Dead & Company Give What Love They Have To Give To Columbus
Words by Rob Turner
The 2017 Dead & Company fall tour has created quite a buzz, so perhaps this is part of why the band fit right at home in Nationwide Arena this past Saturday night. This was D&C’s first trip back to Columbus since 2015 on their debut fall tour. While the Blue Jackets hockey team has been battling for first place in the Metropolitan Division of the NHL, Dead & Company will have on this night taken over the team’s building, and in turn, efforted to keep the music of the Grateful Dead living, breathing, buzzing and evolving.
The stage was swimming in blue and purple as the band strolled onto it to begin what would be an hour-long first set. They opened with what I believe may be guitarist John Mayer’s favorite Jerry Garcia arrangement, that of the old folk ballad, “Cold, Rain and Snow.” A great selection in part because the band consistently nails this one (okay, this version had one minor slip-up), and in part because playing a song that is over a century old can make even a band’s oldest members seem comparatively young. Mayer did not deviate as much from the Garcia’s approach as he has with other versions, yet he still offered a variety of elaborations throughout, even on the familiar Garcia low-note central guitar line. A slightly slow-tempo take on the Bob Weir composition of “The Music Never Stopped,” which appeared on the Grateful Dead’s mid-70s Blues For Allah record followed. While the band’s musical arrangement is closest to late-era Grateful Dead, the vocals of the bridge are brought forth more similarly to those of versions from the 70s (with Mayer handling the counterpoint vocals in the style of former GD vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux) when the song was a toddler. Mayer and bassist Oteil Burbridge’s flowing lines twirled around each other as Weir’s brash guitar tone provided the framework for the gradual build. Toward the end, after Weir sang a few extra “never stopped’s,” Mayer took over, first laying low, letting Burbridge and Weir shine, but not known for shyness, Mayer would ultimately get aggressive himself. While the song never hit a large energy peak (it seemed as though Weir cut off the best chance at one), the relentless musician interplay provided plenty of satisfaction.
“Row Jimmy” followed, a song which had been a bit of a show-stopper in the early days of this band. Mayer’s comfort-level with this song appeared as quickly as Artemi Panarin’s did on Columbus ice this season. While the band’s familiarity with the song clearly still exists, and the embellishments off of the gentle reggae-cousin’d rhythm of the song are certainly lush, this version did not pack the punch of others. It even plodded along a bit at one point. They followed with two songs which had provided the low points of the band’s otherwise powerful New York City tour-debut pair of shows – “Me and My Uncle” and “Cumberland Blues.” Again, they somehow found a way to make the former seem like a difficult song to play, although this time the latter was executed in considerably more focused fashion. Perhaps letting Mayer set the tempo for “Cumberland” was helpful….maybe the fact that Cumberland, Ohio was just an hour’s drive away played a role…I don’t know. Something worked, and this version was strong from the start. Even before the first verse Mayer and Weir had moved together at the front of the stage and engaged in some cowboy-funk mingled guitars. There were plenty of energy bursts in this spirited rendition, and some grand piano which once again exemplified why Jeff Chimenti is the ideal choice to play keys in this band. Well-timed shots of a joyful crowd demonstrated that when I go to the cliche of describing this song as a, “fan favorite,” it is not me being a lazy journalist with nothing much to say. It’s just true.
Then we went back to, from what I understand is where it all began for this band, “Althea.” John Mayer was slated to host the CBS Late, Late Show in early 2015 (the brief period between the tenures of Craig Ferguson and James Corden), and at the time he was deep in the throes of his own Grateful Dead discovery. He invited Weir onto the show, and reportedly Mayer had been particularly moved by “Althea” and was eager to perform it with Bob. They did, and it was the initial genesis of Dead & Company. Although occasional tempo issues and some Mayer over-singing (particularly towards the end) kept this version from being a standout reading of the song, there was most certainly some ear-delicious playing, particularly during the extended instrumental before the “there are things you can replace” bridge. Mayer played off of his band mates as the band stretched in a way Tthe Grateful Dead rarely did at that point in the song. Mayer seemed to feed off of Chimenti the most, with some great fanning, which rather than signalling a instrumental conclusion, instead spawned more jamming. Mayer got busy with the drummers, playing off of them liberally during another tasty instrumental before the song’s final verse. The set-closer was perhaps notable only as a tour debut, presumably because this was the first Saturday show of the tour. However, even the fresh approaches of Mayer, Burbridge and Chimenti’s again failed to make “One More Saturday Night” interesting to me.
The first set had been mostly strong, but not up to the high standard that Dead & Company have set this tour. However, even the brilliant Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovski would have to have been impressed with how the band “saved” the evening with a “pre-drums” portion of the second set which at points featured playing that was so inspired that even scattered sloppiness would not at all derail the band. They started up with Mayer’s blues chops on full display on the canvass which was provided by the down-tempo start to, “St. Stephen,” which in turn ended up coming off more as a crazy blues-based jazz workout than any sort of attempt at psychedelic mayhem. The “lady finger” bridge was handled about as smoothly as Jared Boll welcomes some of the Blue Jackets’ most feisty opponents though. It was brutal. Maybe they could brush up on this section and consider letting Oteil sing it? Even percussionist Mickey Hart seemed kind of baffled at this moment, so much so that I suspect this is why the webcast director zoomed him out of frame. They would recover, with some lightning quick riffs from Mayer eventually inspiring a loping rhythm into which the band members initially locked.
This would later give way to the best section of the song with Mayer moving to his right and turning toward Burbridge and then engaging in some sumptuous interplay while energetically spring boarding off of his own left leg. This was mesmerizing and it built to a sort of gliding peak. When they finally settled back into more exploration-induced energy surges, they would reference “The Eleven” along the way (as this band always does, and as they had done earlier in this version).
Weir’s clangy, melodic rhythm guitar would provide a brief but interesting bridge to “He’s Gone.” He completely botched the first line and then cursed himself on mic. I thought we were headed for a train wreck. I was very wrong. By the time they hit the chorus, the band was already sounding very sweet. Director Charlie Harris treated the home viewers to a wide shot of the stage gorgeously painted in blue, red and orange with a color-appropriate hypnotic kaleidoscope design morphing over the band. The vocals blended very well during the bridge, and there was an appropriately defined stop/start after the “knife in the back” line. Weir gave his face a wipe, and then a Russian nesting doll-esque group of the famous “Steal Your Face” dead logos inside of other logos presided over the band to underscore the, “steal your face right off your head” line.
The jam out of “He’s Gone” would take a decidedly different than usual direction, first hinting at “Loose Lucy,” and then finding Mayer playing the Garcia licks which signal the beginning of, “China Cat Sunflower.” They were loose and stretching from the start, taking their time playing off of each other with prudent embellishments clearly in a “China Cat” context. A spinning yellow sunflower whose brightness was accented by the darkened stage all before a line of the song had been sung greatly assisted the vibe. The band extended on the instrumental before the third verse so much that one could easily have forgotten about this final stanza and assumed they had moved on. They hadn’t, and not only did they return to the “China Cat,” but after what seemed for a second to be a somewhat normal start, the band hung on one chord and the outro jam immediately took on a different feel.
My interior monologue at this point follows…
“What? A ballad out of China Cat? Wait…what will it……whoa, was that?…..no just a Jeff tease….had to just be a tease.….whoa…..is that?……..it can’t be…..NO WAY……YES…..”If I Had The World To Give!’”
This song from the Grateful Dead’s 1978 Shakedown Street had seemingly become forgotten by the Dead, and even many associated with the organization a couple of years after it was released. Only performed a handful of times by the Dead, it has also been almost completely ignored by post-Garcia GD-Family bands. Why? Perhaps the lyrics are a bit literal and languishing when compared to others from lyricist Robert Hunter. I’m not really sure. I like the song, but am not sure I still would have after a few years of it being in regular GD rotation. The most notable post-Garcia version of the song before tonight would have to be Warren Haynes’ Symphonic take on it. Whatever the case, it is undeniably notable that they busted out a song that half of the band had not touched in almost 40 years. These are the moments which encourage many to get on the road and chase a band like this from town to town. While it was certainly odd placement, as any ballad coming out of “China Cat Sunflower” might seem to be, who cares? They played the damn thing! Perhaps some in the band weren’t sure they were going to nail it as well as they did, and the thinking may have been that even a botched version would at least retain the novelty of having split the traditional “China>Rider” pairing.
They did absolutely nail it though, predominantly due to Oteil’s supremely elegant lead vocal. However, the delicacy of all six musicians’ input was of course pivotal as well. One would assume it will be a post-drums centerpiece ballad, or perhaps even an encore selection, moving forward.
Mayer’s final note was still echoing off as Weir’s squish’y-toned guitar began the road to, “I Know You Rider.” Burbridge and Chimenti painted behind the increasingly cohesive, plaintive Mayer/Weir melding, flowing the music naturally to the first “I know you…” It would have been a transition jam if it hadn’t felt undeniably like “Rider” all along. A spirited version would unfold, and the slow spotlight zoom on the webcast was nice touch during the rousing “I wish a was a headlight, on a northbound train” lyric. Although at this moment some might want to see Weir’s feverish vocal delivery. Perhaps a split-screen might be worth a shot here? Mayer offered a sterling solo, finding a way to play off of every other member of the band at various points as they slowly cooked up a delicious musical stew. They even flirted with a salsa vibe for a little stretch along the way. The center screen also gave us a shot of a train toward the end of the song, perhaps an homage to the Central Ohio Railroad?
The stage went dark immediately after “Rider” came to a close, leaving sampled chanting and jungle sounds set an initial vibe for another drum segment. Hart again had turned to the back of the stage so he could cue a variety of sounds from his brightly colored drum-skyscraper, leading the jungle vibe into Sci-Fi realms. Bill Kreutzmann would eventually make his way to his own wall of colored drums, and find his own sea of rhythmic sound to lend to the proceedings. As this progressed it dawned on me that this duo has become incredibly adept at melding modern EDM’ish sounds and approaches with their own deeply organic and unique feel. Then Hart made his way to his self-made, indescribable little sonic joy, “The Beam.” I stopped thinking and started melting. When Hart started incorporating a large cylinder as a slide, the sound fleshed-out gloriously and so did the graphics. This was beautiful stuff which also served to set the table nicely for the return of the other four musicians.
The aquatic-space graphics spilled into the three screens at times during the space, which would be far more developed than perhaps any I have yet seen from this band. The graphics morphed with the music as the members all laid back, took their time, and slowly moved the music. Eventually Burbridge and Mayer would take control of the bus and steer it right to a tantalizing part of town. While I am not dead set against bands strictly adhering to setlists in order to maintain order, this jam could be a case for occasionally throwing a setlist out the window. John and Oteil had stirred the pot to such an extent that it seemed as though the band should have spiraled into a song which could have benefited from this energy.
Instead they settled into “Stella Blue,” which seemed to bring the energy to a halt initially. Weir’s vocal on this one has grown on me, although it did not seem as effective as it had been in New York earlier this tour. It most certainly benefited from the oh-so-subtle melodic inputs from his band mates. This song gave us the nicest stage shot of the evening – Mayer and Chimenti painting on the large screens while star-surrounded Garcia’ish guitar filled the center screen.
A moving Mayer-led jam out of “Stella Blue” would settle into a down-tempo, almost swing take on “All Along The Watchtower.” Setlist-watchers will notice that this was the third show in a row with a Bob Dylan cover, after the band had not touched Dylan at all the 12 shows previous to that. “Johnny Slayer” utilized his wah-wah to get out some yah-yah’s, although he at points seemed to revert back to forgetting about his band mates. If he is gonna shred, they should play this song at a faster tempo. If they are gonna play it down-tempo, we need more interplay. Just my two cents. There was some bits of cool interplay at the very end of the song, but it was too little too late. I couldn’t help but wonder what this “Watchtower” would have been like if it had flowed out of the superb jam which had blossomed during space.
Arguably the ultimate Grateful Dead set-closer followed. “Sugar Magnolia” started with a mellow feel, gained steam, and then the punchy stop-starts which kick off the jam (and which are a post-Garcia addition) stoked the fire. A gorgeous jam at the back end of “Sugar Magnolia” would probably have had this old guy twirling like a pudgy baton had I been in attendance. Although it seemed as though it could have gone on longer. They had time. They kicked up some more dirt during “Sunshine Daydream,” which even featured some old school, “haaay’s” outta Weir. Very fun, but again, came off a tad shortened. Was somebody in the band late for a flight, or something? They also slow-marched to the last chords, rather than catapult to them, and while I applaud the effort to try something different, I also found it to be a bit odd. Mayer and Weir would then bust out their acoustic guitars and share lead vocals on an absolutely gorgeous “Ripple” encore. Mayer offered almost flamenco’y flourishes, Oteil some delicacy and the screens some seriously trippy ripples (tRipples?) as Weir sang “ripple in still water, when there is no pebble tossed, nor wind to blow.”
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. Listen to a past chat with with long-time Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane/Starship Families collaborator Pete Sears here and follow the links below to find more past podcasts.
Cover photo by Katie Friesema