Dead and Company
Fenway Park Boston MA
July 15 and 16, 2016
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To New England folks, it felt like the two night run in Fenway Park for Dead and Company had the prescription for an amazing run. An historic building in a city that has a long history with the Grateful Dead. The full compliment of musicians is the same it’s been with Bill Kreutzman and Mickey Hart on drums, Oteil Burbridge on bass, Jeff Chimenti on keys, Bob Weir on guitar and vocals, and John Mayer on lead guitar and vocals.
The show started with a lively Jack Straw that had all the promise of the jumping and dancing we’d have throughout the band’s two day visit to Yawkey Way. I had been extremely worried about sound quality, and mainly due to the great seats we had on the floor, the sound was excellent. At the start of the second song the rumor of a sound check guest was confirmed when Donna Jean came out for the Music Never Stopped. She was able to blend into the backing vocals well as she had at Bonnaroo- but in this particular instance she also had a bit of a featured vocal park during the lines “There’s a band out on the highway, They’re high steppin’ into town, It’s a rainbow full of sound, It’s fireworks, calliopes and clowns.” Her voice is clear and on pitch, and Dead and Company have figured out how to seamlessly blend her into what they are doing. She is also clearing having the time of her life on stage.
Up next was Junior Parker’s Next Time You See Me. Not only had I never seen the date do it that I can remember, it’s a perfect choice for Dead and Company as it really fits into the history and strenghts of John Mayer. Both vocally and on lead guitar he really captured both the essence of the song and his own strengths within it. Donna returned to the stage for the Dead’s Loser which was well done and was performed at the patient and some say slow pace that Weir has been preferring to showcase the Dead’s material in the last five years or so. While I can sympathize with those who feel it’s too slow, it really does give a full breadth to the material, you can hear every word, and feel every phrase. So as a songwriter it is impressive Weir’s desire and ability to let the material out and take it for a nice patient stroll to see what’s new within the song, or just to see how it sounds.
The set closed with the suite of Help on the Way -> Slipknot -> Franklin’s Tower. The crowd roared when Mayer began the vocals a smidgeon too early and Weir kept the intro going. After that though, it was full speed ahead, with an intricate and well crafted Slipknot showing significant chops from everyone in the band. The rollicking Franklin’s Tower was a perfect set closer. I would be remiss however if I did not mention that John Mayer wore about the least attractive and inappropriate outfits I’ve seen on stage, maybe ever. The shirt was fine in a large checkered pattern, but having matching shorts was cringe worthy. It did make it difficult to look at him while he was solo-ing for it broke the spell he was casting. Really, truly, hideous. But I don’t go to Dead shows for fashion, and nobody is asking me what to wear that’s for sure.
After a forty minute set break that was needed for everyone as it was hotter than… well pretty hot, the band came out for a set two that was essentially a live Dead hits package. The first notes of Saint Stephen got the crowd in a frenzy. The band played it like they meant it, and transitioned into the live Dead classic Dark Star. Both songs provided a platform for Weir’s vocals and Mayer’s soaring guitar leads. Oteil Burbridge in particular stuck out as he was bopping back and forth and laying down ground work on the bass that was something to behold. All six strings were buzzing as he supplied harmonic notes that anticipated and supported other players.
Those first two songs took a really long time to unfurl, and not in a bad way. So when Terrapin Station came out, you just knew you were in for a long and strong version. Mickey Hart came in early and often on percussion breaking out the beast and rattling our collective cage even during the body of the song, more than you would expect for anything before the formal start of Drums.
Space was particularly brief, somewhat matching the general vibe of the show, and came down into a very quick, probably only one minute reprise of Terrapin Station. Morning Dew came next and was most of the rest of the show. It was heartfelt and well played but didn’t rise to the level of emotion that either the Grateful Dead or Furthur were able to achieve with it. The set closed with Casey Jones which was fun and rollicking, with an ending that upped the pace round and round until the band was built into a frenzy.
After a very short departure from the stage the band came back for a really well done Black Muddy River led by John Mayer vocally- he was able to really inject some quality emotion into his delivery. You knew they weren’t quite done at that point though and sure enough another playful song came out to end the show, US Blues.
The crowd was very supportive and really showed their love for the band. Far from sold out though, we dispersed into the neighborhoods adjacent to the ballpark hitting the bars and restaurants. The juxtaposition of a normal visit to that neighborhood for a Red Sox game and a Dead show was stark as game gear was replaced by tie dye. We ventured to the train and spent the night in South Boston.
The next morning I was up much earlier than my mates and hit Southie for a look into my old neighborhood (we had lived there about eighteen years ago for two years) and my how it has changed. High end apartment buildings and restaurants are everywhere, but in and among them you can still find the old Southie tucked in there by way of old package stores and bars. I hit the train and made my way over to Boston Commons to meet up with friends and take in some sights and we were in the ballpark district by mid day. A great meal at Boston Beer Works (contrasted by my rude treatment at Cask n Flagon the night prior) had us ready for the show.
My seats were in almost the identical location, second section back on the floor on Oteil side. The band took the stage and built up a jam that clearly indicated we were getting Truckin’ to open the show. A summer tour staple the song enabled the band to establish themselves both vocally and within a jam space. Up next was the cowboy classic Big River. As expected Donna Jean came out during that second song continuing her visit with the band.
They really started to gel during They Love Each Other with Donna’s vocal contributions shining through. Deal enabled John Mayer to really stretch out on the guitar and you could tell that he was going to be exploring some on this night. And, thankfully, he was wearing clothing that didn’t make me slap my forehead. With each song Mayer was taking his solos a little further, daring himself a little bit more, and you could see his facial expressions as a road map for how far he was headed.
Bird Song mellowed the mood but did not curtail the exploration. Much of the selections between these two nights I had seen during the one Bonnaroo show I saw a month ago so I let my mind wander during the Bird Song. Donna Jean was able to duet with Bobby in a slightly more up front role as the late 1970s Passenger unfurled. Going Down the Road Feeling Bad ended the set and allowed verses to be sung by every one of the vocalists, including Oteil who took a verse after Donna took hers. It was fun, not Beethoven mind you, just good ol Grateful Dead music being done by its latest purveyors.
The Mayer train kept on rolling with a somewhat surprising inclusion of Sugaree in this part of the show, typically being a first set type of song. But it became evident that it was a great vehicle for Mayer’s explorations to continue. He was not headed for outer space, rather continuing his digging deeper and deeper into the fertile ground that the song structure provides. I think that this may be the key to my perception of Mayer- he is not seeking the stratosphere, but rather the roots of the music. The more he explores, the deeper he goes. He is very grounded but that does not constrict his creativity. It seems as if maybe there are a million variations to what he is doing and that we will see them unfold show after show.
Fire on the Mountain came next and like the night prior availed Mickey and Billy an early entrance into Drums. The visuals were stunning as the Rhythm Devils conducted their own clinic on percussion experimentation. They were joined by Oteil on the drum set for a while, and the improvisational piece slithered and shimmied.
The Garcia late period selection The Days Between kept things very mellow with Weir setting the pace at a very purposeful and plodding rate. For some reason I always visualize a nature video during this song, jelly fish expanding and contracting in dark waters. Tonight was no exception. The set ended with a highly appropriate Not Fade Away with band and fans making the ultimate connection of love and appreciation for the long strange trip we are all on together.
I had been predicting to myself the whole weekend that we would get One More Saturday Night and indeed it came out for the encore. This was a fitting and energetic end to a great two night stand at Fenway Park. Dead and Company are carrying the torch with strength and creativity.
A few thoughts: You can question the choice of John Mayer in this position all you want, you can’t question the results. Having seen the Dead scores of times (not as many as the hundreds or thousands of times some have seen them) I well knew that especially in the later days many shows were listless, the band and Jerry had troubles summoning up energy. And then every five or ten shows you would get a pure classic. With Dead and Company every show is better than what we were getting in the 1990s on an average night of the Grateful Dead. But so far, they have yet to be able to summon up the magic, to open up the box and have the sum total of the universe’s knowledge spill out yet. Perhaps they will achieve that in the coming months and years, but it is no small accomplishment to assemble a band capable of performing this wide repertoire of music, with deftness and skill and a boatload of improvisation. The peak will be summitted soon it seems, and the joy is evident nightly.
If our collective will allowed we would summon up the past and Jerry would be on stage. But since we can’t we have to admire the tenacity of the players who come back year after year, decade after decade, defying age and the limitations of energy to serve us up exactly what we’ve always wanted. Dead and Company is Bob Weir’s band to lead and he does so with vigor and thoughtfulness. The rest is up to us, it is what you make it. Bring joy and it will be returned to you many times over.
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