The Wheel > Standing On the Moon, Sugar Magnolia
Encore: Werewolves of London