- by 21st Century Dead -
On the heels of Dead & Company’s “Fall Fun Run” being announced, let’s take a look back at their most recent Summer tour. This was their 3rd Summer as a band, after forming in Fall of 2015, and surprisingly their shortest (tour) yet, with only 19 shows played in the course of just over a month. And, technically, half of the tour actually took place in Spring, with the first show on May 31st at the Shoreline Amphitheater. This honestly seemed to work out for the best, because it meant these old guys didn’t have to sweat out as many 90 degree nights as they have in the past; Bobby especially seems to thrive in cooler temperatures. And even with fewer dates, this was their highest grossing tour yet, pulling in $40.9 million.
Of course everyone will say that the most recent tour or show they’ve seen was the best ever, so I gave this one some time to cool down in my memory before going back and listening to the whole thing over again, comparing it to earlier shows. At this point in time I feel confident in saying that this tour featured some of the best shows they’ve ever played, but overall isn’t quite their best tour. Their Fall 2017 tour was certainly their most consistent, even with Mayer’s appendix going on strike at the end. However, the band has matured and even slightly mutated since then, and these recent shows were some of their most powerful to date. Perhaps this is due to a trimmed-down repertoire, which allowed them to focus on the songs they play well and explore them in new ways. This tour had a lot of surprising song placements: Eyes of the World and Terrapin openers, and Scarlet being separated from Fire more often than not, both of them played as standalone versions even!
This was also by far their jammiest tour, much to my delight. Mayer has always seemed a little uncomfortable in the formless open spaces of Bird Song and The Other One, but on this tour it felt like he embraced the weirdness and ran with it. Even Oteil can sometimes seem like he’s too ready to go back to the main theme of a Dark Star or Playing In The Band, but this tour he was ready to go Out. John really stepped up into the leading role on a lot of jams, which let Bobby and Jeff play more conversationally instead of being forced to direct everything. They played jazz standards like Milestones and A Love Supreme in the last few tours, but some of the Deals they played this year were the jazziest they’ve ever sounded, let alone on monster Bird Songs, like 6/3 at the Hollywood Bowl. Drums and Space got incredibly deep this tour as well, with some great samples and Beam work provided by Mickey, and some of the best drumming I’ve seen from Billy. Unfortunately the Beam doesn’t come through in the official soundboards, but the one show I was able to attend (Gillete 6/22) was the most bone- rattling experience of my life.
Part of Dead & Company’s mutating sound comes down to the introduction of a couple of new instruments in the band, as well as the placement of John right next to Jeff that carried over from the end of last year’s tour. Oteil now has a personalized Modulus bass shaped like a giant ankh that has an incredibly powerful bottom end, while also maintaining a crystal clear tone on the higher notes. John’s new PRS is essentially a combination of the two guitars he always used to play, the bluesy one and the Garcia-esque one. He even played Jerry’s Wolf guitar at Citi Field in NYC! Now I’m not saying that’s why the PA failed at the show that night, but it’s certainly possible that some upset fan or spirit tried to intervene. I can’t even begin to describe all of Bobby’s guitars, you’ll just have to take my word for it that he had a lot of them. Even Jeff had either a new Rhodes or some new filters/a new mix for it, because it sounded brighter than ever, like splashing lighting. The sound system was clear and strong, and even the lighting and visual display were some of the band’s best; very few images of seagulls, cats, or sunflowers to go along with the lyrics. Instead, a well-choreographed light show (not Kuroda levels though) and tastefully trippy displays accompanied the music behind the band.
It wasn’t all rainbows and perfect shows though; as I said above, this was not their most consistent tour. All of the best shows were on weekends or at big name venues, with some of the mid- week shows feeling a lot like filler. There are also some songs that they just can’t manage to play...well, I was going to say “right,” but I guess I should just say: they don’t play them like I want them to. Jack Straw and I Know You Rider both seem to go nowhere at all for 10 minutes at a time, and I can’t figure out why. Maybe Bobby wants them to feel folkier? It’s not like John doesn’t know how to tear them up with his solos, but he just plays rhythm the whole time! Jack Straw does get a little spacy between the verses the way they have it arranged, and Jeff will sometimes solo towards the end of Rider, but both songs feel like they aren’t living up to their potential.
There’s also the perennial and tired moniker of Dead & Slow...which still has a lot of truth to it. Bobby has addressed this in interviews before, saying he likes to give the music room to breathe and be heard, and overall, the tempos do seem to be up from past tours. On dramatic songs like Shakedown or ballads, the slower pace can even lend a lot of power and grace. But honestly, it’s hard to dance to a Truckin’ that moves at the pace of a ‘76 Ship of Fools, or an Other One that’s so slow you could fit an entire ‘82 version into the time it takes for Oteil to do the intro run. In fact, some of the band’s weaker moments this Summer came from songs that were so slow that the drummers lost momentum, and everyone had to re-calibrate mid song.
All of that being said, one of my favorite things about this band is their ability to recover from setbacks. Besides the Gillette Box of Rain (their first since 2016), there were no real trainwrecks that derailed the songs entirely; they would always recover, sometimes in a very interesting way. Even that Box of Rain involved the rest of the band alongside doing an instrumental take on the song while a bemused Mayer waited for them to come to a coherent end and so he could launch a smooth restart. Part of their maturing as a unit is learning to trust each other to know what to do in any given situation, and developing that psychic link so John doesn’t have to walk over and talk to Bobby to figure out how they’re getting out of whatever mess they’ve found themselves in.
In going back through these shows I kept “detailed” notes on each one, and marked the best of the bunch with asterisks. Every show had at least a handful of hot songs and great jams, but the ones I marked are definitely the strongest of the batch. And at the very top of all of them sits Wrigley Field on June 15th. The night before was another good show that featured an epic Bird Song and the return of St. Stephen > William Tell Bridge > The Eleven, but lost a bit of momentum post-Space. However, Wrigley Night 2 will (or should) go down in DeadCo history as the Spanish Jam Show. They had done it fully once before in Hartford on their Fall ‘17 tour, and it was briefly teased by Jeff the first night at the Gorge (another amazing show), but this second set at Wrigley featured a full version by the whole band at several points, being teased and threaded throughout the second set. Jeff was the ringleader, and the rest of the band fed off his amazing energy to bring one of their best performances ever. Everyone who likes Dead music should hear this show, even if they don’t typically like DeadCo.
To wrap this up, here are a few more assorted observations I made: Oteil is by far the hardest working in the band: he plays the entire show, including Drums, only sitting out for the Beam portions of Space. He also sings the best out of the whole band by far. This tour, maybe due to its shorter length, only had a couple of bustouts, and some songs they had nailed in recent tours got dropped or short changed: Comes a Time, If I Had The World To Give, and Let It Grow only got one showing each, and Greatest Story Ever Told, Corrina, and Easy Answers weren’t played at all! High Time and To Lay Me Down were the best of the debuts this tour, though it is nice to have It Must Have Been The Roses in the rotation as well. I worried that off the back of Bobby’s Wolf Bros tours he would be a little too used to doing whatever he wants and only having two musicians to follow him, but he mostly stuck to more traditional arrangements and performances, with only a few moments getting too Wolfy.
All in all, this tour was a great showing for the band. Even if their Fall dates (so far) are a little underwhelming, it’s still a blessing to have these guys touring at all, especially when every show is streamed, and the openers of each set are available on YouTube live and after the fact for free. How do any of you feel about the tour, did I fluff it too much? Was I too critical of the mid week shows? Do you have any hot rumors of a Spring tour or additions to the Fall run?? Hit me up on Twitter with your thoughts, and stay weird.