This week’s sold-out concert at Riverbend Music Center marked the 2,786th performance (you know, give or take) for the remaining members of The Grateful Dead. Two of the group’s original members – Bob Weir (guitar and vocals) and Mickey Hart (drums) – still tour in the band’s current form: Dead & Company.
This was likely my (and Cincinnati’s) last chance to see them under the Dead & Co. banner, as there are only 16 dates left on what’s been deemed “The Final Tour.” So, I headed to the ‘Bend to witness some history on a Tuesday night.
After taking in the sights and sounds (and smells) of the traveling Shakedown Street tailgate, the sold-out crowd was packed in and ready for a show.
Weir walked out first to thunderous applause. He looked out at the crowd, gave a quick wave and started tending to his guitar straps. John Mayer (lead guitar and vocals) walked out next, and somehow the crowd got even louder. He took a bow. Jeff Chimenti (keyboard), Oteir Burbridge (bass), Jay Lane (drums) and the legendary Hart took their spots more quietly.
But they started out hot.
Weir opened the vocals with a booming – and crowd-pleasing – “The Music Never Stopped.” In light of the tour’s theme of finality, Weir’s decision to end the song screaming, “Never, never, never stop,” took on a whole new meaning.
Mayer quickly followed up the fun, leading the vocals on “Next Time You See Me,” the hook of which also proved meaningful, as it was surely true for Mayer: “The next time you see me, things won’t be the same.”
In these opening songs, Mayer took the lead in the solo-ing department. Though his face infamously shows extreme anguish, his fingers move effortlessly across the guitar’s neck, producing simple, yet fruitful progressions. As the show continued with “Me and My Uncle,” “Row Jimmy” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” Chimenti started helping out more and more, and the jams were all the better for it.
Next came “Hey Jude.”
“Is this by the Grateful Dead?” I heard a daughter ask her father. “No,” he responded between na-na-na-nas: “It’s The Beatles.” It was the first song that the whole audience knew the words to. Everybody sang along. At the sold-out venue, with a full house and a packed lawn, the effect was spectacular.
The mood dropped, however, with “Cassidy,” a Bob Weir original. After the first hook, the performers turned to their usual jam, only this time it fell flat. The drums were simple and slow. The keys were minimal to nonexistent. The sound in the fore was Weir tinkering one riff and Mayer tinkering another, and they didn’t quite match. A few times, you could see bassist Burbridge looking over, trying to figure out what was going on. This went on for close to half an hour.
And during this half hour, the crowd became a little restless and chatty. More and more, audience members were realizing how much they had to pee. “I think I could use another beer,” someone behind me announced. At one point, the noise from the audience chatter and pitter-patter overpowered the jam session. I couldn’t quite make out what was being played at all. “Sorry, could I squeeze by you real quick?” someone asked me, and I let him through.
After the jam slowed to a stop, Weir and Mayer came back with a strong “Iko Iko” that rallied the crowd back into the show. “Hey now, hey now / Iko, Iko” the arena screamed along. But when the song ended, Bob Weir turned to the mic and addressed the crowd for the first and only time over the course of the show: “We’ll be back shortly,” he said and walked off for a break.
Set two started with a banger: “Here Comes Sunshine.” White light poured from behind the stage, lighting up the crowd as they sang along. Chimenti then proceeded to let out a wildly rousing organ solo as an animated butterfly flew across a river on the projected screen.
Chimenti’s prowess continued on the next song, “Viola Lee Blues,” where he and Mayer synced up for a powerful moment playing off of each other’s creativity to produce complex, yet compatible melodies. Next came “Looks Like Rain,” where Weir put all the doubters to shame, belting each line with pours of emotion in what has become his signature raspy tone.
After some fun, but uneventful renditions of “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider,” Dead & Co. decided to switch gears. All the musicians left the stage, save for the drummers, Hart and Lane. They stayed on the stage for another 15 minutes, playing “Drums” and “Space.”
Hart displayed some serious technological chops for a man of his age (79), looping together complex rhythms to produce an eerie and enormous soundscape. A good portion of the crowd left during this quarter-hour, confused at the scene, but most remained. The rest of the musicians returned to play a short set, including “The Wheel,” “Wharf Rat” and ending with the grand sing-along of “Casey Jones” (“Driving that train! High on cocaine!”), and the more mellow “Touch of Grey.”
And with the last chord of the last song, the musicians walked off the stage, as unceremoniously as they walked on. As if this wasn’t the last time they would be playing in Cincinnati. As if the music would really never stop.
But it did. There was no music as the crowd walked away from the pavilion and out toward their cars. The only sounds to be heard were the stammering of feet, the chatter about traffic and the distant howls of the party still raging on Shakedown Street.