photo credit: John Patrick Gatta
After a five-year absence Dead & Company made it back to Pittsburgh’s summer amphitheater, now called The Pavilion at Star Lake, in nearby Burgettstown for what turned out to be the group’s 200th performance. The sextet played to a packed venue, which led to a massive traffic jam and parking chaos that left numerous concertgoers angry and late getting inside.
To soothe over that situation they received a strong performance by Grateful Dead alumni Bob Weir and Mickey Hart along with the Company of John Mayer, Jeff Chimenti, Oteil Burbridge and Jay Lane sitting in once again for Bill Kreutzmann who was still recuperating from a bout with COVID.
Opening number, “The Music Never Stopped,” could lead to the ongoing criticism that the band relies too heavily on slower rhythms but a closer look revealed that while it may not be the cocaine-fueled pace that marked some of the Grateful Dead’s shows, like so much with this band, it’s a matter of a different lineup of musicians attempting to do different things with that band’s catalog in a constant searching for the sound. Using a more determined pace gave what was the tour’s third attempt at “Foolish Heart” a more solid footing. A work-in-progress, the number showed that the members cared enough to rehearse it into shape, and through that it was getting better than the ramshackle version at Ruoff Music Center a couple weeks earlier.
A Mayer-led “Dire Wolf” followed and had a nice pace to it, as did “Friend of the Devil.” During both numbers Chimenti and Mayer displayed the musical kinship that’s developed within it ranks, as he soloed on his grand piano then handed things to Mayer who then soloed on guitar. As with other Dead & Company shows musical highlights came about following musician interactions, lifting the improvisatory nature of the material to new heights. Presenting a foundation for the other to solo over throughout the night, they reconnected during “They Love Each Other” and later on the tour’s debut of “West L.A. Fadeaway.” At those moments Chimenti switched to Hammond B3 organ while Mayer focused on bluesy runs.
The 75-minute first set ended with the combo of “Lost Sailor” leading to the smooth Swiss watch transition to “Saint of Circumstance.
Mayer opened the second set with a breezily-paced take on “Big Railroad Blues.” Acknowledging the approaching full moon (aka Buck Moon) the next day, the first verse of “Dark Star” appeared. The second verse of the iconic Grateful Dead track arrived after “Space.” Weir played an acoustic guitar for much of the set including on “El Paso” and “He’s Gone.”
As usual, “Eyes of the World” moved with elegance as it flowed from its lilting melody to real time musical explorations and then faded off as the song was then handed off to Burbridge who constructs an impressive mind-melting solo every time he’s given the opportunity.
“Drums” featured Hart and Lane (who should have been inducted as a Rhythm Devil by tour’s end) with Asian, throat singing and rainforest flavors mixed in with the live playing. Eventually, Hart took over during his solo segment, acting as if he was popping imaginary bubbles in the air that corresponded to musical notes.
A solid “Hell in a Bucket,” which included Mayer letting loose with more blues licks, led to another summer tour debut when the band pulled out a cover of The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence.” Finally, “U.S. Blues,” in a non-encore setting, finished the set.
A rare few words from Weir, “Thank y’all. You’re too kind” preceded the encore number, “Ripple,” which culminated the 115-minute second set.
Yes, it’s not the Grateful Dead but it is as close as you’re going to get in approach and spirit. And for those who showed up at Star Lake it was more than good enough.