The long strange trip continued this past weekend as Dead & Company kicked off their Summer 2019 tour at the venerable Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, CA. This venue was quite literally built for the Grateful Dead, and the excitement was palpable throughout the weekend as evidenced by the gigantic, vibrant Shakedown lot scene. People were beyond stoked to be at Shoreline and have Dead & Company be there to usher in the first waves of summer.
Friday seemed to serve as a bit of a warmup for both the band and the venue. Musically set one on Friday got off with a bang in a pairing of “Playing in the Band”> “Shakedown Street.” With a very mellow tempo, the band was feeling each other out and moved through the first set somewhat gingerly. The first Dead & Company rendition of “Mama Tried” was a treat, as was the bluesy licks on display from lead guitarist/vocalist John Mayer on “It Hurts Me Too.” Surely Pig Pen would have nodded to Mayer as he did the Tampa Red cover that Pig once covered justice as he often does when blues tunes take center stage at a Dead show.
Second set is a Deadhead’s dream come true on paper. Highlights were crystal clear in the ripping rendition of “Althea,” once again lead by Mayer, and the full band interplay during the improvisation in “Eyes of the World.” The latter jam in “Eyes” felt like when it all came together on Friday. Dusting off those rusty strings, corralling the crowd to lock in and listen intensely, this was a salient moment when all of sudden you realize that this is the most current, modern take on the post-1995 Grateful Dead world, and the music is as alive as it could possibly be. Mayer has a way of infusing his own style into this timeless music that fits. He never overpowers anything, he just seems to step up when there’s an opportunity, while bassist/vocalist Oteil Burbridge fills the space between with rhythmic beats. The rest of the core three plus keyboardist Jeff Chimenti is the Grateful Dead of today. These six musicians cultivated a beautiful audible space together on Friday, but something else must have clicked between the final encore notes of “The Weight” and taking the stage on Saturday.
Saturday’s show felt like an entirely new band. Energized, bouncy, and dare I say more upbeat, from the first notes of the “Bertha” opener to the brilliantly placed and executed “Lost Sailor”-> “Saint of Circumstance” to close off the first set, Dead & Company was on another level Saturday from the night before. The entire first set had an extra zest on it. “Big River” for example, was tight, groovy, and had that snap that old school seasoned Grateful Dead fans are accustomed too from decades and decades of listening to the band. Bob Weir, I mean what can one say? His recent interview with GQ is definitely worth a read, as is giving this man the admiration he deserves as the orchestrator of this whole project. It is not just him, and he certainly says so when given the chance, but today it feels like Cowboy Bob is at the wheel and he is doing more than a fine job of driving that train, bus, or whatever vehicle is around straight to never-ever land.
Set two is such a cool example of where Dead & Company both honor their roots, but continues to break new ground. I think it is here that one can encapsulate the whole weekend, and get incredibly excited for what the band has in store for fans over their coming summer tour. The opening pairing was tight, and Bobby absolutely sent the pinnacle lyric of “I Know You Rider” in such a way no one in the house could have missed it.
So here we are fired up and ready to jump into the meat of the last set of the weekend when the band offered two songs that caught most off guard. The first, “Row Jimmy” slowed everything down from where the “China->Rider” has just gone. But Mr. Mayer once again flat out slayed this beautiful piece of music leading the band in a such a way that an even a balladesque song like “Row Jimmy” fit simply because of the way it was played. “Deal” followed, and although it is commonly a celebrated set one closer in the Grateful Dead catalogue, here the band cohesively locked in together again and shined making it fit and flow for the present time and space.
From here on out is where the musical pinnacle of the weekend was found and set Dead & Company and their fans up for an exciting road ahead this summer. A super slowed down, drippingly psychedelic dance with “The Other One”, that showcased full band improvisation for several minutes on end kept fans attention until giving way to the most core Grateful Dead vibe one can experience in 2019. Drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart trading beats as the Rhythm Devils they are is as much of an encounter with the cosmos now as it was when they were doing it decades ago with the Grateful Dead. Constantly breaking new musical ground the spectacle, supported with brilliant visuals across a huge screen overhead was as out there as ever on Saturday before the return to “The Other One”. But verse two was not so downtempo and slowed down as verse one. Oteil hit the drop on this one and completely sent the entire Shoreline scene into a frenzy that only this song played with the energy and magnitude of its potential its capable of providing.
If there’s one thing for interested people to go back and listen to from this weekend, if you’re wondering whether to catch a show on the tour, and check in on how the band sounds go right to the “Morning Dew”. Perhaps the best landing pad for a monstrous jam out of any Dead song, the first notes to this gem resonate deeply with anyone who identifies as a Deadhead. A beautiful rendition was offered at Shoreline on Saturday, but of course, the question is, how was the peak? Since 1995 I’ve heard numerous musicians go there, some with better success than others. When you listen back to when Jerry would really go there there’s nothing left to do but nod in acknowledgment of his other-worldly abilities, and of course to smile, smile, smile. The whole band was there as one harmonic entity on Saturday, but John Mayer went beyond anything I personally have ever heard him play. And respectfully, I would never say this lightly, especially in the context of the Grateful Dead and a second set closing “Dew”. As I’m sure they will be talking about on the Grateful Dead channel this Sunday, this was a transcendent “Dew,” the kind of moment at a show where people get it. Why this whole thing exists, why it’s so special to so many-it’s all there in this “Dew.” The intricate picking, building up, and the peak was on the level so much so that it pretty much created a new level for the band.
A nice offering in the core of “Uncle John’s Band” and capping the weekend off with going pack to “Playing” in the reprise was a treat, but in the end, it was all about the “Dew.” As impressed and blown as one can be, have fun catching the Co. this summer when you can. The tour is sure to keep gaining momentum from here and if Shoreline has anything to offer to peer into the future, the magic is still alive and thriving as much as it ever has.