Dead & Company kicked off the the southern leg of their 2019 summer tour in Bristow, Virginia Wednesday night at the Jiffy Lube Live Amphitheatre. Located 35 miles outside the nation’s capital (and Burbridge’s hometown) of Washington, DC, the venue just off Interstate 66 hosted the band’s first visit to the state since their eventful two-show run last August headlining LOCKN’ Festival in Arrington.
One of the Grateful Dead’s defining characteristics was that their music would change depending on where they were playing, delivering some of their best shows when they were able to really dial into the area where they’d set up shop that day. Dead & Company have carried on this notable characteristic, and whether intentional or not, many of the evening’s song choices were decidedly appropriate to the location. On one hand, Washington DC is a decidedly cosmopolitan city with a gleaming center and one of the world’s centers of power. It’s a decidedly southern town populated by tens of thousands of former student council presidents across the country who, whether they were likeable or not, grew up and moved here to do more of the same after becoming adults. Meanwhile, much of Virginia remains decidedly rural and proud, with non-indigenous locals being able to track ancestors as far back as the 1600s, while areas such as the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Heart of Appalachia have maintained deep social, cultural, and musical traditions that have been passed down for decades and sometimes centuries.
With that in mind, the city folks got the first nod as the band opened with “Shakedown Street”, and given the current state of ongoing political enmity just up the road on DC’s Capitol Hill, the funk-infused song felt just right as an opener. After the acapella “Shake it down now” chant triggered the first extended jam of the night, John Mayer played some nice Mu-Tron pedal-flavored leads before the music slowly petered out and led directly into “Dire Wolf”. Between Mayer’s earthy vocals and Jeff Chimenti’s piano solo, it was a nice country folks counterpoint to the disco-ish number that preceded it.
During the third song, “Hell in A Bucket”, the band noticeably kicked into the next gear as the city folks chalked up another one in their column with Bob Weir’s take of hedonistic excess. By the time the song’s closing section played through, the band was fully warmed up, which made it all the more surprising that the beginning of “Bertha” took a step back in intensity at first, but Mayer’s mid-song solo was laced with chords that brought the energy back up as Weir led the band through the accent chords on the various downbeats.
“Friend of the Devil” moved things back out into the country, and between its original faster pace, Weir’s tasty acoustic rhythm guitar and Chimenti’s solo, the rustic Virginia country vibe was right back, even if the song’s lyrics reference several western US states. The country folks got worn out for a second straight song as Weir kept his acoustic guitar strapped on and called for “Peggy-O”, the beautiful and tragic traditional song about a marriage that didn’t happen, and the version maintained a slightly faster and welcomed pace compared to previous versions from this year.
The country folks completed their hat trick with “Cumberland Blues”, an especially appropriate choice as the old Cumberland Mine in Waynesburg, PA is just a few hours away from Bristow. Mayer played a neat variation on the song’s opening riff to start things off, and the set’s musical highlight came from the spirited duet between Mayer and Chimenti during the song’s solo section, which got hot enough that it prompted Oteil Burbridge to look across the stage at the pair of them and just start laughing with joy while he plunked out the fast-moving bottom end on his new purple Ankh bass. What had a bit of back and forth between the city folks and the country tunes was now a case of the country folks running away with things.
But as it so often happens, the city folks got the last word as Weir deployed the most DC-appropriate song in the Grateful Dead catalog, “Throwing Stones”. This version of a song about power started with a more relaxed vibe, but it remains one of Weir’s best storytelling songs, so its momentum gradually increased with each verse as his delivery intensified. Weir’s “The whole goddamn government today!” line of vocals was also accentuated with an echo effect, a fun throwback to when longtime Grateful Dead front of house engineer Dan Healy would do this to Weir’s vocals in the 80s in a prankster’s approach to fooling with the sensory input for thousands of suggestible listeners.
Dead & Company – “Shakedown Street” – 6/26/2019
[Video: Dead & Company]
After the set break, the band and the country folk vibe returned with “Here Comes Sunshine”, the classic tune from 1973’s Wake of the Flood LP, a record with a heavy nature vibe. After Mayer led the band through the verses, the jam moved along at a nice pace before circling back to one last verse and coda, and it proved to be the launching pad for the highlight of the night.
“Playing in the Band” instantly blew away any more country-versus-city comparisons for a while, as this all-time classic allowed everyone to sway along for three minutes and three verses in the key of D before gently ushering the crowd into uncharted territory. Mayer took charge of the jam quickly with some delicate but insistent leads while Weir fingered the sort of chords that he alone seems to think of and that only a few could actually play. After a couple of minutes Bill Kreutzmann’s jazzy timekeeping prompted Mayer to hit a pedal that cast a watery effect over his subtle lead lines while Burbridge fired off rapid but equally subtle bass runs to complement him. After a total slowdown, Chimenti plinked out a few chord and some gentle lines that sounded for a minute like it might become the intro to the Traffic classic “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys”, but soon enough Mayer started a powerful, faster run that took Hart and his red drumsticks along with him before soon circling back to the overall vibe of “Playing in the Band”. A second slowdown prompted some bluesy leads from Mayer before the band surprised the crowd with a full the “Playing in the Band” reprise. It was a beautiful journey that showcased how well these musicians play and how well they listen and react to one another.
And with these two songs and reprise back-to-back, there’s now a pretty major 1973 vibe in the house. Fortunately, the next song hit the bullseye for maintaining the said vibe when Burbridge sang the opening lines of “China Doll”, another staple from that year. It’s one of the worst-kept secrets in the Dead & Company universe that Burbridge’s voice and delivery remains perfectly suited for the most delicate Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter ballads, and if any of his old music teachers from his Sidwell Friends School were in attendance tonight they had to have been beaming with pride at their local kid made good.
Those teachers would have also started dancing pretty quickly after that, as the 1973 party continued with “China Cat Sunflower”. Mayer’s lead in between the second and third verses revealed a guy who was just raring to go once that final verse had been sung, as he was simultaneously attacking his leads while just allowing his subconscious to lead his playing at times. It was a good omen for what was coming, and come it did. After Weir dispensed with the final verse, Mayer opted for some decidedly Garcia-eqsue leads before switching over to some staccato chords that occasionally channeled the style of leads that Weir would play during the classic Grateful Dead versions of this song between 1972 and 1974. The transition into “I Know You Rider” might not have been as powerful in comparison but the band arrived there nonetheless, and what used to be a song of around five minutes or so for most of its Grateful Dead life has become a song of around twice that length with Dead & Company, with a longer intro and far more than two passes through each of the two solo sections. And while the Dead & Company versions may not have the visceral punch of the shorter version (or the trump card of Garcia belting out the “headlight” verse), there’s a lot more of the song to go around.
The “Drums” segment followed, and this evening’s take found Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart and Burbridge focusing more on traditional drums and percussion instruments while making less use of samples and sound effects, which definitely fit the vibe of the set. It was a less boomy and more introspective drums session, as was Mickey’s gentle pawing of the Beam to cue the “Space” segment. “Space” also continued in a quieter, more reflective mood for a few minutes until the drummers returned, and for the better part of a minute it sounded like “The Other One” was going to keep the 1973 party going by getting its second play in three shows.
But all of a sudden Mayer’s riff changed a bit, and without much intro Weir barked out the opening line to “New Speedway Boogie”, still one of the best protest songs in the catalog, written quickly in the aftermath of the disastrous Altamont Free Concert on December 6, 1969 that was marred by its by bad vibes, violence, and four fatalities. But on this evening and in this place it felt like a message to the folks on Capitol Hill, as Weir’s occasionally snarling delivery emphasized the darkness of its lyrics.
The darker vibe continued with “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”, an apocalyptic Bob Dylan song that remains as haunting as ever 57 years after it appeared on Dylan’s second LP The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1962. As Weir delivered the verses in his best storyteller mode, Mickey made use of the Beam’s monochord to generated an occasional drone that came across as ominous amidst the world-weariness and resigned anticipation of the song’s narrator. Yet the short four-note fill at the end of each verse leaves room for the listener to find optimism, and Mayer’s solo before the final verse, augmented by some gentle rolling thunder by the drummers, provided a way up and out.
Finally, everything lightened up once again, courtesy of the right song in the right location at the right time. “U.S. Blues” provided an upbeat, rocking end to the set as Weir and Mayer traded vocals on the verses, and this one is tune where city folk and country folk can agree upon no matter what, as its riddles within the verses and gentle patriotism will score points across the board and across the aisle, and the appreciative crowd was whisked away to danceville one more time.
After that decidedly deep journey,” Ripple” was an ideal encore. Mayer and Weir donned acoustic guitars and led everyone through the Garcia/Hunter classic, and it was a final few minutes of beauty, mystery, and optimism before the band sent the crowd floating back to parking lots, the real world, and Beltway traffic.
Dead & Company’s summer tour continues on Friday, June 28th at the PNC Music Pavilion in Charlotte, NC. Tickets are available here.
Dead & Company – “Here Comes Sunshine” – 6/26/2019
[Video: Dead & Company]
Setlist: Dead & Company | Jiffy Lube Live Amphitheatre | Bristow, VA | 6/26/2019
Set One: Shakedown Street, Dire Wolf, Hell In A Bucket, Bertha, Friend Of The Devil, Peggy-O, Cumberland Blues > Throwing Stones
Set Two: Here Comes Sunshine, Playing In The Band > China Doll, China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider > Drums/Space > New Speedway Boogie > Hard Rain, US Blues