Dead & Company. 1stBank Center. 11.25.15
Part I: My Personal Thoughts Before The Show
Let me start out by saying I’ve never really liked the Grateful Dead. As a fan of music in general, I’ve always respected the legacy the band built over the thirty years they existed, but I’ve never understood the draw. I consider myself a live music connoisseur of sorts (some would call me an addict), and I’ve flown around the country and across the Atlantic to see my favorite artists perform, but I have yet to be compelled to quit my job, sell my belongings, and follow a band from state to state. It amazes me the Grateful Dead inspired thousands of people to do just that. I have to respect the devotion of those Deadheads, but it also baffles me every time I try to listen to their music. Granted, I have never been a fan of jam bands in general, so I am anything but an expert on the sprawling (loosely-defined) genre The Dead pioneered. I do consider myself to be very open-minded when it comes to music I might not understand though, so I’ve tried to immerse myself into the vast universe of Grateful Dead recordings time and time again, only to find myself more and more perplexed with each passing moment on the road to nowhere.
Plenty of friends have assured me The Dead are something that need to be experienced live. I was told even the live recordings were nothing more than a one-dimensional facsimile of the real thing. So I decided it was time to find out for myself. I had spent time in various parking lots in the Bay Area during a few Dead shows, but was never compelled to trade trinkets for tickets. I did see Phish (on mushrooms) back in ’95. It was fun, but I don’t really remember the music. I saw The Allman Brothers once as well (without mushrooms) and I was bored out of my mind. I also saw Furthur. They were pretty good, but we were only there for the first set, which was surprisingly structured and very light on the long jams. I saw a Sunday Panic show at Red Rocks a few years ago, which was great, but only because it was at Red Rocks and I spent more time watching the crowd than I did the band. So although I was still a novice in the eyes of many jam band fans, seeing John Mayer lead a Dead show wouldn’t be my first rodeo. But doing so on a frigid night in November didn’t exactly inspire the feelings of euphoria it might have in others. That being said, I was cautiously optimistic.
Part II: The Atmosphere
A very important aspect of the Garcia-era Dead shows was the tailgating. It was a major part of the appeal. Hanging out among the tie-dyed masses, bouncing from one Volkswagen bus to another as dreadlocked entrepreneurs sold/traded their wares, while the authorities looked the other way, was an adventure in itself. Each concert provided its own little Burning Man prior, during, and after the show. Having experienced the ritual back in the early-90’s, it was a minor disappointment when that cultural phenomenon was absent in Broomfield. Disappointing, but hardly surprising. 1stBank Center is surrounded by businesses and townhomes. The authorities are not known to turn a blind eye to illegal activities. And it was fucking freezing outside. So instead of browsing the latest in hippie fashions, oils and edibles, we were met with a long line of people eager to get inside. As they rudely pushed and shoved their way into the corporate events center, it was hard not to imagine the heart of the free love movement as a black, frozen relic from a time long forgotten.
Things weren’t much better on the warm side of the walls either. More lines and rude people would have to be dealt with before forking over cash for overpriced drinks and merch. I realize this would have been the case even if the show was somewhere like Red Rocks, but I was caught off guard by the aggressive nature of many in the crowd. 1stBank is one of my least favorite venues no matter who is performing, so I was eager for the show to start by the time I got to my seat. Luckily, the people sitting around me were the opposite of aggressive, reminding me more of the vagabond fans I interacted with in the Bay Area all those years ago. Situated second row up from the floor, just above the interpreter for the deaf and hard of hearing, and just a few rows from stage right, I hardly remembered where I was. It was the first time I’d been so close to the stage at 1stBank Center. And being that close made the lackluster venue completely disappear behind me. With a sea of Deadheads as my neighbors on the floor, and a stage set with two massive drum kits, a piano, and guitars, all posed beneath the iconic skull screen, the scene was set for an epic show. It was from that viewpoint in which the Dead & Company made me a believer. From the moment they appeared, until the end of the second set, I was absolutely immersed in the sounds I felt I was hearing for the very first time.
Part III: The First Set
I realize I am not qualified to write about this show. It always bothers me when I read a live review about a band I am passionate about, only to realize the writer knows nothing about them. For that reason, this is not a review as much as it is a personal account of my own experience. I hope this disclaimer saves me from the wrath of an angry comments sections.
The band who call themselves Dead & Company took the stage just before 8:00pm. Original Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Krueutzmann were joined by friends of the jam, Oteil Burbridge on bass and Jeff Chimenti on keys. Oteil and Chimenti came with resumés written for the job, but the young face on the stage came from a different world altogether. It’s no secret John Mayer has guitar skills beyond what might appear on his Top 40 pop rock albums, but he isn’t the first person who comes to mind when thinking about a Jerry Garcia stand-in. That being said, any trepidation the crowd might have felt was immediately put to rest by the 38-year-old singer-songwriter. As if teaching himself close to a hundred Dead-related songs wasn’t enough, Mayer was in lockstep with the rest of the band through the entire performance. Instead of trying to be a living, breathing hologram of Garcia (which would have been a disaster), he found a way of paying tribute to the lost legend without giving up his own personality. The night opened with a rejuvenated Weir on lead vocals for “Hell in a Bucket”, before he turned it over to Mayer for “Brown Eyed Women”. The transition was seamless. Weir’s vocals were much stronger than they were when I saw him with Futhur, even though they could have been louder in the mix. There was zero banter and very little pause between songs as the two guitarists burned down the road that was being paved out of thin air by Hart and Kruetzmann. The two drummers communicated via a silent language only they understood, while the great skull in the sky hung above them. The sounds emanating from the stage, along with the visuals on the trio of giant screens, were enough to convince me I’d never really experienced the Grateful Dead before.
Bob Weir was wearing a “This Going Somewhere?” shirt throughout the set. That is a question I’ve asked myself many times while listening to jam bands. The improvised songs that go from here to eternity never appealed me, and I was afraid I would lose interest once the performance started down that path, but the endless noodling never happened during the first set. “Brown Eyed Women” bled into “Feel Like a Stranger”, which led into “Peggy-O”, and then became “Little Red Rooster”. That bluesy number started out like any other song, but when they let it unravel into something a little less structured, it became an insane jam. It was soaked in blues and it had a purpose. And I loved it! Weir was singing, but Mayer really came to life during that one. I seriously had no clue he had it in him. He was only upstaged by Chimenti. As the keyboardist’s fingers were broadcasted on two of the big screens, the keys looked as if they might catch fire. “Bird Song” came next, and as Mayer sang “I’ll show you snow and rain”, I wondered if he knew he was predicting the weather that was waiting for us outside the show. The first set ended with “The Music Never Stopped” before a forty minute intermission. They had been playing for over an hour and hadn’t performed even one song I was familiar with, yet I was already completely enamored with the band.
Part IV: The Second Set
After wandering around the insanely packed halls of the venue during the break, I found myself in the back when they opened it up with “Truckin’”. Being so close for the first set, I took advantage of my location to watch the one song I actually knew from a different viewpoint. My seat afforded me an ‘up close and personal’ show, but it was too close to really take in the spectacular stage setup. “He’s Gone” soundtracked my journey back to the front while Weir and Mayer harmonized as if they had been doing so for decades. When Mayer turned his back to the audience during “Eyes of the World”, I couldn’t help but applaud his lack of ego. He is arguably more popular than any musician he shared the stage with, yet there was no grandstanding whatsoever. Oteil was another one I couldn’t keep my eyes off of. He was shredding his six strings the whole night, but it wasn’t until “Eyes of the World” when the jam allowed him to really shine with a solo that brought the house down.
Not to take anything away from the surviving members of the original band, but between Oteil, Chimenti, and Mayer, I could imagine a whole new band that would be worth their weight in gold. “Terrapin Station” was the last selection to find Mayer on lead vocal duties, and then Hart and Krueutzmann took over with “Drums”. It was obvious the “Drums / Space” section was a highlight for many Dead fans, but it also caused the longest bathroom lines outside of the intermission. For someone who didn’t know if he could handle a whole night of Grateful Dead songs, I found myself calling each selection a highlight as the performance hit the three hour mark. The slow, bluesy “Stella Blue” was gorgeous. “China Cat Sunflower”was amazing; proving the band just gets better the longer they are on stage together. And then the crowd lost their shit as they transitioned into “I Know You Rider”. The show could have ended on that high note, but the Dead still had some life in them, so it was that “Not Fade Away” led people into the icy night awaiting outside.
Part V: My Personal Thoughts After The Show
We took an Uber to the 1stBank Center and we didn’t know how hard it would be to get one home. It wasn’t very easy. So as we stood around with frozen rain coming down on us from the sky, I should have been irritated. And as we walked (slid) on the iced-over sidewalks to the hotel where the driver wanted to meet us (once we finally booked one), I should have been frustrated. But I wasn’t. Instead, I was completely high on adrenaline. I had just been overwhelming entertained by a group of incredible musicians. The Grateful Dead will never truly exist again, now that Jerry Garcia has passed, but the Dead & Company show was so much better than any recording I could have streamed on Spotify. It might not have been the Grateful Dead, but they brought the Grateful Dead’s music to life. It was alive and in 3D and in living color. I can’t say I understand why people would give up their lives to follow the band around, but I am grateful I gave up one evening. In fact, if I would have known how good it was going to be, I would have given up two. I just regret not taking the opportunity to see them back in the day. I was so close, so many times, but I was ignorant to the spectacle that is a Grateful Dead show. Now that I know, I hope the long strange trip doesn’t come to an end any time soon.
Hell in a Bucket
Brown Eyed Women
Feel Like a Stranger
Little Red Rooste
The Music Never Stopped
Eyes of the World
China Cat Sunflower
I Know You Rider
Not Fade Away