When Dead & Company commenced their rehearsals for their upcoming 24-date summer tour a few weeks ago, it started a flurry of customary hopes and speculation for the band’s upcoming summer tour, which kicks off on May 30th. Primarily, fans are eager to discuss what the setlists might look like and what songs might be played or debuted by the Grateful Dead spinoff act featuring John Mayer, Oteil Burbridge, and Jeff Chimenti along with former Grateful Dead members, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, and Bob Weir.
And in 2018, even band members are getting in on the act, with Mickey taking to Instagram to ask his followers what songs people want to hear, while a rehearsal photo of Oteil playing while seated, reading charts on a music stand, spurred speculation as to which song might have been the object of his efforts.
Given that Dead & Company are now in their fourth year and have a solid body of 83 shows to their name, it’s worth taking a bird’s eye view of the band’s setlists to date, while also looking forward to what might be in store this summer. And because Dead & Company are a Grateful Dead spinoff band, all comparisons are to the known setlists of the Grateful Dead’s 2,314 shows from 1965 to 1995, with Deadbase 50 (2015; Nixon, Dolgushkin, & Scott) serving as the source.
Dead & Company are paying close attention to what songs they are playing, and when.
Even a cursory glance over the Dead & Company (hereafter D&C) setlists reveals that someone is taking care to see which songs in their repertoire have been played recently and which ones have gone at least five shows without an appearance. Even more importantly, the second set of every D&C show contains multiple “heavy-hitters”—i.e., obvious fan favorites that frequently and not coincidentally offer space for wide-open improvisation—woven together, and sometimes even first sets have featured multiple heavy-hitters as well.
Shows continue to be long affairs with little wasted time onstage.
Unlike the final years of the Grateful Dead—where first sets were sometimes reduced to six or seven songs lasting 45 minutes, and second sets were sometimes padded out to 90 minutes via extended drums-and-space sequences—Dead & Company shows are being played by a bunch of guys who are clearly having a great time, are listening closely to each other, and, well, don’t really seem to have anywhere to be after the show. First sets generally run for a bare minimum of an hour and usually clock in between 70 and 75 minutes, but in one case (Pittsburgh ’16), the first set actually ran over 90 minutes. Meanwhile, second sets routinely last 90 to 110 minutes, even with the space segment shortened to less than five minutes on many nights. And on top of that, they’re not spending three to five minutes between songs, tuning up or deciding what to play either.
The most popular numbers in the Grateful Dead catalog are getting the most D&C action.
After 83 shows, nearly all of the songs in heaviest rotation at Dead & Company gigs are the ones that were far and away the most popular songs from the Grateful Dead (hereafter GD) live repertoire. Unsurprisingly, each of them have built-in jamming mechanisms and usually appear in second sets: “China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider” (25), “Playing In The Band” (23), “Scarlet Begonias” (22), “Fire On The Mountain” (23), “Shakedown Street” (22), “Deal” (22), “Dark Star” (21), “Help On The Way > Slipknot” (21), “Franklin’s Tower” (21), “Eyes Of The World” (21), “Estimated Prophet” (20), and “The Other One” (20). Anyone complaining about “too many” versions of these songs in D&C shows is generally going to be seen as one who doth protest too much, and as the semi-famous philosopher Dean Sotille once wrote, “’Not another “Scarlet>Fire!”,’ said no one ever!”
Also, getting frequent first-set plays are “Cold, Rain & Snow”(23), “Brown-Eyed Women” (22), “Casey Jones” (22), “Bertha” (21), “Cassidy” (19), “Jack Straw” (21), and “Sugaree” (20)—all of which are time-tested, audience-approved GD classics. Among these songs, only “Cold, Rain & Snow” is not a GD original, but their arrangement is a far cry from its original incarnation as an Appalachian murder ballad.
Conversely, many songs that were in heavy GD rotation are being deployed much more sporadically, with positive results.
Conversely, some songs that may have suffered in popularity due to heavier rotation during the GD’s career are now popping up a lot less often, with strong results. There were times where numbers like “Throwing Stones”, “Touch Of Grey”, “Hell In A Bucket”, “Samson & Delilah”, and “I Need A Miracle” were played so frequently by GD standards that they each suffered from bouts of fan fatigue (with the first three also receiving added In The Dark-related backlash). Now, these same songs turn up once every couple of weeks, greatly heightening their reception and impact. Also, Bob’s longtime “first set blues” numbers (“Minglewood Blues”, “Little Red Rooster”), “cowboy” numbers (“Me & My Uncle”, “Big River”, “El Paso”), and Bob Dylan covers (“When I Paint My Masterpiece”, “Queen Jane Approximately”, “Desolation Row”), all once a near-certainty in any GD first set, are now each turning up every eight to ten shows or less.
Setlists are drawing predominantly from the Garcia/Hunter section of the GD catalog, and there have been no D&C original songs introduced to the repertoire. Yet.
Of the 50 most played songs in the Dead & Company repertoire, 34 were co-written by GD lead guitarist Jerry Garcia and his lyricist Robert Hunter, 11 were co-written by Bob Weir and his longtime lyricist John Barlow, and four are covers that were longtime staples in the GD repertoire. “Hey, that’s only 49,” you say. You’re right. “Truckin’” is in a category by itself, as its the only song in the GD catalog co-written by Garcia, Weir, and GD bassist Phil Lesh, along with Hunter.
A factor playing no small role in this in this is that Bob, John Mayer, and Oteil are all singing lead vocals on various Garcia/Hunter songs. The old “Jerry sings one / Bobby sings one” pattern is long gone, as are the days of newer original GD songs being heavily deployed in their first year. A few examples of this across GD eras: “Samson & Delilah” was played at 39 of 41 shows in 1976, “Althea” was played at 59 of 86 shows in 1980, “Brother Esau” was played at 34 of 66 shows in 1983, and “Way To Go Home” was played at 22 of 55 shows in 1992. While Bob has stated in interviews that there are currently no plans to record any new D&C material, the introduction of an original song or two into the live shows should not be ruled out.
D&C are mostly avoiding GD songs that were not written by Garcia/Hunter or Weir/Barlow.
Aside from three versions each of “Box Of Rain” and “Passenger” in 2016 and one performance of the latter in 2017, Dead & Company have not played songs penned by GD bassist Phil Lesh. The “holy grail” known as “Unbroken Chain” still remains on the shelf, along with late-era songs “Wave To The Wind,” “Childhood’s End”, and “If The Shoe Fits”. D&C also have yet to perform any song written or co-written by a GD keyboard player who sang its lead vocal, with some of the more likely candidates in parentheses: Pigpen (“Alligator”, “Caution”, “Mr. Charlie”, “Operator”), Keith Godchaux (“Let Me Sing Your Blues Away”), Brent Mydland (“Blow Away”, “Easy To Love You”, “We Can Run”, “Tons Of Steel”, “I Will Take You Home”) and Vince Welnick (“Way To Go Home”, “Samba In The Rain”).
They’ve also avoided the cover songs on which Mydland and Welnick sang lead vocals (“Gimme Some Lovin’”, “Hey Pocky Way”, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “It’s All Too Much”). And even when former GD vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay joined D&C for six shows in the summer of 2016, they did not take the opportunity to dust off either of the GD songs she wrote and sang while she was in the band (“Sunrise”, “From The Heart Of Me”).
Lead vocal duties are being spread around a bit more.
Another promising trend is Oteil handling lead vocals on a few of the Garcia/Hunter songs, usually the most delicate ballads (“China Doll”, “Comes A Time”, “If I Had The World To Give”, “Ship Of Fools”), but he’s also gotten one of the big rockers in “Fire On The Mountain” and gets a verse in covers, “Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad” and “The Weight”, too. But for the time being, Bob still handles the vocals on the biggest Garcia ballads (“Stella Blue”, “Peter”, “Days Between”, “Wharf Rat”, and “Morning Dew”, which is a cover).
Given this trend, there are several other Garcia/Hunter songs from all GD eras hiding in the weeds that could be revived through Oteil’s vocals, such as “Mountains Of The Moon”, “Lazy River Road”, “Mission In The Rain”, or “To Lay Me Down”. And while keyboardist Jeff Chimenti has yet to sing lead vocals on an entire song, he has also sung a verse of “The Weight” to a great reception each time, so that’s also something to watch.
D&C also pull from their jazz collections on hot nights, but so far, only one song has come from band members’ solo material.
On some of Dead & Company’s hotter nights, they’ve exited the space segment of the show by transitioning into a few minutes of a jazz standard to great effect each time: Miles Davis’ “Milestones” (Atlanta and Boston, both in ’17), John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” (New York, Fall ’17), and the GD’s “Spanish Jam”, which was based on Miles Davis’ “Solea” (Hartford, Fall ’17).
But aside from Bob Weir dipping into the Ratdog catalog for two performances of “Even So” in 2016 to memorialize bassist and longtime Weir collaborator Rob Wasserman’s passing, D&C has not performed any songs written or performed by Bob, John, Oteil, or Jeff from their previous or current bands. However, Bob’s Blue Mountain LP from 2016 could still become a source of new D&C songs, and since John Mayer is currently working on his new album for a 2019 release, depending on the album’s style, potentially material being developed for that LP could turn up in a Dead & Company show this summer.
There were seven breakouts during the Fall 2017 tour, some of which were very unexpected.
One positive development during the last full tour in November 2017 was the introduction of no fewer than seven new songs into the repertoire over 13 shows. After dropping “Greatest Story Ever Told” and “Beat It On Down The Line” on opening night (New York), five more songs made their debuts over the space of the tour: “Deep Elem Blues” (Detroit), “The Weight” (Atlanta), “If I Had The World To Give” (Columbus), and the first “controversial” songs from the GD repertoire: “Corrina” (Boston) and “Easy Answers” (Dallas). Could these latter songs be precursors for the D&C debuts for “Picasso Moon”, “Victim Or The Crime”, or even… “Day Job” (gasp)? Only Bob knows for sure, and you know he ain’t tellin’.
What’s next? The 22 Enigma, or at least some educated guesses.
Which songs from the Grateful Dead repertoire could make their Dead & Company debuts this summer? After a careful look through Deadbase 50 and weighing a variety of factors, this reporter has compiled a list of 22 songs with a higher probability of a D&C debut this summer and predicts that four to six of them will receive their debuts between the shows in Mansfield on May 30th and Boulder on July 14th:
- Born Cross-Eyed
- Brother Esau
- Caution: Do Not Stop On Tracks
- Death Don’t Have No Mercy
- Dupree’s Diamond Blues
- Foolish Heart
- It Hurts Me Too
- Lazy Lightning > Supplication
- Might As Well
- Mission In The Rain
- New Potato Caboose
- On The Road Again
- Picasso Moon
- Ruben and Cerise
- The Eleven
- To Lay Me Down
- Weather Report Suite
Safe travels! See you out there.