Deadheads looking for a little company this fall will definitely have something to cheer. Last night in Albany we got our first-ever look at the latest incarnation supporting three core Grateful Dead members along with a few new faces, notably a crispy guitarist who seemed willing and more than able to prove he belongs.
Dead & Company is the latest band formed in the fiftieth anniversary year of the iconic 1960s-era jamband, The Grateful Dead. After an impressively successful run earlier this year with Fare Thee Well, guitarist Bob Weir, along with “Rhythm Devils” Mickey Hart and Billy Kreutzman apparently were not content and decided to recruit the popular singer-songwriter John Mayer for their next affair. Mayer and Weir have been collaborating over many months, and going into last nights band debut, many questions surrounded what Mayer would be offering to the Grateful Dead catalog. On stage, Weir and Mayer were flanked on either side by familiar faces. Jeff Chimenti worked alongside Bruce Hornsby for Fare The Well, but has keys to himself for this 22-date tour. Oteil Burbidge was chosen to cover bass, and has collaborated with Billy Kreutzman in the past.
Grateful Dead fans have fond memories of this venue, going back to the stellar runs at “The Knick” in the 1990s. Above the Dead & Company stage hung a giant, three-dimensional steal your face with vertical screens on either side, along with the usual impressive arrangement of lighting fixtures. When the house lights dimmed almost 20 minutes after the scheduled start-time, the band took the stage and noodled into the first familiar licks with “Playing’ In The Band.” Mayer may have felt like all eyes were on him, and he would have been right. This tour is one of his largest endeavors, and the grammy-winning artist admitted he has been “training like a boxer” to prepare for this gig. Weir and Mayer delicately helped the “Playin’” jam along – it was the longest segment of the night – until the opening chords of “Cold Rain and Snow” lifted the audience. Bob sounded great, and the smiles across the hockey arena confirmed the strong start to the tour.
“Tennessee Jed” featured some of the first John Mayer vocals and his soulful, laid-back style fit the vibe perfectly while the crowd sang along in unison. There were a few moments that could have inspired goosebumps here. The opening notes of “Feel Like a Stranger” elicited more cheers from the crowd. Bob took full command here and in his distinctive animated style, strained and twisted himself to accentuate the lyrics, “Let’s get on with the show!”
“He’s Gone” is such a wonderful tune that provides meaning in some way or another to any Deadhead. With the band singing “Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile,” it meant that Mayer and Company are clearly a well-rehearsed and calculated system of parts that can expertly deliver a sound that is very, very much like the Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia would have loved this band, and the version of his “Birdsong” that grew slowly out of the “He’s Gone” jam and preceded a jumpy and triumphant “The Music Never Stopped” which closed the nearly ninety-minute set.
An extended set-break followed and for almost an hour, conversations exclaimed Mayer’s obvious dedication to the band, or his expertly matched guitar style, or his vocal abilities being so complimentary to Weir’s. At times Mayer did look slightly out of place (he is playing with musicians three decades older than he is), but his rocking head bobs or pursed lips truly added some energy to the stage. His style is well-suited for this band, and almost to a fault. A few times, it was almost sounded as if we were a few subtle guitar licks away from the opening chords to “Belief,” Mayer’s hit from 2007 Best Pop Vocal album, Continuum.
Weir crooned into the mic on “Lost Sailor” to start the second set. The selection offered some actually tremendous interplay giving the sense of a long journey at sea. Jamming into “Saint of Circumstance,” the band featuring twists and turns executed with precision. Building an impressive setlist for the tour opener, “Help on the Way > Slipknot! > Franklin’s Tower” occupied more than twenty minutes and sounded more like the Grateful Dead than anyone might have expected. Jeff Chimenti had been solid all night, but on “Franklin’s” was really able tho match notes with Mayer, finding a groove that lifted the crowd.
Recreating the essence of a Dead concert is not complete without the second-set experience of the “Rhythm Devils” leading us through “Drums > Space.” A similar vibe to what was captured at Fare Thee Well, the electronica sound served as an exciting compliment to the overall sound of the band. After the band reformed on stage, “Space” jammed into “The Other One” and the comfort level on stage increased even more. Burbidge paired with the driving force of Hart and Kreutzman, pushing the pace before Weir shared, “The bus came by and I got on that’s when it all began.”
A beautiful rendition of “Stella Blue” offered a change of tempo before the band delivered a memorable finish to their first-ever performance. Almost exactly how Fare Thee Well closed in Chicago on July 5th. “Not Fade Away” charged up the audience, who at this point was probably stoned two times over. Fun riffs from Mayer on this bouncy version was another example of his fearless ambition. The crowd clapped and chanted the refrain, “You know our love will not fade away,” into the short break before the encore, the Grateful Dead’s famous “Touch of Grey.”
Bob Weir, easily the centerpiece of this group, maybe sounded better than he has all year. He just seems so much more relaxed and exudes more visible ownership on stage without Phil Lesh by his side. John Mayer was excellent in Albany, but I imagine if you were to ask him how he performed, he might tell you he has more work to do. With the experience and talent in this band, by the end of this tour the group will be so comfortable and making music that will be remembered by Deadheads all over the country.