Dead and Company Ushers in Summer Season at SPAC: Weir and Mayer Make What’s Old New Again

Dead and Company ushered in the summer concert season at SPAC on Tuesday, June 18 with their bluesy, jazzy jam sessions that lasted late into the warm evening. The music phenomenon brought throngs of fans to the venue that also brought the culture of Shake Down Street, free love and weed with them to the outdoor venue. While the music was exceptional, with musicians demonstrating unusual versatility and impressive control over their instruments, the night was overshadowed by a darker theme of overindulgence and lack of civility among fans.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

Opening 22 minutes late due to security checks at the gates, the band came out to quietly tune before immediately starting with “Feel Like a Stranger.” It was an odd opening tune, and the first few seconds betrayed the need for the band to sync up. But after those brief out of tune moments, John Mayer and Bob Weir held the crowd in a swaying magical dance that would endure for the next five tunes.  Mayer and Weir took turns showcasing their talent. Bobby Weir found his sober smile while listening to Mayer pull off some technical licks through “Hell in a Bucket,” a return to his healthier earlier self. Weir showcased his ongoing endurance and tenacity through “Alabama Getaway,” holding on pitch notes far longer than much younger men could likely do.

The tunes were long jams, with each song featuring noodling trips away from the primary cover of Grateful Dead tunes but staying within chord progression. Each man on stage, a musician in his own right, captivated fans with technical ability that was exceeded only by the sum of their collective efforts. The improvisational technique improved earlier versions of their pre-1995 songs.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

Notably different from past shows was Oteil Burbridge’s placement on the stage to Weir’s left, with Jeff Chimenti to Mayer’s right. Possibly a decision based on the band’s ability to communicate with each other, and possibly an acoustic decision, the outcome was delightful. The band’s balanced and lush sound washed over fans with a newness unexpected from such a seasoned and beloved group – and what an amazing group that included Mickey Hart and Bill Kutzman on drums. With three somewhat original members from the Grateful Dead, the group manages to keep the songs alive with new members’ added vitality and vision.

The group slowed down a bit with a Dylan cover of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” and remained mellower and quieter through Mayer’s vocal representation of Robert Hunter’s “It Must’ve Been the Roses.” It was only the second time this tour – and for that matter, ever – that Dead and Company played it.  But the pace built back up with picking in “Cumberland Blues,” followed by high energy “Cassidy” and “U.S. Blues.” Perhaps the best song of the night, “Cumberland Blues” brought back a frenzied energy combined with blue note quality jazz highlighting John Mayer’s soulful guitar as he harmonized with Weir.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

After the first set, fans were extremely excited by the unprecedented representation of crowd pleasers. The mood of the crowd, upbeat and celebratory, was overshadowed by huge plumes of marijuana smoke floating over the indoor seats at SPAC. While typically seen on the lawn area, seeing the amount of smoke inside from cigarettes and weed was atypical, as were the notable arguments erupting around the theatre.  The crowds were pushing on each other, squeezed in too tight as they tried to move about to get drinks and use the bathroom.

Friends were still gathering and hugging, but also notable were women complaining of being groped, pushed, and shoved.  As the sun set on the amphitheater, Dead and Company took the stage and began a second long set with “Here Comes Sunshine.” It was good, amazing, actually, music.  Mayer quietly took the stage and humbly belted out the cover in a bluesy and mellow song should’ve been juxtaposed against the sunset with some irony. It was juxtaposed instead against fans that couldn’t seem to manage their behaviors in a sunny and safe way.  Beer spilled across aisles, men danced in women’s personal spaces, and in their jubilance, some fans appeared to forget that their way of celebrating Dead music wasn’t welcomed by all involved.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

And it left one thinking: could the Dead and Company experience be different for fans based on gender? Because if female fans have to remain sober and hyper-vigilant to remain safe, how much could women dance and lose themselves to the revelry of this exceptionally gorgeous sound? And how enjoyable can a night be if a fan doesn’t want to become so inebriated that they won’t recall the night?  Fans were dropping to the ground, requiring medical attention, due to overindulgence and security was required to step in multiple times to remind male fans to stop gyrating and dancing in the space taken up by female fans whose quiet but angry faces reflected disapproval.

The band would play eighteen songs before ending for the night, returning only for two encores. A cover of “Dear Prudence” in the second set was a favorite, as was “Uncle John’s Band.” Encore included “In the Midnight Hour” and a reprise of “Playing in the Band” from the second set.

Dead and Company continues to exceed expectations in the delivery of the Dead catalog, taking fresh looks at songs that many feel cannot get any better until Mayer and Weir prove them wrong, again and again. Without speaking much at all to the crowd, the band captured the imaginations and spirits of thousands dancing on this early summer night.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

The musicians cannot, and should not, be held accountable for the fact that their fans’ excitement to get inebriated violates many fellow concert goers and fans’ ability to be present and enjoy the music. But the fans themselves might consider asking themselves some hard questions, including how the culture of individual entitlement over group civility may be creating a milieu that is both unwelcoming and unsafe for other fans – something the original Dead music would definitely find paradoxical, if not downright troubling.

Set list: 

First Set: Feel Like a Stranger>Hell in a Bucket>Alabama Getaway, When I Paint My Masterpiece>It Must Have Been the Roses>Cumberland Blues>Cassidy>US Blues

Second Set: Here Comes Sunshine>Shakedown Street>Wharf Rat>Playing in the Band>Uncle John’s Band>Drums>Space>Viola Lee Blues>Dear Prudence>Casey Jones Encore: In the Midnight Hour>Playing in the Band