On Saturday night, as Dead & Company begins to round third base and move into the home stretch of their second-ever summer tour, the band made their eagerly awaited return to New York’s Citi Field. The latter-day Dead incarnation had made their two-night debut at the thoroughly modernized home of the New York Mets nearly one year ago to the day, and once again affirmed that the Queens stadium is the perfect site for their annual NYC appearance. For those who haven’t been, the stadium is structured so that you can walk a complete lap around the concourse while maintaining your sight and sound lines virtually the whole way, allowing guests to easily take in their surroundings (whether athletic or musical) from every possible angle. Paired with an abundance of wide-open space for dancing and meeting friends, the baseball field’s layout lends itself perfectly to the communal, family reunion vibe that goes hand-in-hand with all things Dead.
“Dancin’ In The Street” batted lead-off, a strong left-field single to get a man on base and the show on the road. “Jack Straw” from Witchita was up next in the two-slot, as Bob Weir raised hair and spread goosebumps with his impassioned vocals, just like he has since he wrote the song back with John Barlow in the early 70’s. As the sun was beginning to set, the band slid into a slick “Here Comes Sunshine,” led by a notably strong guitar and vocal performance from John Mayer.
“Tennessee Jed” followed, and the crowd was expressively sincere in their sentiments as they crooned along with “ain’t no place I’d rather be.” Next, Mayer led the band with a confident swagger and cascading guitar licks through “Cold Rain and Snow,” a song he’s made his own more so than most in the Dead & Co songbook–in the best possible way. Out of the “Cold Rain and Snow,” Bobby took the chance to show us “snow and rain” with a fluttering “Bird Song” before ending set one with an appropriate “One More Saturday Night.” You can watch fan-shot footage of “Cold Rain and Snow” below via YouTube user Matt Frazier:
After an extra-long set break, the band returned for set two with “Scarlet Begonias,” which had been missing from the last two renditions of “Fire on the Mountain” (in Boston and Bristow). Played at a faster tempo than usual for Dead & Co (closer to the tempo of “Begonias” old), Weir’s vocals intertwined with both Mayer’s falsetto harmonies and howls of the the audience choir in revelrous fashion. The well-tuned harmonies continued from there with the gritty southern rock stylings of “Viola Lee Blues.” An oozing jaunt through “Estimated Prophet” came next, yielding some interesting improv as the band concocted a soft but textured groove.
While the show had been going swimmingly up until this point, the band did not truly catch up to each other and coalesce musically until the gorgeous Dead & Co debut of Jerry Garcia tear-jerker “Comes A Time,” with bassist Oteil Burbridge manning lead vocals. You can watch fan-shot footage of the “Comes A Time” below, via YouTube user Sean Roche:
Now, lets talk about Oteil’s vocal range. Since singing his first lead verse with the band during “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad” at last year’s Citi Field closer, “Letting Oteil Sing” has become an increasingly frequent and welcome addition to Dead & Company’s arsenal. “China Doll” and “Fire on the Mountain” have both become Oteil songs over the course of this summer’s tour, and he has proven to be equally adept at belting the celebratory refrains of “Fire” as he is at nimbly flirting with the line between major and minor on “China Doll.” His vocal performances may not have the impressive flourishes of Mayer’s or the engrained rockstar charisma of Weir’s, but the undeniable intent and silky-smooth timbre of his singing voice helps his songs exude a uniquely beautiful and powerful essence.
“Comes A Time” may be the best outlet we’ve heard yet for Burbridge’s almost painfully sincere voice. This is a man who has been put through the emotional ringer over the past six months, losing former longtime bandmates, friends, and mentors like Butch Trucks, Gregg Allman, and Col. Bruce Hampton, and even dealing with his brother Kofi Burbridge‘s shocking medical scare earlier this week (Note: Thankfully, the word is that Kofi is now in good health and resting up). As the bassist sang lyricist Robert Hunter‘s words — “Don’t give it up, you got an empty cup/That only love can fill” — he laid bare his inner contemplations about his recent hardships, the swirling feelings of sadness meeting hopefulness, of the familiar meeting the unknown. And the smile that spread across his face by the song’s end reminded everyone in attendance to be brave through adversity, to appreciate the positives in life and not get swallowed up by the negatives. If Oteil can do it, so can we.
“Comes A Time” moved gracefully into “Eyes of the World,” which saw the band stretch out for some of their finest improvisation of the evening. Toward the end of the sixteen-minute “Eyes,” the jam began to take on an increasingly percussive backbeat before finally dropping into “Drums” and “Space,” giving Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann a chance to flex their cosmic rhythm muscles. “Space” eventually landed back on earth with a polyrhythmic shuffle, signaling that the Weir-penned classic “The Other One” was on deck. The tune saw Mayer unleash a barrage of licks over Kreutzmann’s thundering bass drum before eventually resolving into “Morning Dew,” one of the few undisputed gems that just about every Deadhead would be happy to get at just about any show. The set-closing rendition did not disappoint, as Jeff Chimenti‘s graceful piano splashes and Weir’s stunning vocals set the stage for Mayer to let loose and propel the song to a fittingly climactic finish.
Excitement was high as the band returned for their curtain call after the previous day’s announcement that the encore would be synced with a live light show on the tower of the iconic Empire State Building. Unsurprisingly, the band’s biggest radio hit, “Touch of Grey,” got the call for the spectacle, as Mayer and Weir’s alternating vocal lines represented a satisfying intertwining of old and new.
That’s what this band is, after all: the original players bringing the minor leaguers up to the big show, honoring the history and heritage of the music while simultaneously moving the narrative forward. And, of course, sometimes that doesn’t work quite as well as intended: It’s no secret that some assorted instances of sloppiness, musical miscommunication and the like are par for the Dead & Co Course. But especially in the “couch tour age,” when pro-shot videos, full-show audio (God bless the tapers), and official setlists make you feel like you’re right in the mix on a daily basis, it’s often easy to find and dwell on a show’s weak points, or to temper your expectations of the band’s potential greatness based on perceived limitations on paper — based on the fact that they’re not the real Grateful Dead. And that’s true, for the most part. The Grateful Dead died with Jerry, plain and simple. But what Dead & Company is doing with the Grateful Dead canon is unmatched in today’s music world. There’s no other tour going on such a massive, stadium-sized scale that people follow religiously. There’s no other band that brings out fans both young and old in such immense numbers, that provides an adventure as uniquely significant as a Dead show. And even as Dead & Co continues to honor tradition, we are seeing them grow into a captivating band in their own right. Love it or hate it, Dead & Company is helping keep the essence of the Grateful Dead — and the Grateful Dead experience — intact in the present day and into the future. With Dead & Co, the music and the magic of the Dead is still alive, and for that we are truly Grateful.
You can also check out pro-shot video of the band’s Empire State Building light show during “Touch of Grey” (via the band’s YouTube page) and fan-shot videos of “Jack Straw,” “Bird Song,” “Viola Lee Blues,” and “Morning Dew” below, via YouTube user Sean Roche:
“Viola Lee Blues”
SETLIST: Dead & Company | Citi Field | New York, NY | 6/24/17
Set One: Dancing In The Street, Jack Straw, Here Comes Sunshine, Tennessee Jed, Cold Rain & Snow, Bird Song, One More Saturday Night
Set Two: Scarlet Begonias > Viola Lee Blues > Estimated Prophet > Comes A Time* > Eyes of the World > Drums/Space > The Other One > Morning Dew
Encore: Touch Of Grey^^, Johnny B. Goode
^Dead & Co debut, Oteil on lead vocals;
^^Featuring Empire State Building light show
Dead & Company continues their tour with a show in Camden, NJ tonight, followed by performances at fan-favorite shed Blossom Music Center on the 28th and a tour-closing two-night run at Chicago’s iconic Wrigley Field next weekend. For more info, or to buy tickets, head to the band’s website.
[Full gallery by Bahram Foroughi]