On Sunday night, Dead & Company once again took the stage at LOCKN’ to close out the 6th-annual edition of the festival with a very special performance. The Grateful Dead spinoff band featuring bassist Oteil Burbridge, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and lead guitarist John Mayer alongside original guitarist Bob Weir and drummers Mickey Hart and Billy Kreutzmann marked the end of their 2018 touring schedule by welcoming much-anticipated guest saxophonist Branford Marsalis for the entirety of their second set. Despite some rough edges early on, the show lived up to the high expectations set by Marsalis’ previous appearances with the Grateful Dead from 1990-94 and post-Jerry Garcia iteration The Dead in 2009.

For the second straight evening, an extended line check of the band’s equipment delayed the start of Dead & Company’s set for roughly half an hour, but at 9:10 pm the band took the stage and launched right into one of Bob’s signature songs, “Playing In The Band”, which was played at a languid pace as the band got their onstage levels set. After the verses, the band moved into the first lengthy jam of the evening, which maintained the warming-up pace for several minutes. John and Jeff quickly made eye contact and began trading guitar and piano phrases. Billy then built a rhythmic foundation on which Mayer laid down particularly Garcia-like, Mutron-assisted runs, the crowd cheering as the evening’s full moon was projected on the video screens.

“Uncle John’s Band” followed, and while the song is normally one of their best, its slower pace initially struggling to fire up the weary Sunday evening festival audience. However, the ending jam showed promise when John and Oteil locked eyes from across the stage for some stimulating musical conversation. The band skipped the final chorus of “Uncle John’s Band” and moved straight into “Loser”. While Weir delivered a well-timed vocal performance on the tune, its similarly slower pace maintained the placid vibe. The energy spiked, however, when the band finished the song by detouring straight back into a minute-long instrumental reprise of “Playing In The Band”.

Next, Mayer switched to his silver PRS guitar for a fuller, dirtier tone before leading the band into “Mr. Charlie”, giving the set a much-needed shot of energy. John sang the bridge of this Pigpen-penned song twice, once before the solo and then again afterwards in its usual position. The rural Virginia setting felt right for this song, which was a welcome addition to the Dead & Company repertoire in 2018.

After a quick stop, the band began a regionally-appropriate “Tennessee Jed”, as both the verses and choruses generated a much louder crowd sing-along than usual. John’s closing solo hit a nice peak as he jumped up and down in place while the video stream showed dozens of excited audience members jumping along with him. Let’s see if this trend sticks. If it does, will it be called Mayercise or Mayerobics? “Althea” came next, and the crowd buzzed as it started, as the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter classic has become one of John’s signature Dead & Company tunes. However, despite Jeff’s strong piano solo, this version didn’t hit the heights it often does.

“Sugar Magnolia” made for a nice surprise as the first set closer, but it was a shambolic version that got sidetracked early when Bob sang the wrong verse. He then backed off and sang the correct one, but the band didn’t follow his cue to go to the song’s bridge, narrowly managing to avoid a train wreck as they reconfigured themselves in real time. However, the momentum had been affected, and the ending jam never truly caught fire and it stumbled to a close, prompting a bystander to yell that the miscue “feels like the old days!” However, the “Sunshine Daydream” coda made for a strong finish to the set, particularly bolstered by several Oteil bass bombs.

Once again, the intermission was reduced to 15 minutes, a third of the usual Dead & Company break. When the band returned, an extra microphone had been placed onstage between Bob and Oteil for their special guest, Branford Marsalis, who was celebrating his 58th birthday on this evening. The revered saxophonist emerged in a blue checked shirt that appeared decidedly dapper next to Weir’d cut-off D’Angelico tee.

The tuning made it obvious that Shakedown Street was getting the nod as the opener, but it too got off to a rough start when Bob started the song’s the third verse instead of leading the band into the mid-song solo. John was able to alert Bob to the detour, and the band recovered as Marsalis took the first of many moving solos to come. As they moved into the song’s outro jam, Mayer started with a funky solo to get things going while Branford watched him and smiled. He joined in next over Weir’s tight, terse chords, before Oteil joined the party, his bass runs coming through much more prominently than usual. It all evolved into a game of lead, follow and chase between Oteil, Branford and John. Finally, Jeff came in over the top, propelling the story still further with thick triads.

Rather than return to the final verse of “Shakedown Street”, the band slowed down and settled into “Bird Song”, the tune that started the timeline of Dead/Branford collaborations back on March 29, 1990. After gliding along for several minutes as the jam found its wings, the band hinted at a segue into “New Speedway Boogie”—as they’ve done on various occasions this year—before Mayer kept the song in its original lane with verse two. A faster, jazzy jam materialized next, as the band moved through numerous polyrhythms and tempo changes and further hints at “New Speedway Boogie”. By this point, it was already apparent that Branford was doing what he’s always done in the Dead arena—pushing the players around him listen and play to the absolute best of their abilities. The result: A truly distinct version of the song.

“Eyes Of The World” started as Bird Song slowed down, and did not disappoint as the band plus Marsalis delivered a memorable reading. As it turned out, no one onstage meshed better with Branford than Oteil Burbridge. By the time they arrived at the solo after the second verse, Branford and Oteil were new best friends, with Oteil’s thick, nimble bass lines coming through loud and clear for Branford to wrap his horn tones around. Everyone onstage seemingly felt it happening, to the point where John and Jeff retreated into the background, leaving space for the Burbridge/Marsalis fireworks. After a brief Oteil solo, John and Jeff reved up another tag-team solo to the delight of the crowd.

Rather than moving into the widely predicted (and hoped-for) “Dark Star”, “Eyes” instead moved into “Terrapin Station”. Branford switched to his soprano sax for the classic Dead opus, adding deft, delicate runs to the initial “Lady With A Fan” segment as Mayer delivered his customary vocals. As Marsalis tailed Mayer’s mid-song solo, it was abundantly clear that he was well-rehearsed for this engagement, helping push the band out into a spacey jam. The band had picked up palpable momentum as they moved into the song’s “Terapin Station” climax, Bob’s vocals leading the way as the powerful, dramatic section played through, helping realize the song’s ample emotional potential. The closing jam was forceful and bass-heavy, once again augmented by Oteil’s higher-than-usual seat in the sound mix.

Next, Mickey and Bill retained Oteil’s services for some “Drums”, before Marsalis returned with his tenor sax to serve as the melodic mothership for a top-notch “Space” voyage. Hard to believe that what started 28 years ago in a concrete arena in Long Island lead to this beautiful scene in a field in Virginia surrounded by colorfully illuminated trees and tens of thousands of revellers.

John kept his silver PRS on coming out of “Space”, indicating that something powerful was on deck. The opening notes of “Morning Dew” confirmed that suspicion. The well-rehearsed Marsalis offered up a harmonic counterpoint to Weir’s vocals before Mayer delivered his personal highlight of the evening with a searing mid-song solo that was long on tone and power and efficiently short on pyrotechnics and trickery. After all of the dipsy-doodling and stutter-steps and give-and-go’s all night, he zagged and laid down a powerful rock solo that sent chills up the spines everyone in attendance.

The set came to a close with a light-hearted “Not Fade Away” victory lap highlighted by some exciting call-and-response mimicry by Mayer and Marsalis. Oteil popped some string funk-style on the fadeout, and the crowd made an attempt at starting the Not Fade Away chant and clap before Jeff and Bob announced that we should say thank you to Branford, prompting a crowd-sung “Happy Birthday”. Branford came back out with his tenor sax and blew a few motes to get the crowd synched back up with the “Not Fade Away” chant, while Bob grabbed a tambourine to help and John clapped along. This was just more instance of Marsalis fully inhabiting the Grateful Dead space. Sure, it’s great to celebrate birthdays, but when the Dead close with “NFA”, that chant should be pulsing straight through to the encore. Hats off to the man for keeping things on track.

Marsalis switched back to his soprano sax for a “Brokedown Palace” encore opener, bringing the crowd comfortably back to Earth with an expected fare thee well singalong. The band wasn’t done yet, though, as they launched straight into “U.S. Blues”, much like they did last summer in Chicago. The crowd sang along with notable gusto, as relishing the song’s “summertime has come and gone, my oh my” refrain. However, still unwilling to cede the stage, Mayer grabbed an acoustic guitar and led the band into “Ripple”, completing the rarest of Dead show creatures: a three-song encore, Dead & Co’s first of its kind.

After a somewhat shaky first set, the second set featured some of the year’s finest musical moments with the help of Marsalis. What’s more, Oteil was truly incredible on this evening, and everyone watching—from the crowd, from their couch, and especially from the stage—clearly felt him assert his mastery in tandem with Branford, and appropriately gave him space to shine. While Eugene retains the crown for best show of the year, tonight’s show ranked among the year’s most memorable outings, a wonderful exclamation point at the end of a fantastic LOCKN’ weekend.

It was a strong year for Dead & Company by any standard. See you all in 2019.

You can watch the full pro-shot video of Dead & Company’s LOCKN’ 2018 headlining performance with Branford Marsalis below:

Dead & Company w/ Branford Marsalis – Full Show Pro-Shot

[Video: Relix]

Setlist: Dead & Company | LOCKN’ Festival | Arrington, VA | 8/26/18

Set One: Playin’ In The Band, Uncle John’s Band, Loser, Mr. Charlie, Tennessee Jed, Althea, Sugar Magnolia

Set Two: Shakedown Street, Bird Song, Eyes of the World, Terrapin Station, Drums > Space > Morning Dew, Not Fade Away

Encore: Brokedown Palace, U.S. Blues

Encore 2: Ripple

Notes: Entire second set featured Branford Marsalis on saxophone