For two consecutive nights, Dead and Company recently brought a grab bag of old school Grateful Dead classics to Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. Though the current lineup of the band only has three original members of the Grateful Dead (drummers Mickey Hart and Billy Kreutzmann, and guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir) the spirit of the band remains intact and the magic of the music is the same as it always has been.
I attended the second of the pair of performances, and after learning the setlist from the previous evening I was prepared for an average couple sets. The reason behind my assumption was that the night before (Saturday) the band had played an above average amount of standout songs including “Cold Rain and Snow”, “Ramble on Rose”, “Sugaree”, “Estimated Prophet”, “Eyes of the World”, and “Standing on the Moon”, among others. Considering the vast catalog of songs the band has to pull from, however, there was still a lot of room for some other, more elusive songs to rear their heads – and they all came out to play on the Sunday night performance.
The first set started out steady with three upbeat fan favorites, “Samson and Delilah”, “Brown Eyed Women” and “Big River”, which immediately got the crowd all fired up and dancing in the aisles. After a slow and solid dip into “Candyman” the band got everyone's feet moving again with one of my personal favorite vintage dance songs, “Let it Grow”, and one of my personal not-so favorite songs, “Friend of the Devil.” Though every song up to this point was markedly tighter and cleaner than I had ever heard them in the multiple times I'd seen this band before, this is the point in the show when the musicians really began to hit their stride. With John Mayer and Bob Weir still on acoustic guitars, the band launched into a magical, acoustic version of arguably the band's greatest, and most revered song, “Dark Star.” Though it has to be intimidating tackling Jerry Garcia's lead guitar role in such a sacred song, John Mayer appeared to be completely at ease and having the time of his life as he wailed out those legendary licks. Though the beautiful jam went on for some time, the band only played the first verse of the song before transitioning into the set closer, “Ripple”, which had every fan in the stadium swaying and singing along together.
The second set started out strong with a tight instrumental jam giving way to the band's most popular song, “Truckin”, which got every single person in the house all fired up again. This lead right into another fan favorite, “Fire on the Mountain”, featuring the band's new bass player, Oteil Burbridge, assuming the role of lead vocalist. Though it was strange to see a young, good looking dude with a mohawk singing one of Jerry Garcia's signature songs, he sounded spectacular. I was also happy to hear that the band was back to a “normal” version of the song instead of the cringe worthy rap-inspired version that they used to play years ago with Mickey Hart on vocals. Then the opening notes of another one of the band's most revered songs, “St. Stephen”, came through the amplifiers, and the crowd went wild. An incendiary version of this song gave way to “Drums” and “Space”, which gave the legendary pair of drummers a chance to do their one of a kind thing that they have been doing since the dawn of the Dead. “Space” eventually gave way to the second verse of the almighty “Dark Star”, bringing the song back around to take its spot on both sets, a signature yet seldom seen move that the Grateful Dead used to pull out back in the day. Further showcasing the talent of the rest of the band members, keyboardist Jeff Chinemti then treated the audience to a classical piano solo before the band launched into a haunting version of one of the last songs the Grateful Dead ever wrote together, “Days Between”. Though the song was originally sung by Jerry in the short period of time the band played it live before he died, Bob Weir assumed the role of lead vocalist, and sung the tune with such conviction and flawless tone that you could practically hear a pin drop as the entire stadium became awestruck by the power of his performance. But the immediately recognizable opening chords of the closing song, “Not Fade Away” sprang the crowd right back into life for a rollicking version of the Grateful Dead staple. In true Dead fashion, the entire crowd continued to chant, “No our love will not fade away” for a solid four or five minutes after the song had ended, bringing the band back out for a beautiful “Brokedown Palace” encore.
Though I am a longtime Deadhead who has seen the Grateful Dead and all of the post-Dead incarnations many, many times before, this show was the best show I've seen these guys play since Jerry passed away. Maybe it was the stellar setlist. Maybe it was the fact that John Mayer has really come into his element and now finally fills the huge hole that Jerry left, with ease. Or maybe it was seeing Bobby sing and play more powerfully and well polished than I have heard him in more than a decade. But whatever the reason, when I looked over at my beaming ten year old son, who was my date for this Father's Day performance, chanting “No our love will not fade away” just like I did at my very first Grateful Dead show back in the Eighties, I realized that everything had really come full circle with this band and I couldn't have been more happy and proud that they continue to keep the band's legacy alive, with all of the class that it deserves.
Words by Scott Perham
Photos by Jay Blakesberg/Dead & Co.