What a Long, Strange Trip it’s Been
Shortly after Grateful Dead’s legendary Fare Thee Well Tour wrapped up at Chicago’s Soldier Field, John Mayer reached out to Bob Weir and started a new friendship that ultimately led to the formation of Dead and Company. The band has toured intermittently and finally scheduled Orlando on their 2017 Fall Tour with a stop at Amway Center.
Days before that tour stop, John Mayer had emergency surgery to remove his appendix, resulting in a two month delay for the long-awaited show. The Grateful Dead last played Orlando in 1994, so the visit from Dead & Company was welcome news to Sunshine State Dead fans.
I was never a fan of the Dead. Still, I was intrigued to see this iconic band hit the stage with three key members still playing active roles. Unfortunately for me, my only familiarity of the band were there classic rock hit songs. As I learned Tuesday night, the band’s library is quite robust and diverse, and features spectacular musicianship.
The Pregame Atmosphere
Damn, Dead fans know how to party. We arrived in the parking garage early and found it already buzzing. Panel vans with pot smoke drifting through the open doors and windows, souvenirs everywhere, barefoot smiling fans drifting around, and plenty of dogs chilling with their owners. It was a garage tailgating, braided hippie, bell bottoms and tie dyes, pot in the air kind of night, with hordes of happy, shiny people.
Out on the street the party vibe kicked the experience up a notch. The Fanfest on Church Street was as crowded as I have seen for any band (and this on a Tuesday!). Their was a palpable buzz in the air and not just from all of the helium canisters working double-time to satisfy the needs of the fans swarming the street. With all of the alcohol, grass and other goodies floating around the crowd, everyone was kind, peaceful and loving. It was truly a wonderful vibe.
I went down and toured the Amway Center floor for a bit, and found more of the same wonderful, positive energy. The crowd was a bit more diverse: flip-flops, Birkenstocks, blue hair, green hair, facial hair, no hair and flowers in the hair. And some very creative outfits.
Disclaimer: Neither of us are Deadheads – this is the perspective of two rock music fans with their first Grateful Deadish experience.
Under a huge, brightly lit Grateful Dead skull, on a stage bathed in a soothing blue, the three legendary Grateful Dead members took their spots next to John Mayer, and accomplished musicians Oteil Burbridge on bass and Jeff Chimenti on keyboards, and they started jamming to “St. Stephen.” It was immediately obvious that the John Mayer’s guitar playing fit in well with his band mates, and he was the perfect foil to Bob Weir’s guitar work.
The crowd started dancing as soon as the music started and the floor remained a writhing, pulsating organism for all three hours. I was also pleasantly surprised to notice very few fans on their phones. No, these Deadheads were all in and seemed to love every minute of the show.
Weir and Mayer masterfully traded lead guitar and vocal duties throughout the three hours they spent on stage together. Weir’s voice was surprisingly good and seemed to get stronger as the night wore on. Mayer’s vocals were solid if not spectacular, but oh my, his guitar riffs were sensational. Apparently an appendix is not required for guitar virtuosity.
Oteil Burbridge, who played with The Allman Brothers for 20 years, was solid, while Jeff Chimenti shined on a handful of wonderful keyboard fills. Longtime Grateful Dead drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann did not really standout, aside from their featured work (along with Burbridge) during “Drums.”
Highlights from the first set included the filthy, slinky “Loose Lucy,” a fun snippet of “Call Me Al” that deftly wound its way into set closer “The Wheel” and a singalong “Ramble On Rose” where Mayer shined on guitar. It was one of the early moments where the entire crowd sand along, but there were many fans who sang along to every song throughout the night.
During intermission, we chatted with fans who loved the deep tracks featured on the evening’s setlist (provided below), which changed significantly from one night to another on this tour.
Set 2 got off to a raucous start with an incendiary 22 minute version of “China Cat Sunflower” / “I Know You Rider.” It was pure musical perfection and the highlight of the show. which had the entire crowd on their feet, clapping and singing. The set also included the aforementioned “Drums,”and “Althea” the song that first attracted Mayer to the music of the Grateful Dead.
The sextet closed the set with “Casey Jones,” before sending the crowd into the warm Florida night with “U.S. Blues.”
For a neophyte to the Grateful Dead experience, I left impressed by the fine musicianship, although the constant lengthy jams eventually grew old. Once every 24 years will be plenty.
For the Deadheads in attendance, I suspect they were all thrilled with a night of pristine Dead tracks and are anxious to see them again.
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Hell in a Bucket
Next Time You See Me
Ramble On Rose
China Cat Sunflower
I Know You Rider