A new, cavernous San Francisco concert venue was put to use by Dead & Company on Dec. 30, and while it is the biggest indoor venue in Grateful Dead-hometown history, the party was no less enthusiastic. On New Year’s Eve, balloons would drop and a vintage plane would fly through the arena at midnight, but here on the 30th, the penultimate night of the year, Dead & Company delivered a big, powerful show worthy of review.
“Shakedown Street” began the proceedings, covering a lot of pleasurable musical ground. The jazzy 13-minute rendition set the evening’s tone and brought the audience together as one, featuring Bob Weir’s lead vocals and sprightly guitar passages, John Mayer’s lead guitar flourishes, Oteil Burbridge’s strong, steady bass, and Jeff Chimenti’s ever-interesting keyboard offerings. Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, drummed and percussed in tandem, overseeing the band’s frontline musicians and enthusiastic crowd out beyond the stage lights. Dead & Company’s addition of a funky little “Shake it down, shake it down-down” moment toward the end of the song is a nice little ingredient that sets its version slightly apart from the original.
Weir remained as lead vocalist on “Mississippi Half-Step,” for which the “Across the Rio Grand-eo” portion of the song was delivered at an uber-slow, pace, though in its slowness Mayer noodled radiant, bluesy, and comforting guitar passages. The song included a little voices-in-the-round treatment of the “Half-Step Mississippi Uptown Toodeloo” lyric as Dead & Company are apt to do, and with four band members’ propensity to sing – Weir, Mayer, Burbridge, and Chimenti on this song – Dead & Company achieved something The Grateful Dead rarely if ever did, a four-part harmony.
“Cumberland Blues” was next, turning the massive arena floor into a medium-paced, polka-like Bohemian stomp. Here, and as he would often through the show, Mayer brought to bear his own picking acumen, reverent to Jerry Garcia’s licks but with an updated guitar voice. Chimenti, as he has proved in the past, may be this band’s secret weapon. Part of The Grateful Dead family since 1997 when he first collaborated with Weir’s RatDog, he brings to the mix elements of, depending on the song, all of The Grateful Dead’s keyboardists as well as his own musical ideas.
Pure blues came next, with the Mayer-led version of “It Hurts Me Too,” the blues standard The Grateful Dead adapted through 1972. This version, in which Mayer’s lead was arguably the best jam in the first set, was brilliant, though contained to 4 ½ minutes. Funny, the older Grateful Dead fans hold this song in sacred regard yet young Dead & Company fans seem to shrug off the song as just OK. The closing sequence of the first set were all slow numbers: “High Time,” in only its fourth Dead & Company performance with Burbridge’s enchanting tenor vocals leading the way; then “Cold Rain & Snow,” the first song from The Grateful Dead’s first record in 1967, led by Mayer and his unique vocal style; and ending with an epic “Bird Song,” voiced dually by Weir and Mayer, with enchanting instrumental production from all.
Still all shiny and new since its September 2019 opening, the $1.4 billion Chase Center, which has capacity of 18,064 for basketball, is a structural and technological marvel. Half-time presented the revelers a generous amount of time to seek out friends from near and far as well as to poke around the sparkly new arena. Located along the water in the Mission Bay neighborhood, just down the way from the San Francisco Giants’ Oracle Park (formerly AT&T Park), the Center’s outdoor plaza was outfitted with plenty of holiday art installations. It boasts a grand, sophisticated main entrance and lobby, pleasing concourses with upscale local restaurant choices and public areas that feature group-sized tables and comfortable. And for the rich, private suites, lounges, and boxes offered upscale food and beverage choices served by so-called butlers.
At a shade after 9 p.m., the second set began with Weir’s/John Barlow’s everlasting “Music Never Stopped,” pleasurable for sure, and with Weir’s modern-day “Never stop, never stop” passage, but its sluggish pace kept the number from opening the set with a bang. “Deal,” followed, led by Meyer and his anomalous vocal style and pronunciations.
The show kicked into high gear during pre-drums/space portion of the second set, with Weir & Company lifting the band and the audience to dazzling heights with a medley of “St. Stephen,” “The Eleven,” and “Turn on Your Lovelight,” made famous 50 years ago on “Live/Dead,” first heard as a double LP set or 8-track tape. This night’s version of “St. Stephen,” one of the original Grateful Dead staples, builtin strength and power from beginning to end, with many in the crowd swaying and rollicking with the notion, and the lyric, “Been here so long, he's got to callin' it home.” By the end of the song, the band and crowd were visibly and audibly energized, making the segue into and multiple components of the “The Eleven” a psychedelic flashpoint of the show: “Now is the time of returning / With our thought jewels polished and gleaming / Now is the time past believing.” Here, Weir, harnessed the band’s ample power, orchestrating the band’s individual dynamisms into a compelling, dizzying piece of music.
With a perfect opportunity for the band to exit for “Drums” and Space,” Weir and Meyer instead strummed and picked until “Turn on Your Love Light” came out of the haze. A furious version ensued with Weir thrashing at his guitar while the rest of the energized band raised their game as well. Finally, after “Love Light” finished with an almost end-of-the-show final note, the front line exited, leaving Kreutzmann and Hart (and his “Beam”) to take over for 15 minutes of cosmic percussionisms from beyond. From there, slowly but surely, things progressed into a flowing, melodic version of “The Wheel” for which the four-part harmony returned and from which a jazzy/reggae-like jam developed, and then on to a satisfying, soothing we-all-miss-Jerry-but-Weir’s-version-is-properly-reverential “Stella Blue,” which led into a rousing, show-closing “Casey Jones.” Returning for an encore Dead & Company then played its very first version of Bob Dylan’s “Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn),” a song The Grateful Dead offered occasionally between 1986 and 1995.
Dead & Company has still not performed any of the many songs Brent Mydland brought to The Grateful Dead in his 11 years with the band.
“Shakedown Street,” which debuted in 1978, was the newest tune of the night.
The band did only two bona-fied “Weir songs” all night, “Music Never Stopped” and “Lovelight” (counting Lovelight as Weir’s even though it was originally a “Pigpen song”; as Weir led the song between 1981 and 1995.
Set One, with lead vocalist(s) noted: Shakedown Street (BW), Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo (BW), Cumberland Blues (BW/JM), Hurts Me Too (JM), High Time (OB), Cold Rain and Snow (JM), Bird Song (BW). Set Two: The Music Never Stopped (BW), Deal (JM), St. Stephen (BW/all), The Eleven (BW), Turn On Your Lovelight (BW), Drums, Space, The Wheel (BW/JM/all), Stella Blue (BW), Casey Jones (JM/BW). Encore: Quinn The Eskimo (BW)