With Dead and Company having started their fall tour in Albany this past October, Capitaland got the first taste of John Mayer in a Jerry Garcia role, one that brought criticism and concern from those who weren’t familiar with Mayer’s guitar prowess but experts in tabloid fodder. But to those in the know, musicians and real fans alike, convivial awe and heightened expectations were the emotions directed toward Mayer, and when the October show ended with “Touch of Grey,” any musical concerns were laid to rest.
And they were laid to rest over and over, as the tour wrapped around the country, culminating with New Year’s Eve in Inglewood, CA, and now a summer tour that began this month, including a stop at Bonnaroo. Four shows deep and the expectations for the performance at SPAC on June 21 were as high as ever, partially because three members of the original Grateful Dead were back in Saratoga for the first time in more than 20 years, and partially thanks to no repeats in the setlist during the previous four nights.
The SPAC lawn was as packed as ever with an all ages crowd enjoying the grounds, with kids playing with elder hippies alongside fans who were looking to get a taste of Mayer and Company in a classic summer show at Saratoga Performing Arts Center. “Feel Like a Stranger” opened the night and while Bob sang about the long, crazy night ahead, John took the lead and emulated Garcia’s tone perfectly, but he didn’t get his chance to shine yet — that would come a little later in the set.
The first day of summer was given a light nod with “Here Comes Sunshine,” as the beams poured in from behind the stage to light the pavilion audience in an ecclesiastic milieu.
The band then led through first-set staples “Brown Eyed Women,” “Loser” and “Little Red Rooster,” the latter of which held the most meat of the three, as Weir jumped into let-me-show-you-how-we-did-it-back-in-the-day mode and furiously burned through the blues number in a brief duel with his padawan. The highlight of the set for many was “Cassidy” > “Deal,” where Mayer gave the crowd the first solid Jerry Jam of the night, spacey and nailed perfectly. A shredding “Deal” that hit multiple peaks as it reached the end of the set brought an eruption from the crowd, a perfect set closer now in its fifth decade.
“Iko Iko” got the second set rolling nicely, reviving the energy that had dissipated from “Deal” and served as an appetizer to the main course: “Estimated Prophet” > “China Cat Sunflower” > “I Know You Rider.” The “Estimated” alone was worth the price of admission, with Mayer bringing Jerry’s sound to life, as local guitarist Joe Davis put it, “as if Jerry never hit a bad note.” “China Cat” > “Rider” followed for a sing-along/dance-a-thon, as the energy never seemed to evaporate from the scorching “Estimated.” The crowd singing in unison, “The sun’s gonna SHIIIINE” back to the band was an exclamation point upon the second set, and “Drums” and “Space” were still to come.
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If Dead and Company is John Mayer’s band, “Uncle John’s Band” takes on new meaning; the jam that ensued from the song, as well as the open spots for Mayer to strut his stuff, were more Mayer than Jerry, but still with a healthy dose of jazzy improv. “The Days Between,” while featuring some of Robert Hunter’s finest lyrics, brought everyone to their seat, lawn chair or to pull up some grass for an emotional and somber late set addition. “Good Lovin'” brought Bobby back to the forefront and roused the crowd once again to sing-along with a classic Dead cover. The double encore of “Brokedown Palace” and “Johnny B. Goode” were a taste of old and new — a Dead original beloved by fans and a cover brought to life by their own resident Johnny to take them home for the night.