There really isn’t such a thing as a good or bad Dead and Company show, as much as it's simply a highly unique, free-flowing collection of warm, herbal-scented vibes and, in the case of an outdoor concert in July, warmer temperatures.
The current iteration of the legendary Grateful Dead led its adoring caravan to the Dos Equis Pavilion in Fair Park on Tuesday night, returning to Dallas after less than two years, which is significantly quicker than the three-decade wait the band’s faithful following endured leading up to their December 2017 American Airlines Center concert.
With the bustling, traveling bazaar known as Shakedown Street, complete with vendors selling cheap food, beer, T-shirts, glass pipes and more, filling up the front portion of the venue’s parking lot, it was easy to feel as though beloved Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia hadn’t died 24 years ago. The colorful scene of sweaty, tie-dye wearing revelers smiling and swirling around hours before the first concert, is a timeless one that doesn’t seem to care if pop-tactic bad boy John Mayer is the one trading licks with OG Dead legend Bob Weir or not.
That lack of concern isn’t simply thanks to possible anxiety-reducing substances. Without a doubt, Mayer has become a heavenly body in the Grateful Dead universe. At a few minutes past 7 p.m., with the sun still burning strong from just above the back wall of the amphitheater, directly facing Mayer’s wonderland, he and the group effortlessly began with “Bertha.” The easy breezy groove from Mayer’s guitar offered early hints of the general direction the show would take.
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To be clear, this wasn’t a “John Mayer and the Dead” show. Just as was the case during their 2017 Dallas show, Mayer was just a part of the band, and not the usual chatty frontman most are used to. As collaborative as the group is with its improvisational prowess, there’s little mistaking this is Bob Weir’s outfit. As he led the group through a gritty, bluesy “New Minglewood Blues,” he held the stage, and the swirl of humanity in front of him, with expert authority.
Mayer and Weir continued to trade off lead vocals and worked in a few comfortable harmonies from time to time. Mayer led during a soulfully smooth “Row Jimmy” before he and Weir teamed up on the mandatory Dallas cover of “Deep Elem Blues” and the Dead’s 1970 folk-rock classic “Friend of the Devil.” Wearing a Stevie Ray Vaughan T-shirt, Mayer channeled the guitar-hero spirit of the Texas blues legend during a majestic “Sugaree” with some impressive guitar gymnastics.
After a break, the band came back to a darker sky and an even jammier vibe than the first set had proffered, throwing in some prominent jazz-intensive jams. Mayer, now sporting a new T-shirt with the sleeves cut off to match the gun show displayed by the physically fit Weir, got things rolling with more nimble picking and grooving during “Shakedown Street,” followed by a calypso-inflected marathon take on “Uncle John’s Band.”
Even at that late point, the inventively meandering river had merely begun to flow. From there, Mayer and Weir, along with Grateful Dead drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, along with Jeff Chimenti on keys and Oteil Burbridge on bass, locked into an atmospheric realm where little mattered outside of what simply felt right in that moment. A bluesy “St. Stephen” jammed on for a while, lulling the crowd to its slowest twirling of the night, before Mayer triumphantly sparked the energy back with both voice and instrument.
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Hart and Kreutzmann assumed center stage with their typically glorious, otherworldly “Drums and Space” exhibition, which is as much a Dead and Company hallmark as anything Mayer or Weir are responsible for on a nightly basis.
With more rock icons passing away with each new year, and the number of big-name bands hitting the road without some of their key members, it's worth noting that Dead and Company don’t fit into that growing, depressing category. The Eagles, for example, replaced co-founder Glenn Frey with his son and with noted country musician Vince Gill after Frey’s 2016 passing, while another top band from the '70s, Fleetwood Mac, fired Lindsey Buckingham and replaced him with guitarist Mike Campbell and Neil Finn of Crowded House.
Unlike the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, Dead and Company are upfront about who’s missing and the fact that this is a different crew, regardless of the songs or history. There have been many different versions of the Dead since Garcia’s passing, but none of them have taken the original band name. Not only is Garcia not here, but neither is original bassist and vocalist Phil Lesh. This band isn’t trying to convince you it's something that it simply can’t be, which, with apologies to Gill, Campbell and Finn, is what the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac and many other bands in their unenviable positions are shooting for.
This was a Dead and Company show, which meant the spirit of the past is very much alive, though no one, whether onstage or in the audience, felt the need to mourn history as much as celebrate the point to which it brought us — this one, specific moment in time.