Dead & Company danced into Charlotte on a sunny Friday night to a sold-out crowd filled with loud laughter and an endless sea of smiling faces. They unleashed almost three hours of huge hits and fan favorites, focusing entirely on original songs with no covers in the setlist. The festivities began with a slow spacey tuneup jam that eased its way into the famous opening licks of "Truckin'." Flush with joyous energy, they drifted effortlessly into the rootsy rhythms of "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo," featuring a slight twist near the end, one of several songs with new variations on their classic vocal arrangements. The blissful guitar part introducing the second half of the song featured John Mayer's tone sounding as warm and bright as the Carolina summer sun shining down on the crowd.
"They Love Each Other" starred Mayer's stirring vocals, including some fervent bursts of falsetto. A jubilant organ outburst from Jeff Chimenti garnered a massive audience response before Mayer's piercing and aggressive guitar joined Oteil Burbridge's fiery bass runs to build the jam up to a colossal peak. Next up was the swinging rhythm of "Brown-Eyed Women," where lively guitars led to a merry and powerful barroom piano blitz as Mayer added a whirlwind of notes to generate another gigantic round of applause.
"To Lay Me Down" highlighted Bob Weir's earnest and yearning vocals before the relaxed funk of "Mr. Charlie" led into "Cassidy" which featured a flurry of guitar notes over a soothing backing groove. Much has been made of Dead & Company's penchant for slowing down some tempos, but within this new approach is a constant churning energy bubbling beneath the surface. It's a low boil of intersecting ideas, actions and reactions, and those with ears to hear it find plenty to fixate on with six amazing musicians playing their hearts out. They wrapped up the first set with "Casey Jones," bookending the set with two of their most beloved songs, as Mayer took the mic and capped things off with a festive and towering guitar onslaught.
Intermission provided ample opportunity to mingle, meander and meditate before the second set began with the swaying pulse and spirited guitar solos of "Deal." The audience positively erupted at the iconic intro to the eternal epic "Dark Star," historically an expansive and boundaryless canvas for the band's creative sonic sculpting. The star shone brightly on this radiant and serene evening, starting with six minutes of searching guitars before an instrumental take on the vocal melody ran through the different sections of the song. After Weir sang the first verse, the star was briefly eclipsed by dissonance with Chimenti's contorted jazz inflections, Mayer's dark runs and Weir's uncommonly angular rhythmic chops and spurts. The beautiful keyboard accents and passionate singing included another twist on the traditional arrangement before wrapping up after eighteen minutes of curious kaleidoscopism.
Weir's soulful vocals and a mammoth guitar barrage from Mayer lit up "Estimated Prophet," whose tribal and twisted rhythm is unique in the pantheon of Grateful Dead songs or anywhere else in popular music. The aural prophecies drifted into "Eyes of the World," filled with ecstatic and exhilarating guitar lines, a gorgeous keyboard excursion and another reformed vocal arrangement to keep things fresh and unexpected. Chimenti traded soaring riffs with Mayer to huge cheers before Burbridge's long and captivating bass solo rose in intensity with multi-note bursts of inspiration as Mayer joined in with some tasty thoughts of his own. With such a deep and storied catalog, a fan could imagine any number of dream setlists, but the first half of this second set must be high on any list of possibilities.
The melodic jungle groove of "Drums" followed, fusing futuristic techno tones to primal pounding and heartfelt hammering. A short strange trip into "Space" led to the plaintive and wistful opening notes of "Wharf Rat" before Weir's emotional and energetic vocals took over "Scarlet Begonias" and "Sunshine Daydream" to wrap up the set, clocking in at over 90 minutes long. The encore "Touch of Grey" meant the show started and ended with their two biggest hits, as "Touch" from 1987 was their only top 10 hit and "Truckin'" was their first hit back in 1971. So much has changed within the group and the country in the intervening decade and a half, but as the band played on and the crowd sang along, one thing remained crystal clear: "We will get by. We will survive."
- Paul Kerr
- Photos by Jerry Friend