When fall tour winds up on a Tuesday in late February because arguably the healthiest member of your band has an emergency appendectomy, the normal playbook is obviously thrown out. The three date mini-make up tour Dead & Company just wound up in the Sunshine State could, in fact, be described as anything but normal. In New Orleans the band eschewed playing “Aiko-Aiko” and other regional songs for the Saturday night crowd at Smoothie King Center. Instead they brought up George Porter Jr., the legendary bassist from The Meters, and he sang “Sugaree,” along with a few other tunes.
In Miami the entire band visited the kids who survived the shooting at Marjorie Douglass Stoneman High School in Parkland and dedicated a crafted setlist to them that night. “New Speedway Boogie,” flowing seamlessly in and out of the fluttery pre-reprise “Bird Song,” with Bob Weir repeating the coda, “this darkness has got to give,” was a healing moment.
The scheduling anomaly of Monday, Tuesday make-up shows to close the tour was due in part to the first ever Bob Weir/Phil Lesh duo tour, announced before Mayer’s appendix burst, with early March dates on the east coast. Only recently returning home from the Playing in the Sand shows in Mexico, Dead & Company are looking at their most ambitious summer tour yet, featuring dates at old standby venues and stadiums beginning in May and ending in July.
But it was full throttle up the highway to the strange but fan friendly town of Orlando to play some rock and roll for anyone who had anything left in the tank on a Tuesday night. The band was predictably late to the stage but the easy going Floridians were in no hurry. When the lights went down Bob fiddled furiously with his guitar until he had everything just how he wanted it. Then bang, the first notes “St. Stephen” jumped from John Mayer’s guitar to open the show. The crowd erupted at the new normal, surprises at every turn. So with the speedometer already pegged, Weir decided to push the peddle a little harder with a rollicking “Hell in a Bucket.” Steeped in the blues, Mayer was in his comfort zone with the Junior Parker cover “Next Time You See Me” and the momentum continued through a higher tempo “Ramble on Rose.” Bob paddled his guitar neck while Mayer chomped on all the notes for “Row Jimmy.” It wouldn’t be a party without Weir thanking “Loose Lucy” for a real good time and the band continued its stride through “Brown-Eyed Women.” Then out of nowhere, “The Wheel,” almost as odd as a “St. Stephen” opener but splendid. Mayer and Weir had something worked out here and they nibbled on taking the song into the Paul Simon classic, “You Can Call Me Al.” Really!
The conversation at set-break was conjecture over whether first sets are getting better than second sets with three septuagenarians in the band. That conjecture may continue all summer if the way Weir and Mayer traded back and forth on the classics, from “China/Rider” through “Estimated” to “Terrapin Station” in the second set. Mayer seemed to have a special hunger to dive into “Althea” on this Tuesday but by the end Jeff Chimenti, took the tune over by reducing it to ragtime on his piano. “Wharf Rat” was in the ballad slot for this evening of guitar slinging and an up tempo “Casey Jones” drove the train home. The band is tight but not perfect. A few lyric slips, some caught by the crowd, others maybe not, dotted the night. But the spirit seems quite willing. Pointing to his watchless wrist Mayer ran his bandmates out for the encore. The Amway Center, which Dead & Company made their own magical kingdom, had a midnight curfew and the band had one last fast and fun “U.S. Blues” in them before we turned to pumpkins. Summertime is coming and these guys clearly intend to bring the party.