Saturday yet another iteration of The Grateful Dead, Dead & Company featuring John Mayer made a tour stop in Austin at the Frank Erwin Center. The last time The Dead played Austin was 2003 when the remaining members appeared at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic at Three Rivers Canyon Amphitheater which ended up being a single-use venue after a disastrous traffic jam ensured thousands of ticket holders missed The Dead’s performance.
Dead & Company’s return to Austin after 14 years was, in some ways a make-up show for that traffic-snarled debacle. It was also an indication that The Grateful Dead machine is far from finished producing a cottage industry of products including concert tickets on a tour with John Mayer that extends through the end of the year. The Erwin Center stop was just about midway through the schedule.
A Texas-themed evening ensued with The Dead selecting a playlist of deep cuts and traditional jams. Nearly the entire set list consisted of tunes penned before 1975, taking even the eldest Dead fan in attendance way back to the early years of the band. Like most things associated with a Dead show, the choices presented were entirely appropriate to the setting and context. It’s one of the more endearing traits of a Dead performance, the care and consideration that goes into producing each gig.
The set began with classic, Jack Straw with cheers coming as Bob Weir sang the line, “Leaving Texas, fourth day of July” as burnt orange floodlights illuminated the euphoric Erwin Center audience. The much-loved Garcia/Hunter tune instantly filled the arena with joy as fans, some of whom waited over three hours for the show to begin, danced in the aisles, arms held high, with beatific grins on their faces. Even the most jaded music fan couldn’t help but smile at the audience response.
Mayer took over lead on Cold Rain and Snow, handing the reins back to Weir as the grizzled guitarist (who looks like a cross between his mentor, Jerry Garcia and Tiger Woods’ former caddy Fluff McCowan), ad-libbed Austin into the New Minglewood Blues lyrics to more cheers.
The bluesy vibes continued with Next Time You See Me featuring Jeff Chimenti on the organ followed by the first real high point of the opening set, Ramble On Rose. Another Garcia/Hunter favorite, the song prompted an audience sing-a-long, lending momentum to the good vibes in the room.
Touring bassist Oteil Burbridge took over vocals on deep cut, If I Had the World to Give and Mayer followed suit with an extended, slow jammy version of Sugaree to end the set.
After a 35 minute break, Dead & Company returned with a classic set list that kicked off with China Cat Sunflower into the usual I Know You Rider. A vaguely Buddhist representation of Jerry with light emanating out of his third eye appeared on the circular screen above the center of the stage, then on either screen bracketing the performers.
A meandering, psychedelic Dark Star followed with Weir and Mayer trading licks like an old-school guitar duel. That exchange appeared to light a fire under each player who returned to the stage following a particularly entertaining Drums/Space that featured not only veteran drummers Bill Kreutzman and Mickey Hart and Burbridge on percussion with circular light panels rotating colors behind the two drummers’ heads.
Then the rest of the band joined the percussionists for a three-song set closer that lit the arena up with Uncle John’s Band > St. Stephen > Morning Dew with Mayer’s solos becoming more complex and detailed with each song. It’s actually hard to choose between the towering Mayer’s solos. UJB slowly developed into a blistering solo while St. Stephen and Morning Dew laid out the riffs in at a furious pace, thrilling the crowd.
The band returned with a predictable One More Saturday Night encore before bidding Texas goodnight. Dead & Company continue their tour tomorrow in New Orleans. The entire list of remaining tour dates are listed here.