The culmination of eight years of Dead & Company began last night with the final run of the band’s final tour at Oracle Park in San Francisco.
No one could have predicted back in 2015 (or even a year ago) that it would end like this—the band sounding as good as ever with a slightly altered lineup, playing to sold out stadiums and breaking ticket sales records, and the Grateful Dead as culturally relevant as ever. At that point, the band seemed destined to be nothing more than a legacy or nostalgia act with the added attraction of a heartthrob pop star frontman. Eight years later, they are a fine-tuned, telepathically connected, improvisational unit—without a doubt one of the best lineups to carry on the spirit of the original Grateful Dead since Jerry’s passing.
Like most farewell tours, the hype for Dead & Company’s final tour has been intense, and demand for tickets to the final shows has far surpassed supply. Fans wandered outside the venue and down on Shakedown Street before the show, fingers raised, hoping for a miracle ticket. Their digital counterpart meanwhile queued up online for a last minute ticket release on Ticket Master (all hail). Lines to enter the venue stretched back all the way to Bay Bridge, but once inside, those lucky enough to score tickets were greeted with celebratory and circus-like atmosphere.
The anticipation came to a head as the band finally took the stage to kick off its last run ever. Instead of launching into the show at full-throttle, Dead & Co. opened with a symbolic “Not Fade Away”. It is rare for the tune to arrive in the opening slot, but when it does, it usually means it will be left unfinished and used to bookend the show or run, reflecting both the eternal nature of the music within the finite limits of the run and the journey of Dead & Company, which has turned out to be a temporary touchstone in the much larger Grateful Dead story.
Dead & Company – “Not Fade Away” (The Crickets) – 7/14/23
From the first note, the band was a well-oiled machine, embodying the Grateful Dead ethos of everybody solo together. Leaving NFA unfinished, the band transitioned into “Shakedown Street”. The band has been particularly fiery on this tour, with more upbeat tempos and higher-intesntiy jams, but “Shakedown Street”, like the opener, was relatively laid back. Feeding off the electric energy of the crowd, John Mayer‘s lead playing overflowed with youthful energy—at 43, he is the young one of the group. Moving his body to the disco-inspired groove, his presence was magnetic compared to his notoriously nonchalant Grateful Dead counterpart. The song also showcased some of the Chimenti-Mayer chemistry that has delighted fans since Dead & Company’s first tour, with fans lamenting the potential end of the pair’s musical partnership.
“Cold Rain and Snow” came next, reflecting the cool temperatures of the Bay Area. The band members and audience were far more bundled up than they had been a week prior at The Gorge, where they played “Here Comes Sunshine” in the sunshine for probably the last time, as Mayer noted in a recent interview.
“Cold Rain and Snow” was kept short and sweet, indicating recognition that this was a three-day marathon, not a sprint. That sentiment was echoed as the band settled down easy with an ambling “Ramble on Rose”.
“Brown Eyed Women” brought the energy up slightly with a bluesy piano solo from Chimenti that roused the elated crowd before the band slowed things down again for “New Speedway Boogie”. Weir’s voice sounded unusually strained as he reached towards the top of his range, but his raspy falsetto and masterful vibrato was a true embodiment of the archetypical bluesman.
“Wharf Rat” was as sentimental as ever, with a wonderful improvisational arc and more virtuosic lead playing from Mayer, whose blaring guitar suddenly announced the start of “Don’t Ease Me In”, the set closer.
Jay Lane, who joined the band for its final tour in the wake of Bill Kreutzmann‘s departure after filling in for the founding Grateful Dead drummer at several shows, led the start of second set with a subdued “China Cat Sunflower”. The band was warmed up and improvising at high level at this point. As prescribed by tradition, “China Cat” gave way to the traditional “I Know You Rider”, followed by “He’s Gone”.
Dead & Company – “China Cat Sunflower”, “I Know You Rider” – 7/14/23
Another emotional number, “He’s Gone” carried extra weight following the recent death of longtime Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones tour manager Sam Cutler.
Another traditional pairing came next, presumably for played for the final time by Dead & Company, “Scarlet Begonias” > “Fire On The Mountain” (a.k.a. “Scarlet Fire”), the latter of which featured rare lead vocals by Oteil Burbridge.
Mickey Hart then got his chance to shine as the rhythm devil led Lane and Burbridge into primal depths during “Drums”. The trio enjoyed a more robust percussion set-up than was available at The Gorge due to scaled-back production.
The proceeding “Space” included a “Dark Star on the Big River” jam (“Dark Star” plus “Big River”) with elements of “Cumberland Blues” before ultimately settling into the cosmic contemplation of “Standing on the Moon”, which ended with a dramatic climax.
Dead & Company ratcheted the energy up one last time with “Casey Jones” and “U.S. Blues” before taking a moment to remember the recently departed Cutler, the not-so-recently departed Garcia, and other fallen members of the Grateful Dead family including the band’s lyricists and keyboardists, all of whose images were cast upon the screen during an emotionally contemplative “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”.
Just like that, night one was over, with two sets of songs played by the band for the final time. As Mayer said of the final takes played in the last shows of this final tour, “If those are them, I can live with that.”
Dead & Company returns to Oracle Park for two more nights, Saturday, July 15th and Sunday, July 16th before the band hangs up its hat for good. Stream the shows live via nugs.net here.
Dead & Company – “Shakedown Street” – 7/14/23
Setlist: Dead & Company | Oracle Park | San Francisco, CA | 7/14/23
Set 1: Not Fade Away (The Crickets), Shakedown Street, Cold Rain and Snow (Obray Ramsey), Ramble On Rose, Brown-Eyed Women, New Speedway Boogie, Wharf Rat, Don’t Ease Me In (Henry Thomas)
Set 2: China Cat Sunflower, I Know You Rider (Traditional), He’s Gone, Scarlet Begonias, Fire on the Mountain, Drums (with a tease of the theme from John Carpenter’s “The Thing”), Space (> “Dark Star on the Big River” jam, with elements of Cumberland Blues), Standing on the Moon, Casey Jones, U.S. Blues, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Bob Dylan)