Back on January 19th, 2020, Dead & Company walked offstage at the third and final night of the band’s annual Playing In The Sand sojourn to Mexico and sent a happy crowd home the next day.
The Grateful Dead spinoff band featuring guitarist/vocalist Bobby Weir, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, bassist/vocalist Oteil Burbridge, keyboardist/vocalist Jeff Chimenti and guitarist/vocalist John Mayer would soon announce its summer 2020 tour dates, but six weeks later the first pandemic in a century had taken hold, ensuring that 575 days would pass before Dead & Company played its next show—to kick off summer tour 2021.
However, even with the show and tour going ahead, it’s not quite the total sweetness and light that one might hope for. While millions of people in the United States have been vaccinated, millions of others have not, and the recent surge of the delta variant over the last six weeks led the band to implement COVID-19 protocols for the tour requiring proof of vaccination or a negative to enter the venue. A few days, later Live Nation followed suit, requiring similar COVID protocols at all of its venues.
The wait to see the band ended up taking even a little longer than expected, as the initial 4:00 p.m. gate time was delayed for over an hour while a strong rainstorm blew in and PA announcements advised people to return to their cars and wait things out.
With the extra time taken for weather and COVID protocols, the band finally walked onstage at around 7:45 p.m (45 minutes after the listed start time). Without any fanfare whatsoever, the band dove into a slightly abbreviated, hour-long set consisting solely of songs written by the late Grateful Dead guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia and late lyricist Robert Hunter.
The set began with one of the band’s signature anthems, “Touch of Grey”, and its “I will survive/We will survive” choruses. All things considered, it made the most sense, and it even made more sense on Monday with the weather and the delays. Weir’s Hawaiian shirt and red Fender guitar gave off a celebratory vibe and Mayer opted for a plain black t-shirt, while Kreutzmann appeared noticeably trimmer and Chimenti looked notably clean-shaven.
As the group moved past the initial verse and into the solo section, they sounded tight and rehearsed, and it all just felt… normal. And in August 2021, that’s a pretty nice thing to have coming out of the gate.
Dead & Company – “Touch of Grey” – 8/16/21
[Video: The Zalewski Law Firm]
“Shakedown Street” came next in the second slot, rather than its customary opening position, as the band began to loosen up. As Mayer knocked out his notes during the mid-song solo, it felt as if they’d just picked up where they’d left off 18 months ago. The tempo did start a little slowly, but momentum had begun to build by the time they hit the song’s vocal outro and the short, subtle jam that followed.
Next up was one of Mayer’s D&C showpieces, “Deal”, which saw him lead the charge on both vocals and guitar with a nice instrumental surge at the end of the tune as the band maintained a steady groove behind him. Overall, the opening trio of songs was enough to silence the folks who had worried the band wouldn’t rehearse much or hadn’t rehearsed at all, as the little flubs that often turn up on opening nights were nowhere to be found.
Weir followed with the regionally appropriate “Tennessee Jed”, with Chimenti adding some nice piano accents during the closing solo and chorus. “Brown Eyed Women”, one of the most tried and true numbers in the D&C repertoire, followed after a short pause and saw Mayer and Chimenti trade lines as the band built to its first real peak of the night.
Due to time constraints, Weir opted to skip over the planned “Black Peter” and instead led a slow drift into the first set closer, “New Speedway Boogie”. Dead & Company’s performances of the song have evolved into a slightly looser, slinkier interpretation over time—at times even recalling the pace and feel of Weir’s ’90s-era Grateful Dead tune co-written with bluesman Willie Dixon, “Eternity”. Mayer took a more active approach to the solo to help get things moving. Lyrically, the song’s hard-times-and-here themes remain as relevant in July of 2021 as they were in December 1969, when the song was written in response to the violence at Altamont.
Weir then signaled that the set break would be shorter tonight before exiting for an intermission of closer to 30 minutes than the usual 45–50. When he led the band back onstage at 9:22 in a sleeveless D’Angelico shirt rather than his set one Hawaiian, Bobby counted the group into the first Bob Weir/John Barlow tune of the night, “Playing In The Band”. After moving smoothly through the verses, the band embarked on eleven minutes of exploratory improv like no time had passed at all.
As the “Playing” jam wound down it took a jazzy turn and landed in a few minutes of riffing on John Coltrane‘s “A Love Supreme” before drifting toward signature anthem “Truckin'”. Like many Dead & Company songs, the pace will sometimes be a tad slower, but on a good night like Monday in Raleigh, that slower tempo helps time stand more still when you’re there.
Of course, the chorus lyrics “What a long strange trip it’s been” also hit home far more than usual, and midway through the song Weir backed off and let Mayer knock out a great little solo before singing the “Sweet Jane” verse. You could feel the band enjoying themselves and enjoying the moment. Like they’d done earlier with “Touch Of Grey”, the band took a solid, methodical approach and let the song do the heavy lifting as the crowd contributed its audible contribution of backing vocals.
Weir then took an unplanned detour into the aforementioned Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful”, the third straight Weir vocal of the night. This was a relaxed version, and Mayer added some great textural touches to his solo before Bobby directed everyone toward the charted destination of the “Playing In The Band” reprise.
A long, dramatic count-off preceded the classic “Help On The Way” > “Slipknot” > “Franklin’s Tower” trio, a pleasant and welcome surprise that instantly changed the vibe of the set, as if the band had made an effortless 90-degree turn on a dime. Not only was “Help On The Way” Mayer’s first lead vocal of the second set, the band was now fully warmed up and moving confidently through the suite’s complex composed portions
From there, Mayer opened up his bag of tricks on this impressive “Slipknot” and started using them, one after the other. He’d slide up and down his strings while using an effects pedal to fade notes in and out, then play a jazzier lead while adding in hammer-ons or a decidedly Steve Howe-like surge across the fretboard. Then, he’d play a repeating figure to strong effect before jumping to Van Halen-style, two-handed hammer-ons and shifting to some basic chunky rock riffing. It all fit together seamlessly.
Soon, it it was onto the third big anthem of the night, with “Franklin’s Tower” and its big, happy chords spreading themselves out over the next 13 minutes. Mayer was locked in on all fronts, his vocal mic even catching him singing along with his own solo at one point. In a brief moment of showmanship, the guitarist pointed out to the crowd as he sang “If you get confused, listen to the music play,” the place responding by going nuts for all the right reasons.
Dead & Company – “Help On The Way” > “Slipknot” > “Franklin’s Tower” – 8/16/21
[Video: The Zalewski Law Firm]
As the droning tones that started the Drums section issued forth from the PA, Hart got up from his kit and started playing the large array of drums that lined the rear of the stage with a couple of lime green flyswatters, though he soon tossed them aside for the more conventional tools of his trade. An electronic pulse arose under Hart and Kreutzmann as the latter worked the cowbells before they both took to the largest drums of the Beast in tandem for a surging segment. Burbridge, wearing a face mask, came out to join them for a few minutes before some strums across The Beam by Hart generated some soothing, New Age tones.
Weir and Mayer retuned as Drums shifted to Space. A clear tease of “Wharf Rat” emerged from the noodling as the rest of the band returned and got involved. Instead of keeping things on the brief side, the full ensemble continued through six minutes of ambient improv before drifting to a halt and turning on a dime into “The Wheel”. The relaxed, take-our-time vibe continued throughout the song’s twelve minutes. The song’s feel-good lyrics and optimism prevailed as Weir used his hands to make the wheel-turning motions, a habit that dates back to the 1980s.
As the song slowed down, an unfamiliar melody started making its way out of the PA. Is Dead & Company actually playing “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” for the first time tonight? Yes. They went there. This Reverend Gary Davis dirge was a fixture in the Grateful Dead’s late ’60s era, and was immortalized on Side 4 of 1969’s Live Dead album, but after 1970 it was a rarity in the GD repertoire, coming back to the repertoire in 1989 and early 1990 for four quick appearances before disappearing again for good.
Dead & Company’s decision to deploy it here and now was a heavy and bold move, but a fitting one due to the ongoing pandemic as well as the current situations on the ground in Haiti and Afghanistan. Weir handled the mournful vocals, and performance of the song was certainly not hurt by Mayer happening to be one of the best blues guitarists of his generation.
Chimenti took an organ solo after verse three that employed a tone resembling the Vox Continental organ used by Ron “Pigpen” McKernan in the 1960s, and Mayer followed it by taking a solo using a big, round tone that evoked the one Garcia would use during slower songs during that time. While Chimenti and Mayer played every note in their own styles, the tones gave a clear nod to the past, and it all got a huge ovation before Weir sang the final verse.
From there, it was on to “Not Fade Away”, one more familiar and welcome sing-along anthem to close out the set. It was a solid version that ran a little slow at times, but after all that had come before it, that’s all it needed to be. It would fade out quickly as the clock read 11:15 pm and the crowd quickly took over for their traditional clap-long and cheer, but instead of an encore, the band took a quick bow and headed off as they had run past curfew. As it was, the set had actually run just seven minutes short of two hours, and an encore wasn’t truly needed. The fact that this show finally happened was more than enough. Welcome back.
Dead & Company’s tour continues in Bristow, VA on Wednesday, August 18th. For ticketing details and a full list of upcoming Dead & Company 2021 tour dates, head here. Full-show audio of the tour opener is available thanks to taper cabitnetmusic.
Dead & Company – Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek – Raleigh, NC – 8/16/21
Setlist: Dead & Company | Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek | Raleigh, NC | 8/16/21
Set One (7:48 – 8:48): Touch Of Grey, Shakedown Street, Deal, Tennessee Jed, Brown Eyed Women, Deal
Set Two: (9:22 – 11:15): Playing In The Band > A Love Supreme > Truckin’ > Spoonful > Playing In The Band Reprise > Help On The Way > Slipknot > Franklin’s Tower > Drums/Space > The Wheel > Death Don’t Have No Mercy, Not Fade Away
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