Anyone looking to understand why Dead Heads keep going back to see former Grateful Dead members year after year, decade after decade, needn’t look any farther than Dead & Company’s performance at Cincinnati’s Riverbend Music Center.
The concert – a nearly three-hour extravaganza presented in sets of 70 and 105 minutes, respectively – showed how much has changed with the presence of John Mayer, Oteil Burbridge and Jeff Chimenti, and the absence of Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and many keyboardists. It also showed how much has remained the same: two sets; “Drumzs” and “Space;” and Bob Weir forgetting the words to “Truckin,’” as he did when the band came out of the gate with a small stumble before transitioning into a gallop that started with the entirely appropriate “Big River” and lasted most of the evening.
It was – by far – the best of the half-dozen Dead & Company concerts I’ve attended since the group came together in 2015 and one of only two occasions in which the band put together a full show – as opposed to individual songs – that was pleasing from front to end.
Mayer’s vocals can make Garcia songs – witness “They Love Each Other” and “Sugaree” – tough to take. But he then turns around and caps them with guitar solos so searing – witness “They Love Each Other” and “Sugaree” – all is forgiven. By the end of “Sugaree” toward the end of Monday night’s first set, even the fans in the far reaches of Riverbend’s turf-lined lawn were going bonkers as the 40-year-old new kid proved he belongs exactly where Dead men Weir and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart placed him.
Former Allman Brothers bassist Burbridge, too, proved his mettle, playing unorthodox fills all evening long, turning in a tender, loving version of “If I Had the World to Give” and again presenting himself as by far the band’s most effective vocalist. He also stuck around to add delicious MIDI riffs during an exceptionally pleasing “Drums” segment.
Playing before three large screens that alternated between on-stage action, Grateful Dead iconography and other images that helped to illustrate various songs, Dead & Company took the foundation they laid down in set one and built a second set that a group anchored by a trio of septuagenarians has no business pulling off.
The sextet spent 30 minutes working through “Deal” and “He’s Gone,” which featured Mayer pulling off a fine vocal and guitar performance on the former as he split vocal duties with Weir on the latter. The ensuing “China Cat Sunflower”->“I Know You Rider” was celebratory and upbeat – a train powering down the track behind the band – as Mayer played solo after solo, Weir reprised his “China Cat” arpeggios at the end of “Rider” and the two guitarists looked more locked in than ever as they stood side-by-side on the stage, watching each other for clues & inspiration.
Weir, who played a bit of lead acoustic guitar in a fast, first-set version of “Friend of the Devil,” stuck with the electric for a clanging and brooding post-“Space” rendition of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” The closing salvo of “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” on which Weir, Mayer and Burbridge each took a verse, and “U.S. Blues,” on which Mayer again led the band, were exceptional for their energy, perhaps the peak of the nearly three-hour concert.
It was an exhilarating run of numbers that had fans again celebrating the music in the darkness, which in turn spurred the band to higher highs – a delirious extension of the long, strange dream we dreamed one afternoon long ago. And it’s why, more than 50 years after the Grateful Dead were established, fans keep going back, hoping to recapture the elusive magic one more time.