Dead & Company returned on Saturday to San Francisco’s Oracle Park for their second of three farewell shows in the birthplace of the Grateful Dead. Tie-dyed and teary-eyed, a sold-out crowd spanning generations of fans showed up for the penultimate step in closing this chapter of the Grateful Dead legacy.
With this Final Tour, Dead & Company gives original Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Mickey Hart along with the entire Deadhead community something they never got in the band’s original run: a chance to go out on top of their game. The Grateful Dead were undoubtedly limping along as the band took its final bows in 1995. Now in 2023, it’s unanimous among fans that Dead & Company are playing the best shows of their career. For once, it seems like the Dead know when to walk away, and when enough is enough. This group is packing it in before this thing they like to do becomes something they have to do, and that’s much more than they could say before.
Of course, the end is never really the end. These songs will continue to fill the air. Bobby will still tour with drummer Jay Lane and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti in Wolf Bros. Bassist Oteil Burbridge will continue to gather exciting and talented friends to celebrate the catalog in Oteil & Friends. Mickey will do his Mickey stuff, dropping in from the outer stretches of the cosmos now and then to update us on his travels. And John Mayer, well, he’s probably going to go back to being John Mayer instead of that guy in the Grateful Dead band. Who knows, maybe he’ll slip an “Althea” or “Ripple” into a solo show and continue to introduce the Grateful Dead legacy to a new audience just like he’s done for the last eight years.
But the show isn’t over yet, and while there is certainly an air of melancholy hanging over this last run, Dead & Co proved they are still there to have some fun with the opening “Good Times”. In the context of this final run, almost every lyric and turn of phrase takes on final meaning, but the line “We’re gonna stay until we soothe our souls / If it takes all night long,”—especially presented as the first song of the show—gave the impression that, yes, the band is sad to see it go too, but for now, there’s still work to do.
As Jay Lane came charging down the carpeted hall with a thundering introduction to “Hell In A Bucket”, Bob Weir’s vocals sounded as crisp as ever. Lane kept the tempo up on this one, and Mayer gave it right back to him as he responded in kind with fiery leads that even drew a visible “wow” from Oteil Burbridge across the stage.
Dead & Company – “Good Times” (Sam Cooke), “Hell In A Bucket” [Pro-Shot] – 7/15/23
The shared melancholy of Saturday’s show was perhaps best encapsulated in Tampa Red‘s “It Hurts Me Too”, and while the lyrics got the point across, Mayer’s mournful blues guitar described the feeling so much better than words could.
It may have been a bit chilly on the San Francisco Bay last night, but John Mayer and Jeff Chimenti generated enough body heat to keep the entire stadium warm on an unrelenting “Jack Straw” that built the energy to a fever pitch, before pulling back the throttle for one more “We can share the women / We can share the wine.”
Any thoughts that the “Jack Straw” ending would serve as a way to ease back the tempo were immediately thwarted as Mayer’s guitar lead to “Big Railroad Blues” barreled down the tracks. Aside from the bluesy breakdown of “It Hurts Me Too”, Dead & Company kept the inertia at an all-time high for the first set, stitching together a tribute to another American folk hero, “Cassidy“, with the peppy 1973 arrangement of “They Love Each Other” which has been a delightful addition to the band’s setlist this year.
Closing out the first set, Dead & Company brought it all back to the beginning with “Turn On Your Lovelight”. Over half a century ago and some four miles away at Bill Graham‘s Fillmore Auditorium, the original Grateful Dead (meaning not just with Jerry Garcia, but the band’s first of many lineups) built a reputation with this song, thanks in no small part to dynamic frontman Ronald “Pigpen” McKernan. Pigpen died 50 years ago this past March, with no possible idea of how far—or how long—his backing band would go.
Back for the second-to-last second set, the tempo was a bit more relaxed on an opening “Deal” but by the time the song opened up for improvisation, all six members of the band showed they stayed hot during the break. Moving in beautifully synchronized lock-step behind Mayer’s fiery leads, the band tore through the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter favorite with the ferocity of a band at the height of its career. With every passing stellar jam, the goodbye gets harder and harder.
For the meat of the second set, Dead & Company would execute a double-decker sandwich as mind-bendingly exploratory on tape as it was playfully clever on paper. As the band dug into the allegedly final “Playing In The Band” of its career, there was no doubt a feeling of slight disappointment with just a brief jazz-inspired improvisational journey, though the band only veered off course to pursue another reliable jam vehicle, “The Other One”. Continuing to titillate fans, this laid-back exploration too wasn’t fully realized and exited after just one verse—setting up two major reprisals for later in the set.
Dead & Company – “Deal”, “Playing In The Band” [Pro-Shot] – 7/15/23
After leaving two straight songs open-ended, Dead & Company decided to play one (two, really) songs all the way through with “Lady With A Fan” > “Terrapin Station”. One of the most ornately beautiful arrangements in the Grateful Dead repertoire, the long, arduous journey to the titular Terrapin Station no doubt drew comparisons to the long, strange trip that brought these six musicians, 42,000 fans, and thousands more streamers together on this summer night.
“Terrapin Station” let passengers off in “Drums”, as Mickey, Jay, and Oteil took over the rhythmic portion of the show. During the instrumental interlude, it was hard not to contemplate the skeleton in the drum setup dressed in a Hawaiian shirt who bore resemblance to a certain musician who formerly inhabited that riser (in addition to Mickey’s setbreak comments to Gary Lambert and David Gans that this tour has been drama free with great tempo).
As the rest of the group rejoined for “Space”, for the second time in its career the band teased “Blues For Allah” during “Space”, nudging at the free-flowing composition that the Grateful Dead only played five times (all in 1975) and it appears will never be attempted by Dead & Co.
Instead, John Mayer’s descending guitar notes signaled the beginning of the second set staple “Uncle John’s Band”. Taking a brief respite from the heavy psychedelic improvisation of the past half hour, UJB provided the jovial singalong of familiar lyrics that is just as much a part of the Grateful Dead experience as any jamming.
That said, the remainder of the second set was composed of all the instrumental interplay that makes up the other half of the Dead experience. Coming out of UJB, Dead & Co began revisiting all the incomplete songs from the beginning of the set, starting with a reprisal of “Playing In The Band” and into the final verse of “The Other One”.
Stepping off the bus to never-ever land, Dead & Company landed in the only worthy place to close a set of this magnitude, “Morning Dew”. For decades, the song has served as the crushing climax to Grateful Dead concerts, and perhaps nowhere in the post-Jerry years was its impact felt as much as it was on Saturday at Oracle Park. The slow instrumental build, swelling up all of the emotions of the generations of fans forced to say goodbye again, embodied in the musical cacophony before Bob Weir finally belted out “I guess it doesn’t matter, anyway.”
Taking the stage once again for the encore, the band rightly tipped the cosmic scale back toward peace, ending the show with the singalong “Ripple”. Just like “Morning Dew” is for the second set, “Ripple” has become the go-to encore closer for Dead & Company, finishing nearly every other show this tour. But for good reason, especially on a night like Saturday. Even on the harp unstrung, we hear Jerry’s, Bobby’s, Johnny’s, and all the voices who came before them come through the music, and hold it near as it were our own.
Dead & Company returns to Oracle Park tonight, July 16th, for their final concert. Stream the show live via nugs.net here.
Dead & Company – Oracle Park – San Francisco, CA – 7/15/23 – Full Audio
Setlist: Dead & Company | Oracle Park | San Francisco, CA | 7/15/23
Set One: Good Times (Sam Cooke), Hell In A Bucket, It Hurts Me Too (Tampa Red), Jack Straw, Big Railroad Blues, Cassidy > They Love Each Other  > Turn On Your Lovelight (Bobby “Blue” Bland)
Set Two: Deal, Playing In The Band > The Other One  > Lady With A Fan > Terrapin Station > Drums > Space  > Uncle John’s Band > Playing In The Band > The Other One  > Morning Dew (Bonnie Dobson)
Encore: Ripple 1973 arrangement  Verse 1 only  w/ “Blues For Allah” tease  Verse 2