The time has come to speak of dead things. To be more specific, the time has come to talk about things related to the Grateful Dead, in this case, the newest spin-off of the band, Dead and Company. Like almost every fan who did not get to attend one of the Fare Thee Well concerts in 2015, I was left feeling a bit bereft. The least the band could have done, it seemed to me, was launch a proper tour. But this was the Grateful Dead, a band I’d loved for many years, and when it comes right down to it, they didn’t owe any of us a damn thing.
I have to admit some confusion when I heard that Bob Weir and the drummers, Bill Kreutzman and Mickey Hart, were starting up a reiteration of the band. Phil Lesh, who has for years led various incarnations of Phil and Friends, has decided to stay off the road so much. He can be found playing almost every week at Terrapin Crossroads, a restaurant and listening venue he and his wife own somewhere around Palo Alto. Like many, I was a bit skeptical when I heard that Dead and Company, as the new formation named itself, were bringing in John Mayer on lead guitar. More about that later, but I will say that Mayer has earned his stripes. Bass duties are ably handled by Oteil Burbridge, a veteran of The Allman Brothers Band and Aquarium Rescue Unit. Like Lesh, Burbridge is a very melodic bass player and it would not hurt the band a bit to bring him up in the mix a bit more. Jeff Chimenti, who has played with Ratdog, Weir’s solo band, since 1997, handles keyboard duties.
So how was the show? The friends I attended with, Michael and Jay, and I had been texting for a week as the tour opened, noting what songs had been played, what the reviewers were saying, listening to what was available online. About the fourth night of the tour, one reviewer noted that the band had played four shows without repeating a single song. How long could this last? we wondered. I don’t recall that anyone mentioned how amazing it was that a band could play four or five nights in a row with no repeats. That’s something like a hundred songs right there. Obviously the band has been doing some woodshedding, as I recall an interview with Weir from 2016 or so when he said they needed to learn more songs.
It was well over ninety degrees and not a speck of shade to be seen from our seats on the lawn as the band opened Saturday evening with “Cold Rain and Snow,” a traditional song the Grateful Dead rocked up on their first album. Then came “Greatest Story Ever Told,” its first outing on this tour and a song I haven’t heard live since 1985. This was followed by a slow and lovely “Peggy O,” which I enjoyed except for the guy a few yards over who not only thought he could sing but thought he knew all the words. Wrong on both counts.
There have often been times when I’ve been watching a band and realized that they and the audience knew what was coming next. In many cases this is fine. With a band that prides itself on being an improvisational outfit, it’s more distressing. Toward the end of my Grateful Dead fandom, I felt this way far too often. Would it have killed them to play “China Cat Sunflower” once without segueing into “I Know You Rider”? I never had that feeling at this show. The highlight of the first set was a slow and spacy version of “Bird Song” that evolved into the rocking warhorse “Bertha,” then found its way back to “Bird Song” again. So much for the first set.
Second set I made a rookie mistake and left to pay my respects to the plumbing without marking where my friends and I were camped. As a result, I spent part of the second set wandering around looking for them, but I could always see and hear the band. The second set was more or less a single long segue. The band opened with “Throwin’ Stones,” which is about as political a song as they ever recorded. From there they went into a series of crowd-pleasers such as “Deal” and “Estimated Prophet” before the inevitable “Drums/ Space,” which usually bores me but tonight held its own. Then came “The Wheel,” a rarely heard gem from Jerry Garcia’s first solo album. The night ended with “Ripple,” and there were tears in many eyes as the night drew to a beautiful close. Oh, and I found my friends on the way to the main exit.
The next day, we were waxing rapturous about the show on Facebook and someone asked “Did they play any originals or were they all cover songs?” It was a more complicated question than it seems. Since one member of the current band co-wrote quite a few of the songs being played and three members of the band were present when the songs were rehearsed and took shape, Dead and Company can hardly be called a cover band. But they have not written any new material and presented it as “theirs.” This has been a weakness in the Dead world since Garcia’s death. Ratdog has released one album of new material, Evening Moods, and Phil Lesh’s quintet with Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring, Rob Barraco and John Molo put out There and Back Again, but those songs never really worked their way into the repertoire.
Robert Hunter is still around and to judge by his collaborations with New Riders of the Purple Sage, Jim Lauderdale, Little Feat, and others, he still writes a pretty mean lyric (I highly recommend the New Riders’ Where I Come From and 17 Pine Avenue). However, Hunter once said of Weir that he “uses a lyricist like a whore,” so that avenue of collaboration may take some work. However, even without new songs, Dead and Company are putting their own spin on a venerable songbook. The improvisations are new each night, as a listen to any show from the tour will tell you. A “Jack Straw” from this week will not be exactly the same as a “Jack Straw” played two weeks from now.
As we entered the show, we passed a sign advertising upcoming shows at the arena. One was a stop on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s farewell tour. Various versions of Lynyrd Skynyrd have roamed the country for years with a dwindling number of original members. Now only one original member, Gary Rossington, is a member of the collective calling itself Lynyrd Skynyrd. A few years ago, a former student at the community college where I earn my daily bread played bass for Skynyrd. In fact, not counting backup singers and substitute players, there have been no less than about thirty members of Skynyrd over the years. And they last released a song anyone cared about in 1977. Their audience is one driven by nostalgia, in many cases nostalgia for a band they never saw.
But there are plenty of such bands to be found these days. John Kay still plays shows as John Kay and Steppenwolf and though he has a respectable discography as a solo artist, probably most of the repertoire are the Steppenwolf songs you grew up hearing. Both Grand Funk Railroad and Creedence Clearwater Revival, now known as Creedence Clearwater Revisited, are touring entities. In both cases the original rhythm sections of the bands hired new players and marched forth to play the old hits unencumbered by the composers who wrote those hits. There is even a version of Iron Butterfly that has none of the original members in the lineup. These seem like cash grabs pure and simple, but no one is forcing anyone to go to the casinos or bike shows where these bands make most of their appearances. And REO Speedwagon, Journey, Styx and many other 70s and 80s warhorses are out there in one form or another, flogging the old hits for fans who have heard them many times before.
I can’t fault anyone for nostalgia or for wanting to make contact with songs they truly loved and want to hear live, even if it’s not the original guitar player or drummer but a pair of hired hands onstage. You vote with your dollars and your feet. And I can’t fault anyone for making a living. But I would wish that a collective of musicians would at some point look at each other and say, “Let’s write some new songs. Even if we just sell the discs at shows, it might keep up from getting bored.” I’ve heard Dead fans, many of whom pride themselves on being the most open-minded listeners on the planet, say they don’t want to hear new songs. You vote with your dollars and your feet.
I am excited by this new turn in the Dead saga and look forward to seeing what Dead and Company do as they venture forward. A note: I just saw a story this morning that said the Dead are getting ready to release a box set of the Grateful Dead’s northwest concert runs from 1973 and 1974. Frugality has kept me from buying these mega releases (the entire Europe 72 tour?), but I may have to find some extra income for this. Two of these 1974 shows are among my most cherished bootlegs, including a 45 minute version of “Playin’ In the Band” from Seattle in 1974.
Summertime is here and there are a few more shows coming up as well as new releases. I will be covering all the musical ground I can and will try to pull you along with me. See you at the show.