It was a tale of two shows in one night.
Dead & Company, the latest incarnation of The Grateful Dead, the iconic San Francisco band born in the psychedelic 1960s and renowned for its live concerts featuring free-form jam sessions and the band’s vast catalog of music, made its way to MGM Grand Garden Arena for shows on Friday and Saturday nights.
Three of the band’s four surviving members — Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann and Bob Weir — are touring this fall with guitarist John Mayer, bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti as Dead & Company.
Phil Lesh, The Dead’s fourth surviving member, did not join the tour, which began Halloween at New York’s Madison Square Garden and now takes a nearly monthlong break before ending with a pair of late-December shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles, including the finale New Year’s Eve at the Forum.
Mayer, the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and suitor to the stars (Jennifer Aniston, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, among them) is no Jerry Garcia. But then, no one ever said Mayer had to be Garcia, lead guitarist, vocalist and titular head of The Grateful Dead who died 20 years ago at age 53.
With superb guitar skills and strong vocals on several titles (“West L.A. Fadeaway” and “Deal,” among them), Mayer continued to win over the army of itinerant Deadheads in the audience Saturday night.
The Deadheads, as always, were a sight to behold. The mix of old, young and in between — many of the males sporting unshorn locks, females decked out in floral headbands, and hundreds wearing tie-dyed T-shirts decorated with the familiar dancing bears or lightning-bolt skulls — was sprinkled throughout the arena.
Interpretive dancing by The Deadhead masses, a staple of the shows, took place on the front two-thirds of the arena floor, where seats had been removed, to the aisles in the stands and throughout seating areas.
(As a side note, a social scientist visiting MGM Grand on consecutive weekends this month for the Dead & Company concerts, then National Finals Rodeo festivities, would have a heyday comparing and contrasting the two crowds.)
Not that he needed to, but Mayer proved his guitar mettle throughout Saturday night. His skills fit in flawlessly with the band’s modus operandi. One excited 60-year-oldish fan remarked during the show that Mayer “was true to Jerry’s spirit while still being his own man.”
Indeed, Mayer provided plenty of Garcia-esque riffs, but he also engaged in several of his own signature moves, including hopping up and down like a bunny while gleefully plucking the instrument’s strings.
One particularly memorable piece of his musicianship came during “Sugaree,” when Mayer let loose in a midsong jam supplemented by Weir on guitar and Chimenti on piano.
During the 80-minute first set of the night, Dead & Company delivered eight songs, including the aforementioned “West L.A. Fadeaway,” “Deal” and “Sugaree,” sung by Mayer, along with “Cassidy,” “Loose Lucy,” “Ramble on Rose,” “Tennessee Jed” and “One More Saturday Night” performed by the strong-throated Weir.
It wasn’t until after a 45-minute break that Dead & Company broke out the more psychedelic side of its catalog. But whether it was the lengthy break (another staple of Dead shows) or the change in the music, the show lost its momentum.
The post-intermission set began with “Help on the Way”/“Slipknot”/”Franklin’s Tower” and was followed by “Scarlet Begonias,” each of which suffered from an overabundance of rambling, extended instrumentals.
Weir was strong on “Fire on the Mountain,” but any regained momentum was lost at the song’s end when Mayer, Chimenti and he left the stage while Hart, Kreutzmann and Burbridge stayed behind for a drum solo followed by Hart’s “Space.”
It may have been my lack of an altered state, but the back-to-back drums and synthesized “Space” pretty much provided me with a mental checkout for the evening.
Mayer’s rendition of “Cryptical Envelopment” faded into “The Other One,” then gave way to a pair of covers (Bonnie Dobson’s “Morning Dew” and Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn on Your Love Light”) before the encore piece, “Brokedown Palace” with Weir at the mic, ended the night.
Maybe I’m too used to a standard 90-minute Las Vegas concert, but to me Dead & Company could have added “Uncle John’s Band,” “Truckin’, ” “Casey Jones” or even “Touch of Grey” or “Dear Prudence” and called it a night at the end of Saturday night’s first set.
I would have left much happier than I did hanging around for another two-plus hours for a long break and a second, unsatisfying set.
John Taylor is the Las Vegas Sun’s copy chief.