As was the case with Tom Hanks’ “David S. Pumpkins” Saturday Night Live character, Dead & Company have finally become “their own thing.” Was it the forced hiatus of COVID or the changing expectations of the audience that caused their newfound freedom? It’s best not to overanalyze it since that makes the magic that much better when it happens.
The band returned to the stage a few weeks ago with a strong opening stretch of shows that ended on Saturday night, August 28th at Hershey Park Stadium. Any Deadhead or tape collector of a certain age already knows that the Dead played a legendary show at the same venue on June 28, 1985. That night is remembered for many reasons, including a once-in-a-lifetime second set opener of “The Music Never Stopped” that was fantastic. Could that have led to the decision to open the show with it? They always keep us wondering, which is part of the fun.
They played the tune during soundcheck, along with the segue into the much-less-beloved “Easy Answers.” This reviewer was at Giants Stadium in 1993 the night that song debuted in the exact same spot, albeit at the end of the set, so it’s not such an unlikely pairing. The two tunes flow right into each other and Bobby, who sounded particularly strong, seemed to really enjoy it. The song also allowed John Mayer, who is wearing headphones on stage rather than the in-ear monitors he often had draped on his shoulders, to get himself going. Mayer seems much more comfortable in his role in the group than ever before. Like some of the far too many rebooted film and television franchises, this band seems to have found the balance between old and new characters. The chorus of “Touch of Grey” felt more like a rallying anthem than ever and featured Mayer and Weir sharing vocal duties.
“Tennessee Jed” had some of the best jamming of the show as Mayer and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, who stood in adjacent spots on stage, were in sync all night. It wasn’t even clear if the barrelhouse piano led to the guitar solo, but Mayer achieved liftoff and the entire crowd felt it. It sounded and felt great.
“Black-Throated Wind” featured some of Weir’s best singing of the night; it was evident he was pushing the tempo and his own vocal cords. This has never been a song that could be played half-assed, as Weir always suggested he didn’t want to revive it after 1974 unless they did it justice. Even by those high standards, this was a particularly sweet version as his rough-hewn vocals really fit the song’s lyrics especially well.
“Cassidy” featured the most exploratory jamming of the set. As the sun set on the stadium and the weather cooled, Mayer’s floating notes were the perfect complement. If there was a discernible change in the music, it’s that the “Company” part of the band seem less concerned with sounding like the Grateful Dead than ever. The younger musicians are tapping into some of the same influences the band did, of course; “Cassidy” started jazzy (in all the best ways) and flowed into a beautiful peak.
The second set kept the energy going with “Here Comes Sunshine.” As it opened, it sounded almost like Mayer was playing “Casey Jones,” but this was clearly the intended tune. His solo also sounded like it was almost for another song but was fantastic. The jam out of “Estimated Prophet” hit some nice deep spaces and led to an excellent “Eyes of the World.” Once again, the magic between Chimenti and Mayer was the highlight, especially the guitar solo that was the result of their partnership. “Althea,” the song that famously birthed this band back in 2015, has since become Mayer’s showcase. This version was no exception. His solo before the “space is getting hot” verse was particularly fiery.
The rendition of Miles Davis’ “Milestones” that flowed out of “Space” was the night’s most spontaneous moment. Bassist Oteil Burbridge, perched on a stool to start, really drove the music on this one. It wasn’t just a tease of the original, either; it was fully formed and an absolute treat, while“Death Don’t Have No Mercy” was similarly fantastic.
It might have been a Saturday, but the band took us all to a Sunday sermon. Clearly, the music had reached a place where it seemed that whatever they chose to play would sound good. “One More Saturday Night,” although expected, featured Weir giving it his all. After it ended, he mentioned a “hard curfew” as the band began its encore of Bob Dylan’s “The Mighty Quinn. The sing-a-long chorus was a perfect capper to a great evening in Candy Land.