Dead & Company’s inaugural Playing In The Sand show kicked off last night with a two-set performance by the Grateful Dead-inspired six-piece, marking the group’s first performance since guitarist John Mayer’s unexpected appendectomy cut their last tour off early in Austin, Texas, on December 2nd. As a brand-new event, many fans were unsure as to what to expect—both musically and from the host resort of Barceló Maya Resort in Riviera Maya, Mexico.

First and foremost, it was absolutely mind-blowing to see a big rock ‘n’ roll show in this setting, and many people’s long-time pipe dreams actually came true this evening. The venue is essentially a beach the size of the floor at Folsom Field, if the floor started more or less where the soundboard was, with a fence with foliage behind it on stage left and the Caribbean Sea on stage right. The water had floodlights trained on it and was patrolled by a boat and two jet skiers to prevent swim-ins (and probably swim-outs, too). Venue entrance and exit were smooth and orderly, as was everything else from a production standpoint. I witnessed no hassle or problems the entire evening.

As you walked in, there was an area of palm trees where a Mariachi band was playing, Mexican ladies were dancing, a couple guys were dressed in full Mayan garb with headdresses. There was also lots of food and drinks, a few other various displays, a photo booth, and the merch stand (with no less than five limited-edition posters on offer at $60 each, and they were going fast).

Throughout the evening, servers were walking through the crowd with trays of beer and slushy drinks for anyone to take. At set break, a cleanup crew came through to pick up all the empty cups and other trash, and many of them were pleasantly surprised when the members of the crowd scrambled to help them. Due to having to pass through customs, there was noticeably less smoking going on, especially when compared to recent shows in Colorado and Washington. But, there were only a few visible instances of drunk people. All in all, it was a really well-behaved crowd given that alcohol was free all day and all night.

About two hours before showtime, after some brief showers, the skies cleared (though the evening remained windy), and you could see the stars. The constellation Orion was directly above the stage for much of the show, which ended up timing in at over four hours, including the break.

The band’s first set ran from 7:43 to 8:59, marking a long first set by Dead & Company’s standards. Overall, the first set was a laid-back and mellow, with the band clearly settling back into playing live for the first time since Austin. The opening tune, “Playing In The Band”, was a complete ’72–’74-era version with the reprise, and lasted 16 minutes. “Me & My Uncle” got one of the obligatory Mexico references in early (“In the confusion, my uncle grabbed the gold, and we hightailed it down to Mexico”).

By the time the well-segued combination of “He’s Gone” into “Cassidy” was over, the first four songs had run 46 minutes. Moving through a classic take on “Brown-Eyed Women”, the band offered up the crowd-pleasing “Bertha”, kicking off the non-stop final stretch of songs to end set one. “Good Lovin'” included a take on “La Bamba”, with Bob Weir singing the verse and chorus of “La Bamba”—it was pretty similar to the version Jerry Garcia did with the Grateful Dead for a handful of shows in Fall ’87, but the band used the 60’s- and 70s’-version intro riff as a bridge to the intro. Aside from “La Bamba”, on paper, this could have been a Grateful Dead set from 1977.

Second set ran from 9:49 to 11:53, including the encore, marking another long set by Dead & Company standards. The starting pre-drums was very strong and ran for a whopping 68 minutes. Good thing tapers aren’t confined to 90-minute cassettes anymore, as that would have been a bad tape flip. “Scarlet Begonias” through “Looks Like Rain” was hands-down the strongest portion of the show.

The Grateful Dead’s music used to change when they played in different places, and Dead & Company’s music did the same last night, as the band infused reggae and tropical touches into “Scarlet Begonias”, “Fire On The Mountain”, and “Estimated Prophet”. The “Scarlet” outro jam went on a couple minutes longer than usual, and “Estimated Prophet” was highlighted by Oteil Burbridge’s bass line that sounded more like a traditional reggae tune at times. He was much louder in the mix on this one, and it was a slinkier, mellower version that fit perfectly.

“Althea” may have been the best Dead & Company version of the song to date and was arguably the highlight of the second set along with “Looks Like Rain”. “Althea” is another Garcia/Hunter song that seemed to have been written for John, as he’s really made it his own. John’s searing rock solo ensured the song justified its second-set slot, and the fact it easily stood up to the “Scarlet Begonias” > “Fire On The Mountain” before it and the “Estimated Prophet” > “Eyes Of The World” after it really says something.

“Eyes Of The World” was an unexpected bonus, and John and Jeff Chimenti pushed each other to great heights during the second solo. Oteil did his usual lead bass outro to lead into drums, and “Space” led to a fun little jam with John and Jeff playing four-handed piano—eventually, Mickey Hart joined into the mix to make it five hands. This raucous space saw the band laughing and clearly having a blast onstage.

Then Weir strapped on a nylon-string acoustic to join in and led the way into “Looks Like Rain”, which served as a tribute to John Perry Barlow. “Looks Like Rain” has always been a love song,  but this version gave the number another new meaning as Bob sang it to his now-departed songwriting partner of over 40 years and images of the recently departed Grateful Dead lyricist flashed on stage.

“Looks Like Rain”

[Video: The Zalewski Law Firm]

“I Need A Miracle” was such a slowed-down version that this reporter mistook it at first for “New Speedway Boogie” until Bob sang the first line. To close things out, the band offered up “Casey Jones”, which was a strong closing effort, as John soloed at high velocity for several minutes before the song ended. Early arrivals to the venue would have heard the band sound-checking “The Weight” not long before doors opened, so it was unsurprising the song got the nod for the encore. Jeff and Oteil got the biggest cheers when they sang their verses.

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

Setlist: Dead & Company | Playing In The Sand | Barceló Maya Resort | Riviera Maya, Mexico | 2/15/2018 

Set One: Playing In The Band, Me & My Uncle, He’s Gone > Cassidy, Brown-Eyed Women, Bertha > Good Lovin’ > La Bamba > Good Lovin

Set Two: Scarlet Begonias > Fire On The Mountain > Althea > Estimated Prophet > Eyes Of The World > Drums > Space > Jam > Looks Like Rain > I Need A Miracle > Casey Jones

Encore: The Weight