By Scott McLennan
This was a generous two-set show whose imaginative pacing spotlit exploratory jams and interesting reconstructions of classic Dead fare.
Do not count out Dead and Company.
That was the lesson learned Thursday when the band comprising original Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart played the first of two shows at the Xfinty Center in Mansfield (you know, Great Woods).
Ever since the OG GD members formed Dead and Company in 2015 — with blues-pop guitarist John Mayer, former Allman Brothers Band and Aquarium Rescue Unit bass player Oteil Burbridge, and keyboard player Jeff Chimenti, a longtime collaborator with Weir — this group has been the flagship of all things Dead. But the band has had its ups and downs in concert. Slow tempos, less-than-welcome rearrangements of classic songs, stiff transitions, and limited improvisational language among the players have, at one time or another, undercut opportunities when everything should have clicked.
Grateful Dead music has been coming at us from all corners since live music’s return from the Covid shutdowns of last year. Joe Russo’s Almost Dead performed a historic 9-show residency spread from May to September at the Westville Music Bowl in New Haven, CT, delivering explosive versions of songs from the Grateful Dead catalog. Psychedelic bluegrass guitar hero Billy Strings has been peppering into his shows wonderful arrangements of Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia classics. Even drummer Kreutzmann’ s revived Billy & The Kids ensemble played a couple of shows this summer that added some nice pop into the repertoire.
During the original run of the Grateful Dead, from 1965 to 1995, before lead guitar player and focal point Garcia died, concerts had become communal events: interaction among fans and between fans and the band was central to the experience. Still, the band remained the elemental beacon that commanded everyone’s attention. The various post-Garcia groups made up of GD members, however, have sometimes been content to be a reason for fans to gather. Musically, they become a bit lazy, performing at times like really good bar bands, where you go to meet a bunch of friends.
That was not the case Thursday. Weir, Kreutzmann and Hart in particular played with a zeal that brought out dynamic performances from Mayer, Chimenti, and Burbridge. The cumulative effect was a generous two-set show whose imaginative pacing spotlit exploratory jams and interesting reconstructions of classic Dead fare.
DeadCo opened the concert with a loping jam evocative of Garcia’s “The Wheel” ultimately evolved into Weir’s anthemic “Playing in the Band.” The long, frolicking version of this tune foreshadowed how the rest of the night would flow — lots of sturdy ensemble jamming, spirited solos from Chimenti and Mayer, spry drum work by Kreutzmann and Hart. Frequent guitar changes by Weir reflected the restless urgency he brought to his playing and singing all night.
The group ultimately circled back from “Playing in the Band” to do a full reading of “The Wheel,” building a lengthy, probing sequence of music that usually anchored the group’s second sets — not its opening numbers.
The rest of the first set followed was more predictable, but it didn’t sound rote or tired. “Iko Iko” paid tribute to the musical traditions of New Orleans, no doubt an homage to a city that is contending with the impact of Hurricane Ida. Weir did the song proud, digging out some additional lyrics that didn’t make the versions of the tune that the Grateful Dead usually played.
Mayer then took the lead for Elmore James’ “It Hurts Me Too,” a song that belonged to original GD blues howler Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. In Mayer’s hands, the song didn’t swing in the same way that Pig performed it. Rather, it took flight on the wings of a more technical approach — this was blues that came from the head rather than the gut. Still, Mayer’s prowess on guitar fired up the song just fine.
“Ramble on Rose,” “Brown Eyed Women” and “Let It Grow,” a trio of peak ’70s Dead, brought the first set home via solid ensemble jams and especially captivating solos from Chimenti, who was a flawless teammate when he pushed forward his own “voice” or fell back to blend in with Mayer and Weir.
The rollicking “Deal” opened the second set after a 30-minute intermission. The group’s approach was snappy, eagerly feeding the song’s infectious groove before jumping off into deep space.
A mind-scrambling 20-plus minute version of “Dark Star,” the Dead’s psychedelic opus from the late-’60s, became the centerpiece of the concert. DeadCo built up and broke down the song several times, moving in and out of key themes with an inspiring inquisitiveness. This was an exuberant paradox: six guys remained on the same page, even when they were flying off in different directions.
Weir only managed to make it through the song’s first verse before swapping his electric guitar for an acoustic one, then steering the group into a gorgeous version of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso.” Jumping from a heady blowout to a bit of cowboy music was a common musical strategy in the Dead’s early concerts — and it worked just fine again on this night.
DeadCo eased out of the country and western moment with the triumphant tones of “Uncle John’s Band,” again taking its time to explore the old song for some and finding new inspiration.
The customary foray into “Drums and Space” brought out all sorts of cinematic flourishes, with Hart pulling audio magic from his patented Beam instrument and Burbridge trading his bass for drum mallets to join in the percussive romp.
DeadCo tightened the improvisational “Space” segment by including a version of the popular (and propulsive) “Casey Jones,” which was nicely handled by Mayer.
Weir took the commanding lead on the Garcia ballad “Stella Blue.” Mayer played a couple of solos that were nothing like Garcia’s, yet they perfectly fit the bittersweet spirit of the song. Weir also found his own way into the mournful lyrics. This was DeadCo at its best: its revisions are provocative, but respectful of the music’s history.
The band capped the set with the rollicking Weir number “Sugar Magnolia” and played the campfire soul classic “Ripple” as an encore.
Grateful Dead lives on in a couple of ways — it is as much a cultural phenomenon as it is a band. But, during night one in Mansfield, DeadCo reminded us that the creative impulse behind the troupe’s music, its forward-looking spirit, is still very much alive and relevant.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.