In And Out Of The Garden They Go: Dead & Company Recap From Madison Square Garden
Words by Rob Turner
This week Dead & Company returned to the same place at which just 2 years and 2’ish weeks ago their performance career began, the State of New York. This time the band was coming off of an uneven performance at the historic “Band Together Bay Area” concert in California, which raised money for victims of last month’s historically horrendous wildfires.
This review will focus on the webcast of these two Madison Square Garden shows. Parent band The Grateful Dead are proud members of this venue’s Hall of Fame, as they sold out 52 shows in their career. It is considered by some (not this particular author) to be the best place to have had a chance to see the iconic band. Based on the plethora of legendary GD moments which happened in this building, it is probably considered by most Deadheads to be in the band’s de facto Hall of Fame as well.
Nugs.tv was providing the streams, which I watched in HD. They incorporated two crazy-tall side-screens, a circular center screen showcase for Jon Singer’s mesmerizing graphics and Dead and Company-veteran-savvy-award directing from Charlie Harris to capture wonderfully a sea of elements which made these performances something very special. This is Nugs.tv’s third tour with the band, and their collective experience in general, and attentiveness to detail in particular are pivotal parts of the rich viewing experience. It is not hard to get deeply lost in these webcasts in a very, very good way. On these nights, viewers were often treated to well-timed crowd shots, some of which captured some of the celebratory dancing that is such a key part of The Grateful Dead experience.
The webcast tuned to the stage just in time to see Bob Weir offer the audience a tour-initiating, guitar-led, Namaste’esque greeting before the band jumped into a song that has always seemed most appropriate when performed in Manhattan, “Shakedown Street.” With a disco ball filling the circular screen (many Dead Family show-regulars refer to this song and Weir’s “Feel Like a Stranger” as “Disco Dead”), the crowd singing along with the now widely familiar, “nothin’ shakin’ on Shakedown Street” chorus, and Weir delivering the verses with a childlike enthusiasm – the show had kicked off in celebratory fashion. In fact, before we even reached the second verse of the opening song we were already being treated to sumptuous triple guitar interplay between Weir, pop and blues master John Mayer and veteran of landmark rock bands Aquarium Rescue Unit and The Allman Brothers Band, the ever-bouyant bassist Oteil Burbridge. Some nice vocal improvisation keyed around the “poke around” part of the chorus would give way to the “shake-it-down” mini-bridge (which has been kicking around for a decade and a half or so by now) and then onto instrumental improv. Weir and Mayer quickly locked into deep rhythm guitar grooves, allowing Burbridge, the drummers and versatile keyboardist Jeff Chimenti to play off of each other in the same fashion as the greatest jazz artists. Some subtle, non-verbal communication allowed the musicians to take the music through various textures and even some varied tempos before they let things fade to a bustout-table-settling strum.
The three-shot of Grateful Dead members Bob Weir (guitar, vocals), Bill Kreutzmann (drums) and Mickey Hart (percussion) was ideal for the early part of what was arguably the highlight of the evening, the Dead and Company debut of “Greatest Story Ever Told.” The band sailed through this oddball chestnut from Weir’s 1972 Ace release, the rhythm of which was initially taken from that of a water pump. Ask a musician Deadhead, they may tell you this is a difficult one to play. These guys nailed it, exemplifying the payoff of dutiful rehearsal. They even added a brief, bonus instrumental at the end, with ace keyboardist Jeff Chimenti driving the train for the first of several times of these shows. I would like to see them open up this portion of the show and turn it into a Chimenti showcase section. We’ll see.
John “Johnny Slayer” Mayer piloted the band through an energetic “Bertha” which started with a nice view of the artwork of the album on which this was the lead track. The band handled the end of “Bertha” in similar fashion to that of “Shakedown.” Rather than powering to an uproarious end, they slowly faded it to a whisper. Out of “Bertha” came some oh-so-familiar “chinka-chink” Weir guitar sounds which cued the opening chords of another Ace gem, the more improvisationally adventurous (and more frequently played) “Cassidy.” Red and blue star’ish designs on the screen behind Mayer’s head provided a captivating crown of sort as he worked out on focused guitar behind Weir’s delivery of these undeniably timeless John Barlow lyrics.
Smart directing caught Mickey Hart openly enjoying Mayer’s guitar work at one point, Weir responding to a particularly tasteful Mayer flourish at another, and band members reveling in their band mates’ musical offerings at many other points throughout these two shows. The lost-in-musical-joy sway of dialed-in Burbridge was also on display here and again and again. The tightness of the band fell off as they moved through the first jam, and they didn’t seem to find their way completely back together rhythmically until they returned to the lyric. The exploration during the extended instrumental offered more satisfaction, as they went through a bunch of sections, seemingly only some of which were planned. They would eventually find an infectious, syncopated groove which would serve as the ticket to the return to the song.
Weir addressed the crowd with a, “good evening New York and pardon us while we shake off the dust and the rust,” before the band offered another debut. This time it was legendary “One man band” Georgia-born street musician Jesse Fuller’s “Beat It On Down The Line.” (for the faithful – this was treated to a 12-beat intro) at a slightly slower tempo than The Grateful Dead approach, yet considerably faster than that of The David Nelson Band. The band nailed this one almost as well as the first-time-played “Greatest Story” earlier in the set, and the cameras caught Weir’s slight grin peeking out through a hole behind his Lorax beard just after dropping the final chord.
Mayer led the band through Jerry Garcia’s “They Love Each Other.” Is there a better graphic for this ode to true love than a simple single multi-colored rose? I don’t think so. Even that prankster “Uncle Sam” character of Dead lore was seen on the screen at points with flowers ready to be handed off. Anyone can be a romantic, I guess. And that is what the center screen gave us at key points in this song. There WAS one point when there was a two-shot of Mayer and Weir which did not contain Weir’s finger work, a rare questionable directorial decision from Nugs.net’s brilliant team. Chimenti demonstrated one reason why he is the greatest thing to happen to The Grateful Dead family in the post-Garcia era with an ideal keyboard lead. Perhaps his most expressive lead vocal of the night, Mayer echoed the “but you know he chose this place beside her” line with his guitar. He seemed to be very much at the helm during this song, leading the band in a fashion which exemplified one way he places his own stamp on this music without straying too far from the Garcia ethos. He also peppered the final chorus with some sharp-pointed staccato licks.
In retrospect, a late Weir vocal hiccup would serve as foreshadowing – as the band would then sort of stumble to the end of this song. What unfolded was first, a failed Weir-led transition. Then they fumbled along into the song seemingly in the throes of a tempo disagreement which hearkened back to the nightmarish shows at the end of the 2004 “Dead” tour. Then they wove in and out of being “locked in” as they moved through the song, which featured some over-the-top Johnny Slayer playing. The best part was the wave of energy initiated by uber-spirited Chimenti keyboard work, which quickly became elevated by strong Mayer rhythms and then would hit the beach like full-force gale. The drummers weren’t at their best, seeming almost befuddled early in the song, and bringing “sneakers in the dryer” rhythm later. It is always fun to hear this Workingman’s Dead classic, but it also represented the sloppiest performance of the night (but “Me and My Uncle” the next night would prove to be even worse).
Mayer and Burbridge would share sweet lead vocals on the rarely-performed “Ship Of Fools” which also featured an exquisitely crafted solo from the rose-sleeved Mayer. The guitarist had an odd tone for the opening portion of “Terrapin Station” which was not working for me, and Weir’s familiar second guitar licks weren’t even helping. The shot of Mayer singing the opening lines of the song while shrouded by familiar skull artwork from the record that is this song’s namesake still provided a warm familiarity, and then by the first brief instrumental they seemed to have found a more appropriate feel. Although the band still didn’t seem entirely together at points. Weir managed to coax an almost doo-wop’y feel out of his guitar as the band embarked on the instrumental passage which followed Mayer’s crooning of the “his job is to shed light and not to master,” line – eventually this would find the band moving deeply into the stratosphere.
Unfortunately some tough-to-take clam notes, and even fleeting moments of tentative playing made for a rough landing to the song’s structure. However, we again received the benefit of brilliant directing as Harris not only cut to Weir just in time for him to take over the vocals with the declarative, “inspiration” verse, but then in turn moved to a nice slow pan out, then a sloppy cut would correct into the best crowd shot of these shows (a fantastic peek at audience members gloriously lost in the music). It should be noted that at one point the artwork from a CD the band released back in the days when they were seriously considering an adventurous Terrapin Station concert venue and beyond was on full display. (Learn more about this in Episode 19 of InsideOut wTnS below).
A sprint to the drum segment post-Terrapin gave way to another juicy webcast moment. Harris made sure the home viewer could enjoy a full-stage view of the visual beauty to which the MSG audience was being treated. Each tall screen had close-ups of one of the drummers, and blue-then-yellow lights came off of the center screen which dazzled with “stealiechedelic” Singer patterns. At the same time, white pinwheels danced over the behind stage audience and it all added up to an absolutely gorgeous landscape. Another favorite part was when they juxtaposed tight shots of the drummers with crazy, colorful patterns in and out which happily dancing, frolicking, reaching-to-the sky, and ultimately drumming skeletons flowed. Singers’ graphics, usually on the center screen, appeared on all three screens many times during drums. Then as the drumming got more intense, Harris used quick jump cuts to underscore the increasing urgency of the drum work. Best of all for me tonight, and probably every night, were (will be) the close ups of Mickey’s mastery of The Beam. This is an instrument, reportedly of his own creation, and watching him work it is one of the best parts of being a fan of this overtly unique percussionist. Hart would ultimately move to smart and judiciously-placed samples, which hinted strongly at some GD EDM. Even the skeletons seemed a bit surprised.
A very brief “Space” segment offered fleeting foreshadowing of “The Other One” before settling into the last Garcia/Hunter ballad masterpiece which made it to one of their studio releases – “Standing On The Moon” from 1989’s Built To Last. As they moved through the transition, an intoxicating kaleidoscope design filled the screen before a slide-totin’ Weir emerged through it. Weir’s vocal was so commanding I would by the end of the song have the distinct sense that he was channeling Garcia himself. We also got a nice look not just at Mayer’s execution of spiraling guitar which underscored Weir’s urgently and repeatedly delivered, “be with you’s,” but also Kreutzmann’s wildly approving facial response to the way the music was, “playing the band.” Weir backed off for a bit and let Mayer take over gloriously, then returned to the mic to lead the powerfully emotional rendition to its end.
A vivid picture of moon dissolved into graphic patterns mirroring the build to the first lyric as the band dove into, “The Other One.” Mayer took a completely different approach to the opening, which worked at first, but he seemed to lose interest in interplay, instead opting for a John Mayer Band-style thing for a bit. At this moment, the screen-created “Wave of Slayers” was not so delightful on my computer screen. Burbridge seemed to be trying to pull him back in with some Other One-bubbly bass. However, Mayer’s adornments accompanying Weir’s first verse vocals were nothing short of outstanding (we also got an appropriately-placed, even brighter rose graphic right in here). As if Mayer realized he had gotten lost in himself early on, he moved over to Weir after the verse and Weir responded with some exclamatory guitar work from which Mayer built. All the while the barefoot Oteil was weaving in and out of the mix, alternating between holding down the fort, and pushing his band mates to more earnestly focused inputs as he shifted his body weight from side-to-side as though he was marching. This instrumental passage ebbed and flowed wonderfully and would become perhaps the most interesting and powerful take on this song I have yet heard from this unit.
A smokey red and blue meltdown filled the screen as the band embarked on “Casey Jones.” Weir’s slide returned, and he put it to good use behind Mayer’s lead vocal. Mayer did stumble a bit lyrically, but at one point during the out-chorus, he held a “hiiiiiigh” lyric note as the band built the tension behind him. Then he seemed to misread a Weir eye cue, causing a slight stumble just before they threw down the last chord of the song. Should we be shocked that a song with “cocaine” in the chorus was treated to a messy delivery? No. We should not.
The band offered a soft-pedal intro to the encore, which was the Sunday staple “Samson and Delilah.” Perhaps they were inspired to do a second encore due to delivering an underwhelming, at points even tepid version. This band has rarely played 2nd encores in its career, and it was so surprising they would do so on the first night of the tour that even the webcast seemed at first caught off-guard. But not only did they did the stream come back just in time, but Harris somehow also quickly produced a Werewolf-enhanced version of the, “Steal Your Face” just before they cut to Mayer’s delivery of the first words of the Warren Zevon classic, “Werewolves of London.” Chimenti offered a spirited lead before Mayer absolutely nailed the 3rd verse. It was by no means the tightest version overall – the vocals on the 4th verse were particularly rough (premature ah-ooo from Mayer, lyrical stumbling from Weir). Good golly I assure you it was still a treat for those who did not exit prematurely. This is a fun song, and one the band had only played once before, in this same room on Halloween of 2015.
On the Monday between these shows, The New York Knicks needed to take over The Garden in order to lose their composure, then get a 20+ point lead, then lose their composure again while blowing said lead as they continued the utter disaster that is their 2017-18 season. What happened here?
The band came out of the gate on all cylinders when they opened their 2nd MSG show with a slightly slowed-down, yet focused, “Hell In A Bucket.” The slower tempo provided a musical canvas on which Mayer and Burbridge painted with grace. It also made the song-long build build to a full-throttle out-chorus delightfully gradual. Even the drummers couldn’t conceal their grins when their long-time band mate, Weir raised the energy with his familiarly wailing return to the out-chorus. They followed with what still seems to be a Mayer favorite, “Cold, Rain and Snow” as he always brings unbridled enthusiasm and fresh approaches to this one. After alerting the crowd that, “we’re callin an audible here,” Weir led the band through a low-point-of-the-show stumble through, “Me and My Uncle.” At one point, things fell apart so much that we ended up with a seemingly impromptu mini-drum segment. While it was fun and interesting to watch them negotiate their way through this mess, it was still a mess. The band would at one point dig their way out, and grooves were found, but then it would fall apart again. This was worse than the previous evening’s Trainwreckberland Blues. It was a sloppy but fun Uncle. Some of you reading this might have one of those in your life.
Then the band tossed a pair of Europe ’72 gems on us. First an almost note-perfect “Brown-Eyed Women” chugged along like a train as the band tightened right back up. Mayer bounced as he articulated the lyrics with clarity and authority while offering some of his most Garcia’esque guitar playing of the night. Chimenti recalled The Dead’s 70s pianist Keith Godchaux while tickling the ivories during his solo. Oteil brought a fresh approach to the “Tennessee Jed” which followed, with some sturdy, walking bass lines giving the song a ideally fat bottom. Mayer and Chimenti played off of each other throughout the song, and “The Slayer” also dropped a brief moment of mayhem as Weir sang the oft-quoted, “drink all day gonna rock all night” line. Slot machine graphics and a cascading, closing instrumental made for a memorable take on this ode to the Volunteer State.
It is always nice to get a “Bird Song” (particularly when my dog Birdie, and YES she got a set break walk you dog people, is by my side as I watch) and tonight’s might have been the best I have yet seen from this band. Dead & Company has most certainly developed its own approach to this song and nobody has been rewarded for this more than careful listeners. The stage was bathed in blue under the Skull and Roses logo on the circular screen as the band patiently created a delicate prelude. Subtlety abounded as an overwhelmingly ethereal feel emerged, building to the first verse which was treated to an affecting Weir vocal.
It seemed as though they were already sliding into the large improvisational jam until Mayer sang the 2nd verse. When they did move to the central (there are three with this band) improvisation segment, Kreutzmann and the “Sonoma County Strong” shirt-wearing Hart demonstrated improvisational drumming at its finest and the guitarists took us on a journey to the center of our minds. Simply put, this was outstanding despite the fact that they clearly could have taken it out further during the main instrumental. Moments of deep improvisation also found their way into the sections between verses in the front AND back end of this glorious reading. This is a shining example of why this music (and in particular, this band’s interpretation of said music) is something that can melt your mind.
They closed the set with D+C’s 2nd-ever take on “Women Are Smarter.” This is a song which can seem wildly sarcastic at times, but given recent disturbing news it took on a very straightforward and accurate feel on this night. This was a “Jeff-Strong” version, with Mayer and Weir teaming up on dual rhythm guitar multiple times, buttressing Chimenti’s superb electric keyboard playing. The band bounced through with delight and wrapped up the first set.
Mayer offered a sleepy fire lead vocal and very much his own guitar approach (particularly during his solo) to the tight “Help On The Way” which opened the 2nd set. Hot on its heels was a volcanic “Slipknot!” with an aggressive Mayer powering it into new territory, and he did so while remaining engaged with his bandmates. Burbridge repeatedly wove delightful bass lines into the mix, which fertilized the bountiful improvisation. Rust which had been evident many times earlier was no longer in the mix this set, as the band sailed through the intricate passage that serves as a bridge between “Slipknot!” and the expected “Franklin’s Tower” which followed. Once again the viewer received the benefit of a well-chosen Harris angle as a white-and-multiple-shades-of-blue design was seen over Mayer’s head during his delivery of the first verse. At one point, Mayer shifted the spotlight to Oteil – moving to his side of the stage and compelling him to play some lead bass. At another, after the band had built to an uproarious crescendo, they brought it to a stop-on-a-dime halt, keyed on a BB King-esque single note from Mayer. He would follow this up with some similarly BB’esque “every note counts” playing, again offering a nice canvas for his cohorts. This song represented Mayer at his best in this setting. Shredding, offering new takes and encouraging his brilliant band mates to shine.
Last summer Burbridge for the first time dipped his toe into singing lead on complete Dead & Company songs. Now, many Deadheads are being very e-vocal about hoping that he sings lead at least once a night. You need to look no further than to the standout reading of “China Doll” on this night to understand why. Oteil’s emotional vocal, Chimenti’s sterling grand piano work and the group’s airtight focus overall made for a captivating reading of this Robert Hunter ode to the fragility of the male ego. Once again Mayer delivered a captivating solo which demonstrated a completely non-Garcia feel without feeling even the slightest bit inappropriate. Fans of this song need to chase this version down FOR SURE. Oteil gave a triumphant wave to the crowd at the end. I am confident the band knows they absolutely aced this one.
The lively interplay right out of the “Estimated Prophet” gate would combust into an inferno during the mid-song instrumental of this often-clamoured for, 40-year old Weir tune. The energy of the band (a wildly animated Weir helped this along) was not at the expense of focus, as the band slammed back to the final verse with strength and precision. They effortlessly moved out of “Estimated” into some lilting improv, inspiring some “Other One” piano from Chimenti multiple times despite the fact that the song had been performed at the previous show. One time this coaxed some amazing guitar work from Mayer, and then seemed to compel the sextet to swirl down to deeper, more uncharted waters making for a considerably more interesting transition into the drum segment than that of the tour opening show.
Clearly the electronic drums which Hart cues with flicking fingertips are his new favorite toy, as he immediately went to them once the move to the drum segment was complete. Drum segments get more interesting for me with every show, as the boundless rhythmic creativity of these two musicians is nothing short of amazing. And these boys got some toys. At one point Kreutzmann held down a beat while Hart offered was seemed to me to be a sort of electronic version of a talking drum. Once again the close-up of Hart working The Beam would be my visual highlight of the drum segment, and it would also again serve as the transition back into space. Hart was the only musician who never left the stage this 2nd set. The first hints of, “A Love Supreme” tonight happened just before the band returned to the structure of the 1st set “Bird Song” after its middle section of improvisation. A more elaborate expression upon the John Coltrane masterpiece was initiated by Chimenti and it flowed out of what had already been a more developed space segment than during Sunday’s show. The band even sang, which made it a breakout, and forced setlist-keepers to remove the “jam” which usually follows “Love Supreme.”
This settled into “Stella Blue,” a Garcia ballad on which I had not previously enjoyed Bob Weir’s vocal all that much. I had even on “The Internets” suggested this as one for Oteil to sing. However, the way Weir eschewed his oft-staccato delivery and instead opted for a more carefully articulate approach, combined with the achingly sparse feel of the band, resulted in a tear-jerking reading of this, perhaps most precious of all Garcia/Hunter ballads.
Mayer executed the outro jam with alacrity and elegance, sliding to his left at one point to be directly next to Weir as he filled the room with fanned notes. It seemed as though Weir had to be reminded by Mayer that “St. Stephen” was next, which brought things to an awkward, but temporary halt. The audience better appreciate this John move, as they would have missed out on an explosive and delightfully moody reading of this song, which was heavily clamored-for throughout the last twenty touring years of The Grateful Dead. The band powered through it in a fashion which indicates that these musicians may just revel in the force and mystery of this special song as much as we Deadheads do. They tease “The Eleven” with virtually every performance. Hopefully they will find the courage to actually perform the song someday. Perhaps in Atlanta, home of Bar Eleven. Just a thought…..
“Not Fade Away” and “U. S. Blues” were each fun but anti-climactic as the band had already delivered an undeniably standout 2nd set……and in and out of The Garden they went…..and we’re onto Philadelphia.
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. Follow the links below to learn more about these two exciting projects.
Cover photo by Katie Friesema