BLOG - HOCKEY & HEAVY METAL

November 28, 2015

DEAD & COMPANY - LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 28, 2015: ONE MORE SATURDAY NIGHT, AND PROBABLY NOT THE LAST ONE

(Disclaimer: Because it took 8 hours to drive home from Las Vegas, I wrote this two mornings 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.)

SET I:

CASSIDY: Oooh. Nice opener. One of Bob’s best songs from the early 70s, and one with some room for the band to open things up early. And whoa, look at that! Bob’s brought Pinky out of retirement! Alright! (For those unawares, Pinky is Bob’s hot pink, custom-built Modulus guitar that he first started using onstage in 1987. Even thought it had a great sound a lot of fans hated it because of the color, which of course only made Bob use it more. I always thought it made him sound better, not least because he always seemed to be higher in the mix when he used it. And yep, you can hear him pretty clearly now. This version of Cassidy is pretty laid back, as can be the case with an opener, but the band takes their time to loosen up, listen to each other, and enjoy themselves during the song’s structured closing jam, which extends the song out to a full 10 minutes. It was a nice way to ease into night 2, and Bob’s t-shirt reads “This Goin’ Somewhere?” Yeah, I bet it is.

LOOSE LUCY: The mellow, early-show, early 70s warmup vibe continues with a raunchy ode to to a woman, sung by a guy who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. Although John seems to be handling the lead vocals for many of the songs that Garcia would sing, Bob took this one. It cooly moved along through the verses and the solo, and when Bob stepped up to sing the final verse his dyslexia kicked in and he forgot the words, as has happened so many times before. John quickly scampered over and whispered the line in his ear to prompt him as the crowd roared lovingly. It’s a unique interaction; a long-running imperfection is celebrated, and Bob still doesn’t solve the problem by using a teleprompter. Hey, why fix it if it people like it better when it’s "broken"?

WEST L.A. FADEAWAY: While this mid-paced Garcia song dates back to the early 80s and is considered to be part of the “In The Dark” era, it fits the mellow, warming-up vibe nicely. John handles his first lead vocal of the night, and like Althea the night before, the lyrics about a rough life in Los Angeles take on a very different vibe when being sung by John Mayer. I like it a lot, and the tie-dyed-from-neck-to-ankle guy behind me seems to like it even more, judging by his frenetic dancing. We’re a few rows up from the stage on some aluminum bleachers, and he is stomping his feet hard, and everyone within a few feet of him can feel it. And while his timing resembles that of Navin Johnson from The Jerk, it’s alright. He’s somewhere out past Cloud 9, and I smile.

RAMBLE ON ROSE: Back to the early 70s again for this mid-paced Garcia song, and Bob promptly forgets two lines in the first verse. More cheers. Things really pick up during the solo section, with Jeff hammering out some Hornsby-influenced barrelhouse piano while Oteil laid down a flourish of low-string bass notes under him. John’s solo then took the momentum to the next level by fanning the strings and hits some power chords, and we have our first major musical surge of the night. The crowd loudly sings along on the final chorus, but they’re on key and they sound pretty good! Well, it is a Saturday show, and those crowds do tend to be louder.

TENNESSEE JED: Hmm. Another early 70s song, but it’s the now third straight mid-paced Garcia-Hunter song, and one with a very similar structure to the two preceding it, so it’s starting to feel a little same-y right now. Bob handled the vocals for this one, and when they got to the verse about playing the slot machines the video screen behind the band showed images of the same, complete with GD-related motifs on the wheels. Mayer led a great end-of-song solo, complete with him jumping up and down at the end without missing a note, and once again the crowd sang along loudly on the final chorus.

SUGAREE: The early 70s vibe continues, but, now we’re onto a fourth straight mid-paced Garcia-Hunter song that’s going to run 10 minutes or more. I’m at at the point where find it a little odd that no one in the band caught this as they assembled the set list before the show. I am, however, happy to see that John gets to sing this one, as once again these lyrics take on a whole different meaning when sung by him; this is now a plea to a lover not to sell her story to the tabloids. Overall, the tempo was a little slower, and it’s a solid version, but by the time it’s over I’m really wanting something more upbeat. I can see (but not read) the set list that Billy is using, and the last song of the set has a long title. I make an educated guess that it’s going to be The Music Never Stopped, which will be very welcome.

DEAL: Yes! We have a rocker! And there must be another one after it too. This early-70s Garcia-Hunter classic was a virtual lock to be played in Las Vegas with its gambling motif (and on that same tack, I wonder if the band was asked to avoid playing “Loser” by the MGM management, since it never did appar at these shows?), and the change of pace is so, so welcome. John handled the vocals, and the long jam at the end was a lot of fun, but it never truly caught fire like it so often does - the mellow, warmup set vibe remained. So, I guess now we’re onto that set-closing song with the longer title?

ONE MORE SATURDAY NIGHT: Nice one! This early-70s Bob rocker almost never strays from its time-tested locations as the second set closer or the encore, so it was a cool surprise to get it here. Bob name-checked Barack Obama in the third verse, which was nice, and like the rest of the set that preceded it, it was well-played but not an over-the-top version. And then it was about to end, and then it didn’t as Bob surprisingly led the band back into the closing refrain one more time. Now that was fun, and a nice way to head into the intermission.

It may have been a mellower, laid back, 70’s era set that was essentially a lengthy warmup for what was next, but hardly one where they weren’t having fun. The set ran for 82 minutes, which is longer than many GD second sets in the 80s and 90s. It’s funny how standards change. If the Grateful Dead had played this set, at this length, at any time from 1987 to 1997, it probably would have been voted the best first set of that year in the annual Deadbase readers poll.

Also, it’s nice to have shows that consist pretty much entirely of laid-back folks who really have come to listen, even on a Saturday when pre-show partying tends to start earlier. Friday was probably just shy of a sellout and tonight looked and felt like one, but since they went with a 3/4 house configuration (they curtained off the top half of the upper level, dropping the capacity to about 10k per night) it wasn’t shoulder-to-shoulder crowded and there weren’t many ticketless folks on the walk into the arena. This is a pleasant development.

SET II:

HELP ON THE WAY > SLIPKNOT: The quick pre-song tune-up didn’t really give away what this was going to be, but I was so happy to hear those opening chords ring out, and not just because this is one of the best songs in the repertoire. It was also because we’re going to get to hear John Mayer play it. This was possibly the most complex song Jerry Garcia ever wrote, and the structured lead guitar lines that bookend Slipknot have some unusual twists and turns that sometimes led to missed or skipped notes. However, John’s lead style was practically made for this song, and you just knew he was going to kill it. Bob took the vocals for Help On The Way, and the band was playing with confidence and ease, and then it became time for Slipknot. John made the transition into the jam look easy, and it led to the show’s highlight: a long, dense, thick, involved jam. Things got temporarily sidetracked when the woman behind me decided this was the perfect time to have a loud conversation, but thankfully that died off after a minute or so. Meanwhile, onstage John took the lead and started playing more and more forcefully, and it was a genuine moment onstage when he did a couple of Eddie Van Halen-style hammer-ons and pull-offs that worked perfectly. Never thought I’d see that trick here, but it’s all good magic. Oteil immediately followed it by laying down a funky bass lead that had a few pops of the strings. Yeah. Then the closing jam came around, and I fixated back and forth on the drummers and on John’s left hand, which flawlessly spidered up and down the fretboard. Wow.

FRANKLIN’S TOWER: This companion song to Help On The Way / Slipknot makes for a nice juxtaposition, as it’s a straightforward, upbeat, three-chord rocker and is one of the most instantly accessible songs in the repertoire. John took the vocals, it was a lot of fun for the 10 minutes it lasted, and the highlight was Jeff’s burning solo on the Hammond B3. For some reason I felt that Estimated Prophet was coming next, but all that thought did was prove I’m not one.

SCARLET BEGONIAS: Hah! Yes! I was hoping to see this one, but I had pretty much banished it as a possibility when they didn't start the second set with it. John took the vocals after what seemed like a shorter introduction, and the verses played out nicely. Then it was jam time, and it got up and running quickly; its dense feel actually made it seem like the continuation of Slipknot, but in a different key. However, the jam wound down relatively abruptly after about three minutes, and John turned towards the drummers with body language that said, “Boys, lead us into Fire.”

FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN: Billy and Mickey granted John’s wish, and Bob took the vocals for this one. It’s always great to hear it, but the solos after each verse were shorter, and they never quite hit the sort of peak that this song is famous for generating. After the final verse it didn’t take long before Bob motioned the frontliners offstage so the drummers could do their thing. At 16 minutes, this was probably one of the shortest versions of Scarlet > Fire ever (take a moment and imagine what that statement looks like to an outsider), but I’m always happy to hear it. Essentially, it had the relaxed vibe that the first set did. They weren’t rushing through it or anything, it just happened to be on the short side.

DRUMS: Tonight’s version of the Billy, Micke and Oteil show was, by now somewhat unsurprisingly, a lot mellower, but throughout it Mickey maintained a nice foundation of electronic effects and low-end droning via subtle use of The Beam. Oteil started out on bass but about halfway through he say down at Billy’s kit and started drumming after Billy started playing The Beast. As always, an enjoyable interlude. As it wound down, I decided to make a quick restroom visit As made my way to the end of my row, the guy on the aisle in the row in front of me gave me a disdainful look and sneered at me: “Yeah, come on through, man. Way to go.” Really? Well, I guess I won’t need to pee in this guy’s Wheaties because someone has clearly done that already.

SPACE: For the second straight night, they kept it short. John led the charge with a barrage of dissonance and Jeff added some weird electronic effects. Mickey stayed out for all of it, but Billy was onstage for about 3 or 4 minutes while this played out. When he returned, they were ready to go, and immediate they started a nice, funky staccato jam that lasted for several minutes. Then everything smoothed out for the next minute or so, during which there was a clear pass through the Mind Left Body chord progression before it drifted to a pause. Nice.

CRYPTICAL ENVELOPMENT: Ooh, nice. Back to the late 60s, with John singing the introduction to one of the band’s best vehicles for cosmic exploration. Looking forward to what’s about to happen next.

THE OTHER ONE: The band eschew the drum-duet intro and instead charge straight into the song, which was a novel approach. However, after a minute or so everyone sort of returned to the launch position and Oteil played his version of Phil’s famous rumbling bass line intro, to everyone’s surprise and delight. John had a huge smile on his face as it happened, after Bob sang the fist verse we got another dense, thick jam that got more insistent as it went, but still kept with the evening’s style: no huge peaks, but no real rush to finish either. After Bob sang the second verse they actually brought the song to a full stop, another novel approach, and there was a second or two of silence. I thought maybe they’d play the Cryptical reprise to wrap the set up. Nope.

MORNING DEW: Well, it is the last night of the tour, so no need to save the biggest songs for the next show. This slower epic was a Garcia showpiece from the earliest days and was generally a highlight of any show where it appeared. Bob handles the vocals now, leaving John to absolutely shine during the mid-song solo and again during the closing, the latter of which featured some frenetic fanning while Oteil made heavy use of his lowest strings as a counterpoint. A great finish to a long, well-played show.

LOVELIGHT: Except that it’s not the end. The band are having fun, and they’ve decided to tack on the old classic that once was led by the late Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. Under his direction the song frequently ran 20 minutes or more until he passed away from liver failure in 1973. A decade later it returned as a Bob song that nearly always closed the second set, though tonight Bob and John split the vocals evenly. Nice touch. As the lights washed over the crowd you could see the waves and waves of people dancing, and it looked great. And I bet there’s gonna be be a false ending, and another reprise of the final section. Yep. They really are having a good time up there. And we are really having a good time out here.

ENCORE:

BROKEDOWN PALACE: This was my guess as the tour-closer and return to the real world. As they did during Lovelight, Bob and John traded off on the vocals, and band and crowd sang along to each other on the final chorus. Then the band came out front to take a bow, and as they did on the final night of each tour they did as The Dead, they brought the crew out onstage for some well-deserved applause. Eventually people started filing offstage, and soon it was just Billy and Mickey left out there. They gave each other a big hug while jumping up and down before exiting stage right while wearing huge smiles.

The second set ran 100 minutes, which is about par for the course these days. Overall, the show did not have the huge peaks of intensity that Friday’s show did; this one was mellower and more relaxed. But it was a fantastic playlist: the first set was primarily early 70s material, pre-drums was mid-70s material, and post-space consisted of late-60s classics. Yeah.

I get the idea that this band may be in business for a while, well past the four more shows that are booked for the end of December. They are simply having way too much fun up there to think otherwise, and people are clearly lining up in large number to pay to see it. I shudder to think what this could mean for my wallet and my free time in 2016, but I’ll worry about that when it happens. Because between now and the, we get these guys on home turf in Los Angeles in a month’s time. See you then.

ARCHIVE

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