With the consistently high quality shows they’ve have turned in over the course of this tour, Dead & Company‘s stop in Austin, TX couldn’t have come at a better time. Although Texas has long been known as a deeply conservative state, somehow Austin always found a way to be a progressive oasis in the middle of it. Maybe it’s because it’s the state capital, and maybe it’s the presence of the University of Texas, but it more than likely was the city’s legendary music scene that established it as a safe haven for anyone in Texas with long hair and strange clothing (who is not Willie Nelson) to let their freak flag fly without fear of reprisal.
In addition, the venue, the Frank Erwin Center, offered its own highlights. Nicknamed “The Drum” by locals due to its cylindrical exterior, the arena is compact compared to most of the venues the band has played over the course of their Fall tour, and the unusually clear and resonant acoustics the space provided were apparent throughout the show.
Dead & Company draws from a catalog of material that remains deeply reflective of the rich tapestry of American history, and wasted no time tipping their hat to their Lone Star surroundings with a “Jack Straw” opener. The band eased into the at first as they felt things out, but the closing jam built nicely before rhythm guitarist and bandleader Bob Weir led the group into the song’s vocal coda. The Weir/Barlow song about two outlaws on the run has always been one that would pass the Austin Songwriter test, and it prompted the expected cheers when Bob sang about their Independence Day plans.
“Cold Rain & Snow” may not have been a weather-appropriate choice given that it was sunny and in the 70s in Austin, but it’s always been a great follow-up to Jack Straw and has become one of lead guitarist John Mayer’s signature early-show songs. During the mid-song break, John quickly moved from blues-based soloing to a more aggressive, rock-based style complete with some guitar-slinger flourishes while bassist Oteil Burbridge rumbled some complementary lines underneath him.
Unlike earlier Dead & Company tours where John seemingly chose to hold back and refrain from this kind of playing, he’s going for it now, and going for it often. Another Texas-based song followed, with “Minglewood Blues” getting applause from the locals on all the right lines. The song’s relaxed tempo and Bob’s extended vocal refrain stretched its length out to over 10 minutes. John quickly followed with the tour’s first shot at Junior Parker classic “Next Time You See Me”. It was a snappy version, fitting the set’s vibe, and the decision to pull out this Pigpen-sung “deep cut” proved a good one.
“Ramble On Rose” continued the proceedings nicely, with keyboardist Jeff Chimenti working in some pretty piano rolls. This set the table for some subtle brilliance by Oteil, who followed by singing the group’s second-ever rendition of “If I Had The World To Give”, debuted in Columbus over Thanksgiving weekend. This 1978 Jerry Garcia/ Robert Hunter ballad from Shakedown Street was only played three times live that year before it was shelved for good, and one can only imagine that Garcia would be appreciative that this one was resurrected in time to be played for Austin’s songwriting enthusiasts.
John got the nod to finish the set off with a long, rousing Sugaree. While the song caught fire at the end, the lyrics of this Hunter/Garcia classic take on a very different interpretation when belted out by a weapons-grade heartbreaker like John Mayer. It was a strong finish to a regionally flavored set with a mellower vibe that primed the noticeably younger crowd for what was still to come.
There’s a sizable contingent of Deadheads who have long relished spirited discussions over which shows are better and best, regardless of whether it was the Grateful Dead or any subsequent iteration. If you’re one of these folks, congratulations: you now have a new contender for your next “Best Dead & Company sets ever played” discussion. It was clear from the tuning that “China Cat Sunflower” was going to kick things off, on of the most unique songs in the Grateful Dead repertoire and another appropriate choice for the songwriting town. The band took its time with the song Bob delivered the lysergically-inspired lyrics. At the urging of Mayer, Weir treated the crowd to a revival of his early-70s custom of taking lead guitar on this segment as it led, expectedly, into “I Know You Rider”. Once again, the band took its time and soloed for as long as they felt like it in between verses, before Jeff Chimenti ramped up the energy with some heavy piano chords as the song moved into its final chorus.
The crowd’s cheering hadn’t died down before Bob motioned to the band and started playing a few chords, and although the song’s main riff didn’t appear for a couple minutes, it was quickly apparently that Austin had become the latest winner of the “Dark Star” lottery. It started as a quiet, contemplative reading, and the noticeably attentive crowd settled down to listen. Unlike many Saturday night shows, this audience seemed comparatively light on the heavy drinking and talking over the music, a most welcome change. Jeff played a varied series of effects to accentuate Mayer’s guitar work before the first verse, and the longer jam between verses also retained a languid, spaced-out vibe until drummer Billy Kreutzmann took charge by laying a series of rolls on his rack toms, the volume and momentum building to a beautiful peak before circling back to the second verse.
At this point, the band were playing with fluidity, there simply could not have been a better choice for the next song than “The Other One”, another signature open-ended jamming vehicle in the Dead’s catalog. It’s always a highlight to see a show containing a “Dark Star” or an “Other One”, but to get both of them in the same show–and back-to-back, to boot–is a rare treat. This ten-plus-minute version maintained its momentum throughout. After some preliminaries everyone turned to face Oteil, who delivered his version of the legendary bass intro with a huge smile. Once again, the band built up to a nice crescendo by the end of the jam between the song’s verses, but just before Bob sang the final verse Jeff injected a moment of levity into the proceedings by sending out several loud squonks from his keyboard that made John and Oteil laugh out loud as they faced each other. It was a beautiful moment to see this band having this much fun.
Oteil remained onstage for the entirety of “Drums”, another highlight, as Billy and Oteil joined drummer Mickey Hart for an intense, tribal, polyrhythmic drum trio that generated a loud ovation from the still-attentive crowd. Mickey soon dove into a longer, deeper excursion on the beam that resonated deeply throughout the hall as the frontline musicians returned for “Space”, a relatively short affair that led to a short jam that led into yet another heavy-hitter in “Uncle John’s Band”. However, the deeply psychedelic vibe from the front half of the set remained, and it was a looser, spacier version with an extended jam that felt more like a continuation of “Dark Star” than anything else.
At that point Bob realized he had to switch guitars, which he did before counting in another beloved jewel of the Dead’s catalogue, “St. Stephen”. The song selection once again caught the crowd by surprise. After another fiery jam, Bob sent a chill up the back of thousands of spines when he played the opening chord of “Morning Dew”. As was the case with the entire set, not one lyric was missed, not one major miscue perpetuated, and the song built to a dramatic climax courtesy of Bob and Jeff respectively hitting power chords and triads, Oteil bending perception with ascending and descending bass chords that mutated as his fret hand slid up and down the neck, and John firing out flurries of notes as if his life depended on it. Bob led the band back into the final line and the song, and a quick look at the time revealed that the set had run exactly 100 minutes.
“One More Saturday Night” was an expected and welcomed encore, as Jeff played some nice runs up and down his piano during the song’s break to lead everyone into the closing section. With that, at exactly 11:00, the lights came up, and the thousands of people inside the Frank Erwin Center looked around at each other, smiling while wondering what in the hell had just happened to them.
This was one of the strongest sets Dead & Company have played since their inception, full stop. The performance, the sound, the venue, and the crowd were all extraordinary. Oh, and the set list? If you remove the outlier “If I Had The World To Give”, this could have been a set the Grateful Dead played circa 1971.
Yee-haw! Thank you kindly, Texas. Hopefully we’ll all be back soon.
Dead & Company continues their Fall 2017 tour with a performance at Smoothie King Center in New Orleans on Tuesday. For a full list of upcoming dates, head to the band’s website.
Below, you can view a full gallery of photos from Dead & Company’s performance at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, TX courtesy of photographer Matt Rea, and watch an assortment of pro-shot and crowd-shot videos from the show
Watch Dead & Company’s opening “Jack Straw” from their Austin performance below via the band’s YouTube page at nugs.tv:
Watch Dead & Company’s second set-opening “China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider” from Austin below via the band’s YouTube page:
You can watch an assortment of fan-shot footage from the Austin show below:
“Ramble On Rose” – (via YouTube user atexas)
“Dark Star” – (via YouTube user atexas)
SETLIST: Dead & Company | Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | 12/2/17
Set One: Jack Straw, Cold Rain & Snow, Minglewood Blues, Next Time You See Me, Ramble On Rose, If I had The World To Give, Sugaree
Set Two: China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider > Dark Star > The Other One > Drums/Space > Uncle John’s Band > St. Stephen > Morning Dew
Encore: One More Saturday Night