When I arrived at Raleigh's Walnut Creek Amphitheatre on Saturday to see Dead & Company, it was a typical June day in North Carolina, which means it was insanely hot and humid, and you better apply sunscreen and stay hydrated or you'll fry like okra at the K&W. The handful of trees in the parking lot became prime real estate, and the hydration of choice at Shakedown Street was, big surprise, ice cold beer. Although The Grateful Dead and other post-Garcia spinoffs like Furthur have previously played in the Triangle, this was the inaugural visit of Dead & Company to Raleigh-Durham.
The first set began with John Mayer singing "Cold Rain and Snow," which is coincidentally an 18th-century Appalachian murder ballad originating from Madison County, North Carolina. When it's really hot in the South, everyone tends to move a bit slower, and the band's performance seemed to echo that. The tempo of "Cold Rain and Snow" on The Grateful Dead's 1967 debut album is much faster and more frenetic (allegedly fueled by excessive use of Dexedrine) than Dead & Company's version, which sounded more like an old blues dirge.
The relaxed mood continued with "Greatest Story Ever Told," "Peggy-O" and "Mexicali Blues," and the crowd ate up Bob Weir's country-cowboy vibe. Next was "Tennessee Jed," always a sing-along crowd favorite. The fans roared when Weir sang "Drink all day and rock all night." As the sun started to recede, the band delicately worked their way into an extended, jazzy rendition of Garcia's "Bird Song" with wonderful improvisational accents provided by Jeff Chimenti (piano) and Oteil Burbridge (6-string bass). The band abruptly shifted into the more upbeat "Bertha," then turned on a dime, right back into "Bird Song," which wrapped up the set.
One of the unique features of Dead & Company's tour is "Participation Row," an activation village at each concert for non-profit organizations that are trying to make our world a better place. HeadCount is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to voter registration. March for Our Lives, led by the Parkland students, is fighting for reasonable gun-control legislation, and Reverb works with musicians to promote environmental sustainability. During set break, fans congregated at Participation Row to learn more about these organizations, and sign up to volunteer. A drawing to win a Danelectro guitar signed by all the members of Dead & Company is open to volunteers. If you would like to get involved, please click on the highlighted links.
Fittingly, the second set began with "Throwing Stones," which addresses the nefarious tendencies of the powers that be, and the precarious state of the kids that pay the price, as they "dance and shake their bones." This set felt distinctly different from the first. The nighttime air was now cool and breezy, the humidity vanished, stars twinkled above, and the band's energy seemed to increase. The tempo really picked up with "Deal" and everyone on the lawn abandoned their camping chairs and started grooving like crazy. Mayer was pogoing up and down, and even started scat-singing in falsetto at the end of the song, while Oteil played like Jaco Pastorius, and Chimenti rocked the Hammond organ like a funky racoon.
My buddy really wanted to hear "Estimated Prophet," and he got his wish, as John Mayer perfectly handled Garcia's late-70's guitar stylings and effect pedals. It's truly remarkable how Mayer is able to emulate Jerry Garcia's guitar playing, akin to the way Derek Trucks seems to channel Duane Allman like no one else. "Playing in the Band" was next, which morphed into "Drums" and "Space." This has been an essential part of Dead shows for decades, a chance for the musicians, especially the drummers, to really stretch out and get weird. Mickey Hart played "The Beam," an 8-foot long contraption with 13 bass piano strings all tuned to the note of D, and Oteil joined in as a third percussionist.
"Space" then seamlessly transitioned into "The Wheel." One of the real surprises of the night was when Paul Simon's "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" popped right out of "The Wheel," with Mayer handling Simon's vocals. The song is from Simon's South African-influenced Graceland album, which was a big hit in the 1980's MTV era, and it shouldn't work at a Dead show, but it somehow fit in perfectly. Next was a jazzy take on The Beatles' "Dear Prudence," which was one of Jerry's all-time favorite songs. The set-closer, as a lot of fans predicted, was Bob Weir's raucous "One More Saturday Night." The evening ended with Mayer and Bobby playing acoustic guitars for a sweet rendition of "Ripple." Let there be songs to fill the air!
Review by Alex Marsh
Photos by Willa Stein