For their fourth and final show in the Empire State, Dead and Company made their annual stop at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, hallowed ground for seeing the Grateful Dead in the 1980s. And much like the Dead shows at SPAC in the 80s, the venue was as packed as ever, hosting a sold out crowd of 25,103 – a few short of the record set by the Dead in 1985.
On Friday, August 27, Deadheads of all ages – grandparents bringing their grandkids, parents going with friends, college kids meeting up with uncles and aunts, or just locals looking for a night of classic American music – filled in every corner of SPAC, and in this era of social distancing, the crowd at times felt like there were more than 25 thousand in attendance. Early entry was a smart move this night, as COVID-19 vaccine checks as well as ticket/security checks slowed entry down for many. If you’re attending a sold out show at SPAC this summer, the best move you can make is go in early and avoid the rush.
Once inside, the Saratoga Springs crowd was as boisterous and congenial as you’d expect at a Dead and Company show, let alone a Phil and Friends, Ratdog, Billy and the Kids, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Dark Star Orchestra, or any other Grateful Dead side-project/tribute band. That’s what makes these shows so appealing to so many – you get that same wonderful vibe from those around you, all of whom are there for the music and allow themselves respite from the daily grind.
That collective release was felt when Dead and Company dropped into “Shakedown Street” to open a show, a resounding statement that tonight was going to be a barnburner. With Bob Weir wearing ‘Bobby Shorts,’ and Oteil Burbridge donning Section 119 shorts, even the band knew it would be a hot one. The “Bertha” that followed maintained the momentum out of “Shakedown,” which wound down so Weir could play a couple of acoustic numbers, the beautiful “Peggy-O” and “Me and My Uncle,” both of which were tour debuts.
Would be captain John Mayer took over vocals for “They Love Each Other,” and on “West L.A. Fadeaway” successfully pushed for a second jam with the help of Jeff Chimenti on keys. The set closing “Bird Song” was played at such a slow tempo it took Weir six minutes to get to the lyrics, while he and Mayer struggled for direction throughout the rest, clocking in at 22 minutes for the longest song of the night.
Set 2 opened up with “Let the Good Times Roll,” evoking memories of the show opener on “Downhill From Here,” and driving the bus towards “Scarlet Begonias,” which was paced at times as it meandered over 13-minutes. Surprisingly, “Help on the Way” arrived when “Fire on the Mountain” was expected, cranking up the energy once again, and diving into a “Slipknot” that was exploratory courtesy of John and Oteil, and is well worth a listen below. When “Fire” finally arrived, it lit the crowd up in a haze for 10 minutes, before an exodus of fans made their move towards the back of the lawn or parking lots with the onset of “Drums.” Oteil joined Rhythm Devils Bill and Mickey for the a tribal interlude, followed by Mickey getting to work on The Beam for “Space.”
Upon the band’s full return to the stage, “Cumberland Blues” brought the crowd back to their feet, then giving them a chance to rest during “Days Between,” the final tour debut of the night. “Not Fade Away” would close the set, bringing Buddy Holly’s lyrics to echo across SPA State Park and beyond. To balance out “NFA,” an encore of “Black Muddy River,” while soulful, zapped the energy that had been flowing all night.
While an up and down show tempo-wise, Dead and Company were energetic and polished throughout. It would be difficult to find a fan of the Grateful Dead who didn’t enjoy this performance at SPAC, or elsewhere on this tour, one that comes at a needed time for the fans after many months without live music.
Dead and Company – Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, NY – August 27, 2021
Set 1: Shakedown Street > Bertha, Peggy-O, Me and My Uncle, They Love Each Other > West L.A. Fadeaway, Bird Song
Set 2: Let the Good Times Roll, Scarlet Begonias > Help on the Way > Slipknot! > Fire on the Mountain > Drums/Space > Cumberland Blues > Days Between > Not Fade Away
Encore: Black Muddy River