Dead & Company Drop An ‘Ace’ Of A Show On The Nation’s Capital
Words by Rob Turner
Dead & Company made their way to Washington D.C.’s Capital One Arena and opened with a song that serves as a shining example of one obvious change in approach. “Feel Like a Stranger,” would in Grateful Dead hands typically receive a nice instrumental workout after all of the lyrics were delivered. Dead & Company offers this AND a 2nd extended section of improvisation before the third verse; an original twist to a Grateful Dead approach. It was fitting that Jon Singer’s similarly Grateful Dead-inspired-yet-still-original designs adorned the stage for this particular passage. Jeff Chimenti decorated with some spooky, strange keyboard delicacy, John Mayer weaving his ever-funky noodle in and out of the music. At one point, Mayer’s shaman-wannabe bathrobe was shrouded in bright green lights as he melted into his guitar. It was idyllic in its strangeness. When the final jam was reached, Mayer walked over to Bob Weir to goad some “rhythm-lead” out of him, which in turn led the band into a percussive, improvisational playground. Later in the jam, it sounded like they were returning to the song, but Weir’s cue-riffs merely became springboards for more improvisation, ultimately finding the band even touching on some reggae themes.
“Bertha” slid right out of the gate pretty quickly, with Mayer singing with reverence and offering a somewhat Jerry Garcia-esque approach to his, “fills,” initially at least. Keyboardist Jeff Chimenti moved effortlessly between punchy rhythmic inputs and more melodic chordal inputs behind the vocal. The band let the song build gradually in appropriately Grateful Dead fashion, with a locked-in Weir and Mayer propelling the jam – bassist Oteil Burbridge even dropped some very Phil Lesh’y runs – and the rifle-shot Mayer riffs punctuated the power chord’y resolution to the jam. While they soft-pedaled the final verse a bit, it still overall made for a nice ride. Instead of bringing “Bertha” to its typical rousing chorus, it actually drifted off and we were treated to a fancy little transition into, “Black-Throated Wind,” a song Weir rarely delivers casually (and the only transition jam of the set). Tonight, Weir was indeed commanding with his “BTW” lead vocals and playing. Brilliant directing caught a bunch of great band member moments, including a close-up of Chimenti offering a sweet flourish just before the “I left St. Louis…” verse. Again, Mayer chose a Garcia’esque approach, lying low and even sometimes disappearing in the weeds until he stepped up to help power the song to a climactic close.
“Tennessee Jed” was next, and although I get a kick out of the way Weir sings this, if the band ever wants to further lighten Weir’s lead vocal load, they could perhaps let Oteil sing this one. “Jed” moved along with a staggering strut. The band (particularly Mayer) stepped up to celebrate the “drink all day gonna rock all night” line with a flourish. A colorful slot machine graphic behind Weir’s head as he sang the so-themed verse elicited an audible giggle out of me. Full stage shots captured a gorgeous light show as the band artfully moved through the gradual build of the song’s final instrumental. This was followed by another Mayer/Burbridge shared vocal lead (with the crowd roaring their approval when Oteil sang his first line) on “Ship Of Fools” which also featured some absolutely exquisite guitar fills from Weir.
The band then dove into a song that has consistently been one of their best, Weir’s hopefully reflective, “Cassidy.” This one was all about the “big” jam with each member pushing and pulling and responding, causing the music to move organically through various textures and tempos, thus allowing waves of energy to come and go without seeming at all forced. This was lovely stuff right here. While there were some slip-ups when they returned to the song, it was still a very well executed “Cassidy.” So much so, not only did I not want it to end, but it also almost overshadowed the explosive version of “Deal” that would close the set. Mayer sang the last verses with a Grateful Dead poker chip twirling over his head, then dug deep into this song, at points delivering abject “shreddery,” but more importantly still managing to interact and build the energy with his band mates. This was high energy D&C at its finest.
Mayer demonstrated his conviction to delivering the 2nd-set-opening “Help On The Way” by shedding his lounging attire before tearing into it. He was on his game, still interacting with band members while captaining the band, best demonstrated by his stunning shared flourishes with Oteil toward the end of the instrumental. Then they took “Slipknot!” for a delightfully more Weir-heavy, yet less explosive and cohesive reading than the truly sick one they had dropped on New York earlier in the tour. At one point, some prodding Burbridge bass muscled them out of a bit of a lull. Shortly after they launched into “Franklin’s Tower,” we were treated to the most well-timed crowd shot of the evening, capturing the shared rapture of a, “Fresh Franklin’s.” Dead & Company seem perhaps more effortless with this song than just about any, and they offered many energetic bursts as they tore through the song with ferocity, yet still managed to drop some gorgeous subtlety as they brought the song to a quiet, set-the-table-for-the-ballad close.
It is rare for Weir to play three songs off of his landmark Ace album in one show in any of his recent projects, however, on this night the Capital City crowd was treated to just that as Weir followed with “Looks Like Rain” (others were “Black-Throated Wind” and “Cassidy” in the 1st set). This writer has mostly not been a fan of this song since it lost the benefit of Garcia colorings (although check out the sweet duo version Weir played with Bruce Hornsby in Oakland 4/1/12), however tonight’s was pretty good. Weir’s immersion in the lead vocals, the darkened stage, the at-times dew-drop’y graphics and the unfailingly affecting inputs from Chimenti and the guitars were all key in this captivating rendition. Again, a stage shot brought the home viewer closer into the show as the royal blue-swathed stage was clearly augmenting the path toward the final codas of the song. Patience was champion here, witness the final slamming chords of the song which signaled the end of a long and winding version.
“Terrapin Station” followed, and much like the New York reading, it managed to provide some nice moments despite also containing some sloppy ones. They might want to throw this one on the “brush-up” portion of their rehearsal list. Most encouraging is that Mayer seems to have truly found his voice in this extremely significant Garcia/Hunter composition, offering expressive but not overdone, lead vocals. The “cyclops skull” artwork behind Mayer’s head was fitting (although the Rolex on his arm? Not so much.) Also, a rhythmic twist briefly took the middle instrumental section into some new territory. The final instrumental codas were delivered with strength, but as had occurred in New York, the non-drummers scampered off of the stage immediately after the song.
The most authentically Grateful Dead portions of these shows are the Bill Kreutzmann/Mickey Hart drum segments, and this is just one reason why these days, “Drums” is never the time to go to the bathroom (for some, it never was). Don’t believe the hype. “Hold it for space,” if you will. Lines are shorter then anyway. Sometimes even at home.
Tonight the boys gave us some straight kit duo-style playing right out of the shoot (Hart has at most shows this tour been quick to go to his new toy – an electronic drum stack which towers behind his chair). This was brief, as we were like most nights taken back to tGDEDMland. Wild graphics, including the revelrous skeletons seen in New York, flowed in and out of tight drummer shots as they offset the dominant EDM vibe with Bill-driven rhythmic stretches and Hart-tastic percussive painting. The graphics were perhaps at their best of the night while Hart goaded a mysterious, but friendly low growl out of “The Beam” as the guitarists made their return to the stage.
Given that this show was in Washington D.C., I couldn’t help but think of Bob Weir and the drummer’s buddy, Senator Al Franken, during the couplet of songs which closed this set. Franken can probably relate more than ever to lyrics like “when the world grows dark and mean” in “Days Between” or ones about feeling “on our own,” or about politicians throwing stones in the set-closing, “Throwing Stones.” While some of his behavior is reprehensible as it has been reported, he is a long-time, close friend of half of this band and they surely had Franken on his mind on this night.
Burbridge’s bass playing on “Days” was absolutely amazing, moving effortlessly between offering counter-melody and straight bottom. His deviations repeatedly seemed to encourage embellishments from his teammates. And this all went out without distracting from Weir’s delicate delivery of “the story.” The band built to roar which culminated with the lyrics, “stood upon a mountaintop, walked barefoot through the snow,” then quickly to a Chimenti-led whisper as Weir became particularly expressive when singing, “gave the best we had to give, how much we’ll never know, never know.” Although by repeating the “tender young and green” line Weir accidentally cheated the DC crown out of the “soft as velveteen” line. Thankfully, most probably did not notice.
An easy-like-Sunday-morning melodic jam flowed out of “Days” and the band was in no hurry as they let it settle first into some Oteil-enlivened jazz playing, and then oh-so-naturally into, “Throwing Stones.” A bright red and blue ball hovered over Weir’s head as he sang the opening line. At this moment I thought of how many veteran Deadheads get a kick out of the fact that this has in recent years become one of the most oft-requested Weir songs. There was a time in the early/mid 80s when it was the target of almost as much hatred as the uber-maligned, alternative-life-leading-literalist’s nightmare song, “(Keep Your) Day Job.”
Tonight it served as an example of how Weir’s penchant for slow tempos can be a very, very good thing. The slightly-slowed tempo offered a canvas which allowed not only for more articulation from all six members of the band, but also planted the seeds for a song-long energy build. The band marched through the powerful, final verse and brought the set to a thoughtful, powerful close.
As the band stumbled through the “Touch Of Grey” encore I couldn’t help but wonder if their buddy Al would get by, and survive his current crisis. This band certainly will. And they were onto Hartford.
Dead & Company will be live webcasting each of their shows on their fall tour which can be purchased via nugs.tv here.
Rob Turner is co-host and Producer of Inside Out wTnS podcast as well as the host and co-producer of the Timeless Music Podcast. In Rob’s latest Inside Out podcast, which can be found here, he chats with Perpetual Groove’s Brock Butler and discusses what post-hiatus life has been like and how Butler has been easing his way back into the band’s world while still trying to “clean up and tighten up” his life after suffering from addiction. Follow the links below to learn more about these two exciting projects and listen to past episodes.
Cover photo by Katie Friesema