• Review

A Fitting Fare Thee Well to Dead & Company

Photo Cred: Michael Gabbard Photography (2022)

As a kid growing up in Upstate New York, our music scene and tastes were formed from years of seeing bands that came through the Saratoga music scene, mainly for the big-name acts that would stop through on their summer tours at Saratoga Performing Arts Center or SPAC. These bands were often the 3-night runs of Phish and the two-night runs of Dave Matthews.

This beautiful and picturesque venue resting in the middle of the Saratoga National Park, became a stopping ground for many great artists. However, jam bands always drew the biggest crowds and excitement. People would camp in and near the park; they’d come from all over to see their favorite band play at one of the most beautiful venues in the country.

Long before I was able to start attending shows at SPAC with my parents, family, or friends, that wasn’t the norm. That wasn’t until the Grateful Dead began coming to SPAC in the early 80’s. They would bring their caravan of Deadheads and take over the little city of Saratoga for several days, and that culture began to become our culture and music. Wherever they went, a little piece of Haight-Ashbury would follow. The Dead embraced the culture and beauty of Upstate and made it a yearly tour visit.

My Aunt and Uncle were part of that allegiance of Deadheads, who, every year from 1978 till the day Jerry Garcia died in 1995, followed the band as much as they could from city to city. What formed from that were these incredibly strong bonds with friends they had met over the years who shared the same love of the Dead.

There was something so interesting to me about that as a kid. Why was this band so special?

What made it worth it for them to drive across the state from Buffalo to see this band? Why did all of these people worship them so much? No one followed bands I liked at the time like that. No one was following the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Green Day like that?

I, of course, had heard the music of the Dead, as they would play it whenever they’d come up and stay with family or in the car when I’d drive with them and my cousins. But it wasn’t until I heard “Touch of Grey” in 6th grade that I began to understand.

For a 13-year-old, “Touch of Grey” is as easy to grasp as Bob Marley was. The music was bubbly, and Phil Lesh’s bass line was undeniably fun as you bounce around to the beat. Still, the vocals of Jerry Garcia and the ever-pervasive positivity of the chorus, “I will Get by” made the song so tangible for me.

I must’ve played that song 5,000 times over the years of middle school. I ran it into the ground. And so I needed more. Of course, songs like “Casey Jones,” “Truckin,” and “Friend of the Devil” came after that. However, when I really began to become a fan was in High School.

I’m sure you can imagine you begin to try new things, and you want to try and be cool, and at the time, smoking weed with some friends and listening to a live Dead show in your car seemed like the edgiest and crazy thing you could do. However, what came from those formative years was a yearning desire for more, more, and more.

The live recordings were no longer enough. I needed to see it for myself. Until then, I just felt like I wasn’t getting a full understanding of this music. But how was I going to do this? Jerry Garcia had died two months before I was born. And at the time, Further, The Dead, Phil Lesh and Friends, and Ratdog, all later iterations of the Grateful Dead continuum, had virtually stopped making regular summer tour dates.

Then came the 2015 Fare Thee Well tour. Two final shows of the remaining members of the Grateful Dead with Trey Anastasio from Phish taking over the Jerry parts. That was it. A two-night run of shows in Chicago at Soldier Field and San Francisco's Levi's Stadium. At the time, I had no money, no hope of seeing this band I so desperately needed to see to finally truly get the experience of seeing arguably the greatest American band ever.

I had come to terms with it. I guess I would then just live vicariously through the vast catalog of their bootlegs, recorded live shows, and archival footage.

In 2015, I began dating my now fiancé. We connected over our shared love of music and live music. However, she had never listened to the Grateful Dead. So I wanted to share my comprehensive knowledge of the band and their history. I felt it’d only be right to share with her where I began. “Touch of Grey.” As we sat in Ritter Park in Huntington, WV, she, too, immediately fell in love. Like me, she shared an interest in listening to everything they had.

A few months later, a miracle happened. I needed a miracle. Surviving members of the Grateful Dead, excluding Phil Lesh (Bass), Bob Weir (Guitar/Vocals), Mickey Hart (Drums), and Bill Kreutzman (Drums) announced that they would be reforming under the name Dead & Company. The Company featured former Allman Brothers Bassist Oteil Burbridge and Pianist Jeff Chimenti, who had played with the Dead on the Fare Thee Well shows and with other members individually. Finally, the bill listed soft rock pop songwriter and guitar virtuoso, John Mayer.

As a fan of his, I was actually excited. I had seen Mayer several times before that and was confident in his ability to play and perform the complexities of Garcia’s parts. However, many fans were skeptical. What did the guy who wrote “Your Body is a Wonderland” know about the Dead? Who is this poser, if you will?

However, I was elated. Finally, I would be able to experience the magic of this music that my Aunt and Uncle continue to chase to this day. Finally, I would be able to experience a time I had only read and watched about: a proper Shakedown Street or a real Dead parking lot. The music I had now obsessed over for years, I would finally be able to experience and from some of the people who actually made it.

In 2016, Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival announced its lineup and Headliners. Pearl Jam, LCD Soundsystem, and Dead & Company rounding off the weekend. I knew this was my chance. My friends and I packed up our car and headed straight down to Manchester, Tennessee. The weekend was incredible, but as Sunday approached, my time finally came. The sun was setting, and out came Dead & Company. They proceeded to blow me away all night. Their energy and rawness of figuring out each other as a band and as individual musicians made it feel like I was watching something new. I didn’t expect this. Honestly, I thought I was seeing essentially a cover band. But no, they were trying to honor their legacy while reaching new heights. Maybe in some way, making up for lost time.

To understand this, you need to understand the devastation and the wake left by Jerry Garcia’s passing. After 1995, the Dead were lost. Without their leader, without the face of the Dead, and whether they liked it or not, a lot of the draw for casual fans. However, as Bob Weir began to age, he never stopped playing, constantly challenging himself, from working with artists like the National, and Wilco, to playing with anyone that would have him really.

Weir became this figurehead for the legacy of the Dead, never allowing their work to fade away. So when it came time to hit the road with Dead & Company, Weir was now stepping into the shoes that Garcia had left behind. However, Weir was more seasoned, wiser, and for lack of a better term, grateful for the legacy that he and his band had created. The creation of Dead & Company felt like a proper way to revitalize the lost time of the last 20 years.

After that Bonnaroo set, my friends and I, who too had caught the bug, made it our mission to see this band as much as possible. For the next eight years, my fiance and I, along with friends who could make it saw Dead & Company on every tour that followed. From the Farm at Bonnaroo to Wrigley Field, to SPAC, to Riverbend Music Center, we saw them everywhere we could.

Last year at Riverbend was one for the books. Raining all day led to this incredible sunset show. It was magical in every way possible. However, Billy Kreutzman had been dealing with health issues and, after the first set, needed to step off the kit and was filled in by Bob Weir & The Wolf Brothers drummer Jay Lane. The second set of that show was possibly my favorite set I’ve seen in the last eight years. The band sounded tight, energetic, and Mayer led some of the best jams I’ve seen them do.

But we knew this wasn’t built to last. The original three members were all approaching 80, and 3-hour shows are nearly impossible for most artists to perform, let alone a 4-hour show. So as predicted by many fans, 2023 would be the final tour of this iteration of America’s most enduring band.

Tickets went on sale this fall, and the entire tour nearly sold out in hours. It felt like so many people knew that this was important. That bands like this only come around so often. A band that quite literally created a genre of music, a subculture based on the counterculture of the 1960s, and was part of the one most romanticized and historical times in American Culture. Their prolific career now spans nearly 70 years, and it was time to say goodbye at some point.

However, they would not go out quietly. Making a tour that honored their past playing shows at Cornell’s Barton Hall, where they played their most famous live show in 1977, stopping at the L.A. Coliseum, another historic venue in their history, and of course, the many summer amphitheaters they had come so well known for playing, including Riverbend Amphitheater in Cincinnati.

As we pulled into the over-packed parking lot behind Coney Island, you could tell that this would be Riverbend's most packed-out show, possibly this summer. There’s something special about a Grateful Dead crowd. There’s always this feeling of community and pure happiness. Everyone just wants to have a good time and share that with a community that understands.

As the clouds and winds quickly approached, no one seemed to bat an eyelash. Deadheads are a resilient bunch, rain or shine; we come for the music and whatever happens. That’s exactly what happened. As the rain began to come down, nothing was going to deter fans from hearing the music one more time.

The show began around 7:10 pm, with the opener being “The Music Never Stopped.” A very fitting intro as there could be many things they are referring to with this. The fact that their music has endured for so long or the fact that rain or shine, the music must go on. This would become a theme throughout the set.

Mayer took the lead on the second song, with the Junior Parker cover, “Next Time You See Me.” Already the band is making this clear and present farewell to fans. I couldn’t help but feel emotional as this would be goodbye.

After that, Weir breaks into “Me and My Uncle,” for fans, a classic Bobby Cowboy song, made a live and an early staple of their sets in their early years in 1972, as the Dead had begun to embrace their more Country music interests.

This then led to one of the more beautiful “Row Jimmy” renditions I’ve heard Mayer perform. I love listening to an older Jerry Garcia during the ‘89 and ‘90 tours play this. There’s something peaceful and soft about how he played it, and I think Mayer had finally achieved that feeling this time around.

As they ended “Row Jimmy,” Mayer began to break into a cover that became a staple of 80’s and 90’s Dead, Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” I love this cover and hadn’t heard it in some time. This song, to me, represents a great time for the Dead; after the release of In The Dark, the Dead became more famous than they would’ve ever expected. Especially 20 years into their career. So what came with that was this incredible run of stadium and arena shows. Something about “Dear Mr. Fantasy” being played to a massive crowd is just right. Unfortunately, neither Steve Winwood nor Traffic ever made it to that size stage, so the Dead were able to give it new life and the proper scale that song could see it at. And when pianist Brent Midland would break into singing this, with his raspy and soulful voice, there was nothing better.

The jam from “Dear Mr. Fantasy” then led to a lovely coda of the Beatles “Hey Jude.” Where Oteil Burbridge’s soft and soulful voice was able to shine. Being possibly one of the greatest songs ever made, the entire crowd was happy to sing along with it.

Sticking with the more 80’s and 90’s arena vibes of the evening, Mayer’s guitar slid into E to begin the riff of “Cassidy.” A solo Bob Weir tune off his 1972 album, Ace, Cassidy, didn’t really reach its full potential until the late 80s when Midland would harmonize with Weir on vocals, and they picked up the pace of the tune. This song became one of my favorite tunes of theirs in my early 20s. There’s something so epic about the lyrics, and the way it serves as a jam vehicle offers some of my favorite solos for each member of the band.

Finishing the first set with the “Iko Iko,” fans felt elated. What a first set. A light, hearted, and, at times, somber first set with plenty to love.

The rain continued to come down, and I expected to start hearing some “rain songs.” Sure enough, as the rain began to let up, “Here Comes Sunshine” is how Dead & Company would begin their second set. A sweet little riff that leads to a choral echo from the crowd singing, “Here Comes Suuuuuunnnnshhiiiiiinnnee!”

After that, I was very excited to hear a tune from the very early years of the Dead. “Viola Lee Blues,” a song that during their 60’s years, was this incredibly raw and experimental vehicle for the band to really rip into some jams. This, of course, was much slower and made for the band at this stage in their career. However, still such a pleasant surprise in a set filled with more of their stadium anthems.

“Looks Like Rain,” another Bob Weir solo song, and fitting as the rain once again began to pick up. A tour debut for them this summer led into one of the highlights of the evening. A 25-minute “China/Rider” or “China Cat Sunflower” into “I Know You Rider.” As the sun had now set by this point, the lights blared in the faces of fans as the band began to sing, “I know you rider, gonna miss me when I’m gone.” Very fitting.

“Drums” and “Space” are often times for fans to take a bathroom break or get a drink, but I wasn’t going to miss this. As it would be the last time I’d be seeing Mickey Hart, do what he does best. That is working with worldly instruments to create this almost primal sonic experience. No words, just ambiance.

Then came the best rendition of “The Wheel,” I’ve seen Dead & Company perform in the last 8 years. Much different than I was used to, as Mayer had picked up the pace a bit more and made it into this light and upbeat take on the classic Garcia solo tune.

“Wharf Rat” is a melancholic song that builds to this beautiful crescendo. Something about this song felt very fitting for a venue that sits on the Ohio River. It’s gritty, it’s dirty, and yet it can be gorgeous. Weir took lead vocals on this, and each time I hear it, it’s one of those tunes that I think is quite emotional for him. It feels like he sings with the same aching pain that Garcia put into it, and it almost feels like he’s trying to sing to Jerry.

As the second set came to an end, Mayer broke into the classic riff of “Casey Jones.” A staple of the band, and the crowd erupted in cheers. Everyone is dancing and singing their hearts out as this may be the last time they can sing this. Mayer, of course, has his way of singing and has never tried to imitate Garcia’s voice. However, his soulful voice fits the tune very well. This song was how Dead & Company finished their set at Bonnaroo years before, and I felt this was so delightful.

As they exited the stage, the crowd knew there was time for one more. What would it be? The options were endless, and I think for my friends and I, we would’ve been happy with anything.

But just like it began for me so many years ago as a kid with a little iPod shuffle, “Touch of Grey” would be how they said farewell. Mayer started the opening riff, Oteil broke into the bouncy bassline, Chimenti on the keys, and the rest of the band came out euphoric. I couldn’t help but feel emotional. For those that don’t understand, these setlists aren’t something you can really predict. A band as prolific as them has hundreds of options to choose from, and to think that the last song I’ll see them perform live is the song that got me started on this path. It felt just so special.

Throughout the evening, I found myself reflecting on what the legacy of this band would be. Just to the left of us was a father and his son. His son was sitting on top of his shoulders; he couldn’t have been much younger than me when I first heard “Touch of Grey.” He danced the whole night, even singing along to these tunes made well before he was born. It was then I realized that the beauty of the Dead’s music is that it isn’t for one generation. It’s not for just one band, as there are now thousands of Dead cover bands throughout the world. Along with the legions of jam bands they inspired. It’s not meant to die or fade away. Defying all odds, the Grateful Dead has created a legacy that few bands can tout, a lasting one. Even after this tour, and long after the original members are gone, their music will survive.

Dead & Company are still on their final tour and will perform at Saratoga Performing Arts Center for the last time this week.