If you’ve never heard of the Grateful Dead, you’re missing out. But if you’re a newcomer like myself, you’ll find that Grateful dead music is in a way, intimidating.
I say that because there really isn’t a definitive starting point to it all. Between 317 cover songs and 184 original tunes, over 2,000 live shows and over 10,000 live recordings, there’s a lot to take in. They are the original “cult band” whose followers would trail them from town to town to see all the shows they could, and the band knew that. They wouldn’t play the same setlist twice.They’re a one of a kind group, blending almost every genre of music into their songs. But perhaps that’s what this tour is changing for a lot of people. By combining forces with its original members and talented musicians, It’s evolved into a starting point for people like me, who until a year ago have only heard of the Grateful Dead, and a refresher for deadheads who have followed this band for decades. It’s a incitation to continue this legacy of music.
Although the name is different, this isn’t a watered down, sugar-free version of The Grateful Dead. For most people, Dead & Company is just a moniker. Dead & Company presents us with seasoned veterans of the music. Bob Weir, who fronted the original Grateful Dead alongside percussionists Mickey Hart,and Bill Kreutzmann. Weir also brought along trusty keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, who’s played with the dead for the past 19 years, as well as Weir’s other project, RatDog. Bassist Oteil Burbridge is also no stranger to the long melodic jams Dead & Company create. His resume consists of The Allman Brothers as well as The Tedeschi Trucks Band, whose jazz and country infused songs gave Oteil the experience to fit right into this versatile ensemble. Guitarist and singer-songwriter John Mayer joins the band on Guitar and Vocals. Mayer, thanks to the magic that is online music streaming, became obsessed with the Grateful Dead a few years ago. He has since become a student of the music, adding covers of the songs to his own tours, digging into the Dead’s own influences, and now playing with original members on stage. Call it what you will, a supergroup, a tribute band, or still the dead, these talented musicians are breathing new life into these songs.
If you come from Minneapolis, It only takes a full tank of gas and a five-hour roadtrip playlist to reach the Alpine Valley Music Theater, nestled in between cornfields and backroads in East Troy, Wisconsin. Exiting the freeway, you were instantly greeted by members of Rock’s most dedicated fanbase. Deadheads lined the road to the parking lot with their RV’s and caravans as early as noon, three hours before the lot opened, and seven hours before the band graced the stage. The parking lot itself was a surreal place. Thousands of fans in a sea of tie-dye and bell-bottom jeans roamed around, talking to other deadheads. The nostalgia was mixed with people wearing new tee shirts and snapchatting the experience. Nevertheless, if there was a concert to wear your round sunglasses and flower print crop top, this was it. Alpine Valley became the tailgating capital of the world. Fans offered food and water to people walking by, hung flags and tapestries, and played the dead’s music from car stereos, boomboxes, and portable Bluetooth speakers. It was the perfect mix of old and new. They talked of their favorite periods of the band as if it was a sports team. “Alpine Valley” was written on the back windows of buses and station wagons, telling us where they were headed, and the license plates telling us where they were from. People drove as far away as New York, Florida, and California just to see them.
The closer it got to showtime, the louder the stereos got, and the more excited the crowd became, lining up at the gates just to hear what song the band would soundcheck with, and then cheering for an encore an hour before the real show was to start. Lines to get in became a half hour-long at each of the six gates, as security and staff organized over 30,000 people into the amphitheater. Finally, at 7:30 Dead and Company entered the stage for an unforgettable night of music
They began their first set with a jam, and then into Cassidy which provided a great soundtrack as people found their way to their seats and laid out their blankets on the lawn. Mayer then launched into Brown Eyed Woman which, at only eight minutes long, was one of the shortest tracks the band would play that night. They continued their upbeat set with a bluesy rendition of I Need a Miracle with the band digging deep into their blues backgrounds to take the song from an amphitheater into a smoky bar. They continued with Dire Wolf, a song that they had played for the first time on this tour, and which many in the audience were hoping to hear that night. Bob Weir took over vocals for a steady paced Ramble on Rose, Which transitioned into another crowd favorite, Box of Rain which was the perfect song to watch the beach-balls float among the crowd. They ended their first set with The Music Never Stops with was filled with great vocals from Weir, funky bass lines from Oteil and groovy guitar fills from John. There was no excuse not to at least tap your foot to that song. They exited the stage for a short break just as the sun had set behind the crowd, providing much needed shade to the hot summer night.
Set two continued with the upbeat trend, with Mayer leading the band with Deal, which had the crowd back up and dancing almost instantaneously. Eyes of the World took the audience back to a world of jazz and funk, with the band jamming to the song for over fifteen minutes. Eyes took us into a harder version of St. Stephen with Weir and Mayer sharing vocals, and then into The Other One with a cosmic ending into the famous Drums,Space improvisational piece, and the only song expected in the setlist. Mickey and Bill took over the stage with their massive collection of drums, bongos, a marimba and synth pads in a tribal, almost EDM fourteen minute piece. The rest of the band entered the stage about halfway through and joined the drummers for Space which came at just the right time. The last bits of light from the sun had left the sky, revealing the stars above the audience. Although the stars were far from all of us, the band didn’t have to take us very far to get to space. It transitioned into Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, one of the slowest but meaningful songs of the night. As the night neared closer to the end, Dead and Co. didn’t stop the upbeat tunes. The played the classic Help Is On The Way, Slipknot!, Franklin’s Tower lineup of songs, playing seamlessly into one another, with the audience bouncing and singing along for the longest jam of the night at over twenty minutes in length. One More Saturday Night, a fitting song for Saturday’s show, closed out the second and final set from Dead and Company. The encore was also fitting with Mayer leading the band on a heartfelt rendition of Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, A cover the original Grateful Dead closed out their later shows with, and on the 21st anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s final show before lead guitarist Jerry Garcia had passed away. “Just exactly like a Swiss watch” Weir said after the encore “we’ll see you all tomorrow night.” They exited the stage, and the crowd began shuffling up the hill, and out of the amphitheater, still singing, dancing, and smiling.
There is a lot to the Dead, and seeing a concert only begins to scratch the surface of what they’re about. There’s a whole culture of visual art, soundboard recordings, and general fandom that comes with being a deadhead, but perhaps the best part is the camaraderie that comes from these people. Everyone was helpful and kind to everyone. You leave the shows with new friends, new experiences and the not-so-crazy idea of quitting your Job and following this band around on a tour of the country in hopes that they’ll play your favorite song at the next show, and keep going until they do. They have a fanbase that other bands have only ever dreamed about. Dead and Company is keeping their diverse culture alive in a time of disposable one-hit-wonders and brief musical trends. With the addition of younger members, they are also drawing an interest from a younger crowd, which older deadheads don’t mind. They’re the caretakers of this music, and they are gladly accepting of the younger fans who will continue to watch over it for many years to come. If Dead and Company come to your town, or at least 18 hours away from your town, do yourself a favor and go see em!
Words and Photos by Casey Carlson