Dead & Company – Halloween at Madison Square Garden NYC (Concert Review)
By Nate Green
The Dead & Co. lineup was announced in early August, and contrary to popular belief there were actually six names on the flyer. But, as the jam band populous is prone to do, we focused in on the deep sea of blankets that John Mayer brings to the table. The trepidation is fair; Mayer is not a lifelong Dead fan, and his audience trends more towards the shrieking teenage girl as opposed to the grizzled vet that saw Brent play keys in the 80s. It’s easy to sit back and scoff at the idea, but strip away the handsome looks and John Mayer is, very simply, an excellent guitar player.
But, again, there were five other names on the flyer. Three are living legends and founding members, while Oteil Burbridge and Jeff Chimenti are just your run-of-the-mill world-class musicians. Let’s get into it:
Madison Square Garden is the type of barn where things tend to feel a bit more electric. Bobby, Bill, and Mickey are more than familiar with the World’s Most Famous Arena, but the other three are no strangers either. Mayer most recently played Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival at MSG in 2013, and has also played solo shows there in the past. Oteil and Chimenti have had their own forays in the form of the Allman Brothers Band and The Dead (2009), respectively.
One couldn’t help but notice the stage backdrop, which featured a massive “steal your face” logo in which the head image changed throughout the night to match the theme/feel of each tune. The other aesthetic piece that stuck out was Bobby’s choice of pants. It’s as if his old daisy dukes have grown and sagged over the years, evolving in the modern world to become calf-length capris. Rock & roll, baby.
The night started with “Jack Straw”, which rolled out of bed in smooth fashion with a nice ambient intro. Aside from being a timeless story of a partnership-in-crime gone wrong, “Straw” served as a vehicle for a short yet powerful peak. Mayer stepped to the mic to handle his first vocal duties for the evening during Straw’s final verse, and the crowd was quick with encouragement. We all dipped our toes in, audience and band alike, warming up for the night.
The set marched along with “New Speedway Boogie”, and this tune came with its share of peaks and valleys. Let’s get the negative out of the way: the outro between Mayer and Weir sort of fell down the stairs. This is to be expected given the circumstance, and it wasn’t the only instance of the night, but it certainly didn’t seem to ruin anyone’s show. “Boogie” also presented the audience with its first good glimpse at Chimenti on the ivory, and he really shined. I don’t speak for everyone (or anyone), but I felt that Jeff was hardly audible at GD50. That was not the case Saturday night.
Chimenti’s strong play continued through a nice rendition of “Brown Eyed Women” while Mayer handled the vocals. The “play the hits” first set progressed with “Ramble On Rose” and “Althea”. There were some clumsy moments in “Rose,” particularly after the “leader of the band” section. As a result of this stumble, Weir and Mayer were sort of forced into their first true improvisational moment of the evening. This led to a really nice peak, much to the approval of the crowd. The atmosphere of the audience is worth noting here; the building was tense. Not unlike a parent watching a young child board a school bus for the first time. The fans were nervous yet encouraging, watching through their fingers but smiling wide the whole time. This speaks to where expectations were for this show and tour as a whole. As far as crowd atmosphere goes at a show (especially for a jam band), there is nothing more important than having realistic expectations. It seems this was the case Saturday night.
This brings us to the clear highlight of the first set: “Cassidy.” It had some serious kick. The song proper was performed well, but it really took off during a prolonged reggae breakdown that featured some crunchy interplay between Weir/Oteil/Mayer. As the chief proprietor of the low end, Oteil was near flawless all night while also being perhaps the happiest person on the planet. I can’t remember a single moment through the entire show that he wasn’t bee-bopping around stage with a smile wider than Warren Haynes’ waistline.“Deal” sustained the energy built up by “Cassidy,” and it was obvious that Mayer had been itching to sink his teeth into this song. Again, this wasn’t without a couple clumsy moments, but that’s to be expected. Overall a very fun set packed with classic songs.
The second set began with an appealing ambient jam that found some groovy space to explore before ending up with Weir strumming the chords to “Truckin’” a la the first night of Santa Clara. This jam and it’s predecessor pre-“Jack Straw” were important moments Saturday night not because they delivered revelatory jams (they didn’t) but because they allowed the band to heighten their comfort level with each other. Specifically, they provided a very low-risk platform for Mayer to improvise upon.
“Truckin’” devolved nicely into “Wang Dang Doodle.” While “wang dang doodle” is fun to say aloud, it was merely a vehicle to bring the band around for a buttery segue back into a “Truckin’” reprise, much to the delight of the crowd and Oteil Burbridge, although I’m not sure there was anything that he wasn’t categorically over the moon about on Saturday night. We can all strive to be as psyched as Oteil. It should be noted that he used a different hollow-bodied bass guitar to open the second set, and the sound served him well. The low-end work from Oteil was, again, the most consistently great part of the show musically.
“Estimated Prophet” was a solid call at this point; it would have been easy to go with a plodding ballad after the high-energy “Truckin’” sandwich. Also, if you had a second-set “Prophet” in your “first Bobby lyrical amnesia moment” office pool, you win! The band bounced back by building to a satisfactory peak and, to my eyes, Bobby was beginning to make a push for a more spacey outro jam when Mayer began strumming the opening chords to “Eyes of the World.” This was the surprise of the night. The fact that Mayer is feeling confident enough to pull out of a Bobby song without written permission could bode well for the tour moving forward.
And this “Eyes” was a beauty. The lyrical amnesia popped up again from Weir, but the crowd was nothing if not encouraging through the blank spots. The peaks mentioned in previous tunes Saturday night were standard and quick without a whole lot of tension and release, but ‘twas was not the case with “Eyes.” This was the one truly patient and delicate buildup peak for the night. Oteil was a monster on the 6-string bass in this jam, with Chimenti providing very timely fills. Chimenti and Burbridge are the two most talented musicians in this lineup and these are the moments where this band really finds its stride.
“Terrapin” is next and provided me with the opportunity to again watch through my fingers. Can Mayer actually nail this song? The answer is absolutely yes. It’s not that the song is technically overwhelming (Mayer is obviously skilled enough), but the fact that he played it so well points to the work that he has put into this project.
“Drums>Space” was “Drums>Space.” Bill and Mickey both had a solid night and that should not go unrecognized. It’s important to appreciate what they do, but this will not be the band in which the drummer leads a 15-minute jam.
“China Cat->Rider” and “Morning Dew” were nicely placed late in the show. The segue into “Rider” was smooth if not quick with Bobby handling the vocals. His voice sounds solid enough, and that came through on “Morning Dew.” With just enough time for another tune before the encore, the band shocked the world with “One More Saturday Night” (get it, because it was on a Saturday?). This rendition was slower than normal. It would be interesting to know if this is how they’ve been practicing, or if it was a result of the tune being played directly after a typically mellow “Morning Dew.” Time will tell.
The fellas capped the night off with “Werewolves of London” in the encore slot, a nod to All Hollow’s Eve. Here’s how I feel about that: Warren Zevon should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Any questions?
Two shows into a 22-show tour, Dead & Company is off to a positive start. Everyone wants to talk about John Mayer and rightfully so. His name rings bells far beyond the jam band fan base, and he is conscious of that. There were no twisted guitar faces, no dancing around stage. Mayer knows that his job is to be a great guitar player rather than a pop-culture icon. His in-the-box playing on hits like “Althea” and “Deal” was excellent, and he even managed his way through some adequate improvisational moments in “Eyes” among others. The core three members sound great around him as well, considering that their hands have been making music for over five decades. The band would sound well enough with stand-in musicians on the keys and bass, but what really makes Dead & Co. a resounding success is the work of Chimenti and Oteil. Give credit to the rest of the band, because they seem to be aware of this fact. These six are really enjoying each other.
This is not Barton Hall, nor is it Summer ’89. Hell, it’s not even GD50. More than ever with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, it is what you make of it. Saturday night was a celebration for everyone involved. It was a realization that life after the fiftieth anniversary moseys on, and that not every show needs to have some sense of historical significance. This, my friends, makes for a damn good time.