BLOG - HOCKEY & HEAVY METAL
November 27, 2015
DEAD & COMPANY - LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 27, 2015: FROM FEAR AND LOATHING TO NEARLY FLOATING
DEAD & COMPANY - LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 27, 2015: FROM FEAR AND LOATHING TO NEARLY FLOATING
(Disclaimer: I wrote this the day after the show in one long “hot take” while everything was still fresh. Aside from spellcheck and a few minor edits it’s a stream of consciousness, written as the words poured out of my brain. I didn’t worry about how long it was, I just wrote. Enjoy.)
After the success of the Fare Thee Well shows earlier this year featuring the “core four” surviving members of the Grateful Dead, it soon became obvious that it was not going to be the end of all this. And while bassist Phil Lesh has opted against any kind of heavy touring (preferring to play lots of hometown shows and residencies), guitarist Bob Weir and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann have recruited keyboard mainstay Jeff Chimenti and a couple of groovy new guys in bassist Oteil Burbridge and guitarist John Mayer. The band, christened Dead & Company, finish up a month-long US tour with two shows at thew MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. And since they were over a holiday weekend, there was no way I was going to miss them.
During the drive to Las Vegas today I began to replay the odyssey of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear And Looting In Las Vegas” in my head, what with passing through Barstow and bat country on the drive here. And in homage to that, I’m leading off each set with a some prescient quotes from that book to set the tone:
“For a loser, Las Vegas is the meanest town on earth.”
“What kind of rat bastard psychotic would play that song - right now, at this moment?”
“Turn the goddam music up! My heart feels like an alligator!”
SHAKEDOWN STREET: Of course they started with this one. The 1978 disco anthem for the the desperate, downtrodden urbanite, and possibly the best use of the Three Blind Mice melody ever. The video screen embedded in the skull behind the band had the perfect montage of a lightning bolt, roulette wheel, disco ball, and driving-down-the strip footage. They hit the opening chord four times instead of two, which was a nice start. The version was tasteful and mildly exploratory, and you could hear all six players clearly. At the end of the verses, there was a full stop and some quick a cappella vocals before moving into the jam. At some point in the middle of that it got busier, and John started staring into space and letting his fingers run. The other new guy, Oteil, was probably the lowest guy in the mix, but he was largely settling into a groove and took no major turns toward the ominous or the overpowering, as Lesh was wont to do during this one on a hot night.
UNCLE JOHN’S BAND: Ye Gods, another heavy hitter coming early. And yes, this is an uplifting song, but the narrator lives in a silver mine called Beggars’ Tomb and seems to have trouble finding kind people, or sometimes any companions at all. Desperate, but somehow optimistic. The song was normal enough, and it was still only two songs in, but as they went into the jam I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and listened. Soon enough, Oteil decided to make his presence more known, and a flurry of notes on the low strings of his 6-string bass became a magic carpet, and we have liftoff. And oh, there’s a roll of that glorious rolling thunder from drummers Billy and Mickey, and we’re moving. Then John got into the act, he’d been playing a solid but busy lead the whole time, but then a pocket opened up for him and he seized the moment and played much more forcefully. Oteil followed, Weir laid down some thick chords, Jeff added color, and we had a surge. It was the first “moment” of the show, and the crowd’s low roar of approval made it obvious they had felt it. And wow, it’s nice to have a quieter, attentive crowd. We got the a cappella ending.
ALTHEA: Now, it’s not exactly a secret that Jerry Garcia had little trouble attracting women from the time he became a musician, and it’s also not a secret that he had complicated relationships with a few of those very same women too. Althea was possibly born out of some sort of desperation and complication with one of them, but I’ll tell you this: the lyrics in this song about a guy getting called out on his relationship shenanigans by a lover takes on a whole different, edgier meaning when the lyrics are being belted out by a weapons-grade ladykiller like John Mayer. With the exception of Donna Godchaux and Bob Weir, the Dead were never pretty, but this is some whole new stuff here. And John’s take on the song has a bit more of a rocking edge to it - the solo in the middle was bubbly and fast, and Oteil rumbled some nimble lines under him as a counterpoint. He may only have been playing in this band for a month, but his years in the Allman Brothers have served him well and it’s clear Oteil just *knows* the right way to play this stuff in his own style. The jam hit such a happy place that even Billy was smiling broadly. Really. The closing jam contained a couple of major power chords from John that reminded me of my favorite GD version of the song, from Merriweather Post in 1984.
JACK STRAW: A soft jam that started from thin air and meandered along for a minute yielded a gentle drop-in to one of the best songs in the GD repertoire, and a loud yell from your trusty reporter. And keeping with the theme of Desperate Men, we have two extreme cases of that here - felons on the run, and one kills the other for moving too slowly. This was a slightly more laid back version of the song, and Oteil took a different, mellower approach to the final jam - this was a place where Phil Lesh would drop a bomb or two and rattle the building, but Oteil hasn’t (at least yet) added that kind of emphasis to his playing tonight. Then again, anyone who does that is probably just mimicking Phil, and Oteil has his own jazzy style. Eventually the jam caught fire at the end, and though I consciously make every effort to lip sync along at shows and not sing audibly (no one paid to hear me sing, and nor would hey want to), I helped ‘em out with the “Jack Straw from Wichita / Cut his buddy down” line before catching myself. Fortunately, I was in a relatively unpopulated row so hopefully no one heard. I get the idea that about three rows in this section directly above stage right are casino comp tickets, because they’re only about half full and many of the people that are in them aren’t looking like or dancing like GD fans. Fine by me. More room!
ROW JIMMY: This 1973 song has never really been a live favorite of mine because it generally plods along for far too long, so it was a pleasant surprise to have new life injected into it it through increased tempo, calypso-like percussion and John's vocals. And all of a sudden, Oteil was wearing glasses - perhaps to read the song’d chord changes on a tablet or teleprompter if needed? For the first time in a while, I really enjoyed the song live - it clocked in at a couple minutes shorter than the old versions and Bob even resurrected his “rowing” motion during the final chorus that he did for a little while during the In The Dark era. And yes, once again we have a desperate, destitute man and woman who are trying to get somewhere, but aside from that? People have been guessing about the song’s setting and characters for decades.
BLACK THROATED WIND: Another top-tier Bob song, and another song about a desperate, broken man out on the highway who’s heading home after his life and relationship have fallen apart. Lyrically, this remains one of the best Bob Weir/John Barlow songs, with rich, vivid imagery of truck stops, highways and all-around desolation. As the song built to its climax, Jeff really made his presence known with some thick power chords on the piano to boost everything and then at the very end he switched over to the Hammond B3 for the closing strains. Jeff really does have a style all his own - he adds color the way Brent Mydland did, but in his own way. He definitely has the power and the boogie that echoes Bruce Hornsby, but it’s all him. And he also has the ability to really dive into the synthesized effects when needed, though we haven’t had much of that tonight. Yet. And the sixty-something woman behind me is dancing up a storm - it’s clear she’s been crushing on Bob since forever, and she’s in a very happy place.
CASEY JONES: Oteil made a quick switch to a hollow-body 4-string bass. I was trying to guess what song would prompt that switch, and I was thinking late-60s era, and I didn’t think of Casey Jones. But I’ll take it! And once again, we have a man who turns up to work in an altered state on consciousness. He creates a really bad situation, and as soon as he realizes how desperate his situation is? It’s too late for him to save himself. John got the lead vocals for this one as well, and he really handled them. His popping guitar style fits the song perfectly, and then as the song crashed into its repeating, final chorus, he led this band where I’d never seen it go before. The last chorus always gets repeated several times, with a slightly tempo and momentum increase each time to go along with the about-to-crash train in the lyrics, but just when you thought it was going to end? The tempo doubled, and Mayer started running in place while singing for two more go-rounds. I couldn’t believe it. This has become a punk rock song! For real! Then Bob signaled everyone, the song crashed to a perfect halt, and they sang the “And you know that notion just crossed my mind” line twice for extra emphasis. Boom. That might have been the best version of the song I’ve ever seen live.
Overall the first set ran from 7:58 to 9:07, a very solid 69 minutes with no long breaks at all between songs. And somehow this song list was so very Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas: desperate men in desperate times. Drugs. Crime. Poverty. Paranoia.
So, off to the second set we go. Time for more tales of desperate men, desolation, poverty, death, despair, gambling, crime and lost love. Right?
All those themes were instantly and totally blasted away. To quote Spiritualized: Ladies And Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space.
“San Francisco in the middle sixties was was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run…but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant…”
“Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
DARK STAR: The band tuned up pretty quickly, and I was caught off guard when they started my all-time favorite song to lead off the second set. I did not see it coming, and uh, I kinda sorta involuntarily yelled out an unprintable but very common two-word affirmation as the opening notes pealed out from the PA. All of a sudden I can feel weeks of stress leaving my body as the band spends a solid three minutes exploring the song’s main theme. At around the 4-minute mark the song has its first surge. John is convulsing and contorting his body and staring into space with his mouth open as the music channels through him; if someone made those same motions on the street without a guitar in hand they’d get a really wide berth. Mickey’s now using his red mallets again, and I secretly think they make him sound better, just like I did when Bob played his hot pink guitar in the late 80s. At the 7 minute mark we get the first verse, sung by Bob, and then it’s off into the unknown. By the 12 minute mark the jam has become faster and dissonant, and I stare intently at the drummers and wonder how they know how to play that? How do they improvise like that and make it work? How? Somehow it peaks again and then ebbs again, and at the 15 minute mark John circles back and plays the melody of the main verse as a solo to lead everyone back in, just like Jerry Garcia did in the legendary Winterland 1978 and Madison Square Garden 1990 versions. Then the entire band plays through the second verse as an instrumental before Bob actually sings the verse at the 18 minute mark. Then it’s 4 more minutes of drifting along peacefully in deep space. No one in the band or the crowd seems to be in any rush to arrive at the next planet, but we finally arrive there after a whopping 22 minutes.
PLAYING IN THE BAND: Beauuutiful. This cleverly written and timed (10/4) song rocks along for three minutes before providing the band with another launching point for another big jam. But at this point, we need to have a talk about John Mayer. What he’s consistently doing, and what the core members are allowing him to do, is to really step up and get out in front of the music and really attack it. Where Jerry Garcia was known for settling into a mellower "pocket" groove, especially later, Mayer is just attacking these songs the way Garcia did in the jangly, acid-drenched 60s. His leads are generally faster and busier, but they never reach a “shredding” level that doesn’t stylistically jibe with the music. Oteil and Jeff handled the backing vocals for this one, and I guess that’s Oteil on the high harmony vocals there? Those guys have a blend, and they sound good. The jam moves along jazzily and nicely for several minutes as Mayer leads the charge with the busy leads, but then he hits his Wah pedal and slows his playing down, and it becomes very reminiscent of Garcia’s playing on this song, and that goes over well. The jam sort of peters out not long after that, bt then they do something I’ve never seen them do live - they actually play the entire Playing reprise and finish the song, just like they used to do almost every night from 1972 to 1974. Wow. Another journey that comes full circle just like Dark Star did. And somehow 12 minutes have flown by in seconds, and not a desperate man in sight.
LET IT GROW: And back to earth we come, but this earth is green and peaceful and hard-working and loving. This is another Bob Weir signature song, and the sixty-something woman behind me goes nuts and throws something towards the stage in a fit of joy. It get nowhere nar her target and sails off to the left and lands on the arena floor next to the stage right. Then about 30 seconds later she and another woman push past me and start flailing their arms at a security guard who’s near the object. They get his attention and ask if he can get whatever she threw and give it back to her. He does. It’s her bra. Haaaaaaaa! Weir’s still got it! Meanwhile, the band blaze through the song, and then it’s time for the huge, structured 3-part game that comprises the middle of the song. I realize John is about to take this to the next level, and I’m right. I love this song, but I sometimes felt the Grateful Dead "held back" too much on this section, and that they could have hit Warp 9 on it and just blow crowds away. Occasionally they did - check out the version from Hampton in 1986. But tonight? There was no reservation at all about taking it to the next level. The first section just slammed. Oteil really asserted himself and laid down some thick bottom end, Jeff pounded out triads, Weir played his trademark chords, and Mayer led the charge. It was magnificent. The second section, usually the mellowest of the three, ended up being equally powerful after Mayer started playing a series of staccato chords that he drummers played upon to build momentum, and then this one hit another screaming conclusion with John fanning his guitar before the band dropped into the third session. Once again, John took advantage of the song’s power in the way that his predecessors generally did not and played thick, ascending power chords to bring the jam to a close. Then came the final verse and a short, subtle reprise of the final jam. This was the highlight of the night. It blew away the version at Fare Thee Well, and might actually have been the best version of the song I have ever seen. My thoughts are calm and I am completely at peace after these 14 minutes have passed.
ST. STEPHEN: I thought we were heading for drums, but nope. Here comes another joyous 60s classic featuring one of the most fortunate characters in Deadland - lots of good things happen to St. Stephen, and even if he loses something? He gets it all back! The song bounded through its verses with everyone singing along, and then the jam at the end started with a couple of stop ’n’ start power chords before lurching into its normal tempo. Eventually it slowed down to nearly a full stop, and then Bob played a few chords that everyone else picked up on and ran with; it was clearly one of those light jams that would soon lead into the drum duet, but after several minutes no one had stopped playing. I’m fine with that. But then just as you were expecting to see Bob take his guitar off and head sidestage, he signaled everyone and led the band back into the reprise and the final verse, just as they had convinced everyone it wasn’t happening, Nice. And another 14 minutes have zoomed by.
DRUMS: The Billy and Mickey show got intense, fast. Billy stayed at his kit at first, but Mickey quickly scooted over to his racks of electronics and started generating all kinds of intense noises. And on top of that Oteil came out to join them and jam along, and he essentially became the backing musician fort the drummers,laying down a low-end foundation through was a series of low-string flurries of notes. He was digging it, the drummers were digging it, we were digging it and then the Billy and Mickey pounded on The Beat in unison to wrap it up after 12 minutes.
SPACE: This was short and dissonant, and the drummers were back out and in place pretty quickly. Everyone was ready to roll and you could see it, so this little journey came to a close after only 4 minutes as it arrived in a somewhat unexpected place.
WHARF RAT: “Aha!” I hear you cry. “Now here’s a song about a desperate man!” Well, yes, but…guess what? Here’s why it’s not: This song, featuring a conversation with a homeless alcoholic who wants to turn things around, has become a positive and powerful anthem for Deadheads who are in recovery programs; they even call themselves the Wharf Rats. They have a booth at shows and are always around if someone needs them. So yeah, this one actually does fit in with the overall second set theme, and it also has a couple of soaring jams at the end just for good measure. And behind me, I notice that three middle-aged, dressed-to-the-nines Japanese women are now intently watching the show. They’ve clearly been comped the tickets and I bet their partners are probably gambling in great amounts right now, and it looks like they might actually be into this. And yes, this one also ran nice and long, clocking in at 13 minutes.
SUGAR MAGNOLIA: No desperate men here either, just a happy guy with his happy girl. Bob engineered a proper transition into this one from the closing strains of Wharf Rat, and it was its usual, rocking self. John added some extra flair to the closing jam by doing a sort of duck-walk while Weir played his power chords, and they had a great time with it. I’m not sure they wanted it to end, but they finally convinced themselves to do so after 10 minutes as Bob sang “Just a dream…” in his falsetto voice as the song crashed to a close. Whew. What a juxtaposition between the two sets.
RIPPLE: for there encore Bob, John and Oteil all walked back out holding acoustic instruments, and after a few seconds of tuning it was obvious what was coming. As if the uplifting vibe of the second set needed and more, they finish with one of their most beautiful songs, and in 1980 “Reckoning’ style no less. As he sings the “Ripple in still water..” chorus, John actually fans the very top of the neck of his guitar to recreate a David Grisman’s mandolin from the 1970 studio version. It’s beautiful, and my eyes well up. Then it’s one last sing-along and we are gently deposited back in Las Vegas.
All told, the second set ran from 9:51 to 11:37. Those who are so inclined might just be able to cram it onto a 100-minute cassette, minus the Ripple encore.
As the house lights come up, Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall, Part 1” is the song of choice, and I just need to sit here and take this all in. For those of you who think John Mayer doesn’t belong here because he's a pop star and occasional tabloid fodder? You’re wrong. They've given him free reign, and he has supercharged this band. Somehow he has made them more….accessible. I could bring friends who would have never given thought to seeing a Grateful Dead show to this, and I bet they’d be into it. And yes, I definitely was not wild about the fact that Phil is not part of this version of the band, but Oteil was the right guy, and he and John clearly have chemistry. At times those two were so proactive with each other that it almost felt like the other guys were the backing band, the way that sometimes happened when Garcia and Lesh would start playing off one another.
In a year that has had some of the best live music I have ever seen, this show lands up there with the best of them. I wonder how they might try to equal it tonight?