SAN FRANCISCO — Dead & Company’s Dec. 30 show at Chase Center was both a Grateful Dead concert and, at the same time, not a Grateful Dead concert.
The biggest change was John Mayer standing there in Jerry Garcia’s spot. I think even Mayer would agree he’s not Jerry Garcia. But one can’t hold that against him—nobody but the man himself has ever been or will ever be Jerry Garcia.
Another other major, obvious difference was that everyone has gotten old. Guitarist and singer Bob Weir looks more like a hairier version of Kuiil from The Mandalorian—the “I have spoken.” guy played by Nick Nolte—than he used to. The crowd wasn’t in much better shape; when it collectively started dancing there was more creaking than an old house at night.
That said, it was still fundamentally a Dead show in all the ways that matter.
That soul came from the three of four surviving core members of the Grateful Dead on the stage; Weir and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann can still jam like it’s still 1973. And for his part, Mayer is an underrated guitar player who seemed happy to defer the spotlight to the veterans when it comes to Dead & Company.
The show’s structure was also distinctly the Dead. Far from the modern standard of rigid, tightly choreographed setlists repeated at every show, no two Dead concerts are alike. Not only will you get a totally different set of songs from one night to the next but those songs will sound different than the last time any of them were played. That’s why during their prime their fans would follow them around the country and record bootlegs of their shows; each is its own unique experience.
Monday’s Chase Center show (the band is also lining in the new year on Tuesday) began with The Grateful Dead classics “Shakedown Street,” “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” and “Cumberland Blues” before letting Mayer show off his blues guitar chops with a cover of Elmore James’ “It Hurts Me Too.” After sticking to guitar solos and background vocals for the first three songs Mayer got the spotlight and showed off why he was able to convince them to let him join them on tour.
From there bass player Oteil Burbridge, a member of the Allman Brothers Band for 17 years and cofounder of Tedeschi Trucks Band, took the lead for “High Time” before Weir stepped back into the spotlight for “Cold Rain and Snow” and a heartfelt, emotional version of “Bird Song” from Garcia’s first solo album to close out the first half.
After an intermission the second half began with “The Music Never Stopped,” and hopefully the joke was absolutely intended. A couple songs later “St. Stephen” sparked more recognition among the more casual fans in attendance—the devout Deadheads, of course, could sing along to every song they played, but many brought friends and relatives who weren’t quite as passionate.
Following that was “William Tell Bridge” and “The Eleven,” before a beautiful cover of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn On Your Love Light.” Any jam band has its good and bad nights, and even on the good nights it takes time for the musicians to click and find a shared groove. Oddly Dead & Company seemed to hit that point 13 songs in during “Turn On Your Love Light,” as halfway through the song everything seemed to take a step forward.
Unfortunately that groove was interrupted, as immediately after that song most of the band left the stage for Hart and Burbridge to perform a genuinely impressive improvised drum song, with Hart continuously adjusting the sounds of a large electronic drum kit while he and Burbridge pounded away. After a while they were joined by Weir and Mayer for another improvised instrumental song.
Fortunately when the full band returned to the stage for “The Wheel,” the members were still in sync, making the home stretch the highlight of the night. They closed out with “Casey Jones” and, like The Dead been doing for over 30 years, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Quinn the Eskimo” as an encore.
The concert was an experience that has never happened before and will never happen again. Whether the Dead are Grateful or with Company, that uniqueness and impermanence has sold out arenas for more than 50 years for a reason. Even when the show is imperfect it’s still a work of art.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.