As the doors opened for the third and final show of Dead & Company’s inaugural Playing In The Sand, a relaxed and happy vibe permeated the venue as people filed in and chose their spots. In a striking contrast to Saturday night’s show, there was significantly less drinking this evening, as the uniformed servers found fewer takers for the endless trays of beer they carried through the crowd. Instead, tonight’s hot item was the churros, which were so popular that the venue ran out of them early for the second straight night.

At about 7:50 pm, the band strolled onstage and got started with a relaxed version of “Samson & Delilah”, a tune that was a Bob Weir second set staple for the latter half of the Grateful Dead’s history, but it’s now found a home in the first set of Dead & Company’s Sunday shows. It was a solid version, and one that slowly drew the crowd in. “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” continued in the same early-show vein, with the verses and the mid-song solo just comfortably moving along, but there was a nice uptick in momentum before the final section, whose “Across the Rio Grande” segment featured some nice guitar interplay between guitarists John Mayer and Bob Weir.

“They Love Each Other” was a welcome early-show selection, with Mayer’s gentle riffing accentuating the song’s reggae underpinnings and befitting the show’s Caribbean Sea location, while keyboardist Jeff Chimenti’s delicate tickling of his Hammond B3 keys added some additional flavor. “Greatest Story Ever Told” emerged out of a neat little intro jam as Mayer dialed up a full-on Jerry Garcia Mutron pedal tone. This was only the fourth performance of the song by Dead & Company, and they opted for a slower pace that changed the feel of the number. The structural complexity that is a hallmark of many Weir-Barlow songs was present, but the reduced tempo allowed the band to negotiate the twists and turns while still remaining in the pocket.

This was followed by another recent addition to the Dead & Company repertoire, courtesy of bassist Oteil Burbridge, who led the band through “If I Had The World To Give”—a Garcia/Hunter ballad from 1978’s Shakedown Street that was shelved after only three performances that year—while sporting Grateful Dead ’80s attire, complete with short denim shorts, a sweatband, and a muscle tank. Burbridge’s smooth voice was ideally suited for the tender Garcia ballad, and Mayer’s guitar solo had a deft urgency to it that counterpointed the laid-back number. “Ramble On Rose” continued the early-set vibe, and the “Just like New York City” line generated a large cheer from a sizable group of fans near the sea on stage left. The band hit a minor peak during the mid-song break and the crowd joined in for a nice sing-along on the final verse.

The first set’s highlight was the 16-minute version of “Bird Song” that closed it out, but Dead & Company’s arrangement of the song can best be described as a Pulp Fiction arrangement—all the parts of the songs are there, but they’ve been rearranged out of chronological sequence. The song started as a slower jam that was born out of thin air, and it meandered along for nearly three minutes before anyone actually played the song’s earworm of a main riff. Mayer then provided some clever manipulation with his fretboard hand to generate theremin-like tones before trading vocals with Weir on the first verse, which didn’t come for nearly nine minutes. Following the verse, the video screens caught a beautiful bit of John Mayer wizardry in which he switched between hammer-ons and delicate fingerpicking before flipping the guitar pick he’d been hiding between his fingers into action—and all within a span of about five seconds. He made it look effortless and easy, and he matched it on the vocal side when he sang the “Fly through the night” line four times and dazzled the audience with his timing and delivery. After working his way through the second verse, Mayer once again pulled up his Garcia Mutron tone as the band headed into a syncopated, syrupy jam that could easily have been mistaken for the closing section of “Estimated Prophet”. From there, the drummers found a more steady beat and the band followed, making it sound for a minute as if they were heading into “Dancing In The Street”. Instead, the band slowed down, sang the final chorus, and quickly ended the song to round out a 75-minute first set that, despite its generous length, was still the shortest set of the run. All in all, the first set felt subdued, though full of creative flourishes, as if the band was preserving their energy for the final set of the weekend.

There are many reasons why fans of Grateful Dead music have generate substantial repeat business, and one of them is the sheer unpredictability of it all. Just when heads think they know the answers, the band changes the questions, and tonight’s second set featured several unpredictable choices, to the point where it felt like someone climbed inside a Grateful Dead time machine and pressed the “random” setting on a set list generator.

The two-note intro to “St. Stephen” set off a loud cheer and featured a clear increase in energy right from the beginning. It generated a decidedly late-’60s feel and was aided with the psychedelic images that played on the screens, and the song’s extended jam was one of the two best moments of the night. Early on in the jam, Mayer caught a wave while Burbridge followed him with some nimble bass runs—and John was loving it. It all wound down before building back up to a second peak that came back down again. At this point, Weir began slowly making his way over to his Mayer, but by the time he got there the guitarist had set off on yet another run toward a third peak, leaving Weir to watch him and counterpoint with some of his inimitable riffing. Finally, Burbridge and Chimenti teamed up for an ascending run of powerful chords to steer the band back into the final verse. Mayer was out in the zone for almost all of this, and had a deliriously happy look on his face.

Then, out of nowhere, the time machine jumped from the ’60s to the ’80s for a stand-alone version of “Franklin’s Tower”, which was performed without the widely expected “Help On The Way” and “Slipknot” preceding it. It made for a light, upbeat 10 minutes, and it was another song that fit the beach vibe and vacation setting very well. From there, the time machine jumped from the ’80s to 1974 and the Wall Of Sound era, as “U.S. Blues” received an extremely rare airing early in the second set (this was only ever common practice during the year that the Mars Hotel LP was released and “U.S. Blues” was the single sent to radio).

“Terrapin Station” was next, and it appeared in its usual last-song-before-drums slot, but this version felt like another jump to the late ’70s, with Chimenti’s piano recalling the earliest versions with Keith Godchaux, capping off a run of six straight Garcia-Hunter songs that extended back into the first set. The mid-song jam contained a clear reference to Traffic’s “Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys” before Weir stepped up to deliver the “Terrapin Station” section of the lyrics. The ending jam was slow and majestic, with Mayer adding some extra punch by strumming double-time staccato chords throughout various places.

“Drums” was both eventful and unique, as Burbridge joined Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart to make it a trio. In a nod to the host country, they all donned Mexican Lucha Libre wrestling masks for the segment, which had a decidedly late-’80s feel due to the heavy use of electronics during the latter portion.

When Weir, Mayer, and Chimenti returned to the stage, the time machine jumped back to the ’60s as the band eschewed the “Space” segment completely. When Mayer lurched into a riff, the drummers picked it right up and laid down a beat, forcing everyone else to quickly jump on board. The maneuver created a jagged, primal ’60s style jam that contained a second nod to “Low Spark…” and went on for about four minutes before a couple of hand signals from Bob Weir cued the band to make a sly transition into “The Other One”. This version was more exploratory at first and felt like the time machine had landed back in the 1972-74 era, but after Burbridge thumped out the song’s much-loved bass intro and Weir sang the first verse, the pace became more urgent and the jam gained both velocity and thickness. It was a controlled version, as if the band knew exactly which planet they were planning to land on before they launched, and it was the other peak moment of the show.

“Morning Dew” remains a song for all ages and all eras in the Grateful Dead universe, and there’s never been a time where it’s not welcomed with open arms. This was a rock-solid version that didn’t hit the peaks it sometimes reaches, but was nonetheless a stellar choice to beef up the final big jam of the run’s ultimate set. “Not Fade Away” followed as the time machine jumped back to the ’80s and ’90s for its usual second set closing spot. Much like “Morning Dew”, it wasn’t an over-the-top version, but instead felt like a crowd-and-band victory lap—a celebration of a truly special event drawing to a close. As the song faded out, the crowd clapped along gently and recited the usual chant in a laid-back way until the band returned to the stage a minute later.

Much to the surprise of eagle-eared listeners who heard the band sound checking “Werewolves of London” earlier in the day, “Brokedown Palace” turned up in its expected spot as the encore at the end of a run, with Mayer and Weir trading vocal lines as the slow, beautiful song played out. It would have been a nice way to end the show, but instead the band opted for a throwback to the first song of the first night when they stayed out for another reprise of “Playing In The Band”. The run had come full circle, but then the time machine lurched back to the ’70s for one last moment when Mayer let out a “Donna yell” right before the last chorus. After that, it really was over. The band took their bows, and a crew of tired and happy heads made their way to the exits. The set ran an hour and forty minutes with the encore, making this the sole set out of six that clocked in at a “normal” length.

Bottom line: The event lived up to expectations, and then some—and the weather cooperated. The band delivered two marathon shows and a third one that kept everyone guessing right to the end. No one could ask for anything more—except, perhaps, that it might happen again next year.

You can check out pictures from Sunday night’s show below, courtesy of Erik Kabik.

Setlist: Dead & Company | Playin’ In The Sand | The Barceló | Riviera Maya, MX | 2/18/18

I: Samson and Delilah, Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo, They Love Each Other, Greatest Story Ever Told, If I Had The World To Give, Ramble On Rose, Bird Song

II: St. Stephen, Eleven Jam, Franklin’s Tower, US Blues, Terrapin Station, Drums, Jam, The Other One, Morning Dew, Not Fade Away

E: Brokedown Palace, Playin in the Band (reprise)