Grateful for The Dead & Co: Sunday 16th July Final Night SF Dead & Co Review

There are some things I just don’t want to miss out on, and the final incarnation of The Grateful Dead, playing their (allegedly) last show ever in the place it all started 58 years ago, San Francisco, is one of them. The Dead are San Francisco’s house band, they are the sound of the psychedelic revolution and of a time when it seemed possible that kindness, coolness, compassion, an easygoing way of looking at life and other who are living it, and all those other positive attributes that are so alien to human beings, looked as if they had a chance of winning over war, aggression, inequality and uptight stiffness. The Grateful Dead moved with the breath of the spirit of the times, conjured up a little hope for the world, and the City, and then the world, moved and hoped with them.

There is a split amongst the tribes of the Dead. Some of them call Dead & Co a cover band, or worse, atribute band, seek to rain on the parade of people who are not ready to leave the circus behind. The Dead were always a covers band, right from the start, with their own take on songs like Shake Sugaree and Hey Jude. I personally don’t think a band can be a tribute band if they have any major original members, and with Bobby Weir, Bill Kreutzmann being founding members of the Dead, and Mickey Hart who was on board for those primal years of 1968-71, and then from October 1974 to the Dead’s final show in 1995 joining John Mayer (guitar and vocals), Oteil Burbridge (bass, percussion, and vocals), and Jeff Chimenti (keyboards), the band remains equal parts Grateful and companionable. No one will ever replace Jerry Garcia, and no one ever wants to. Jerry has gone now, a soul too sweet for this failed experiment that is planet Earth, but the world still spins and the party carries on living and so does his legacy and his spirit alongside us all who love the music, love the movement and love the tribes that gravitate to it. The Grateful Dead were never a band of elitists, they were not seeking to shut people out of the love, the scene nor the circus, but rather draw in as many people as possible to take part in whatever way they were capable. In one way or another, every single Deadhead out there, has got on the bus, even if we didn’t get to ride it physically alongside the band. The only distinction is are you dead or not? Have you tuned in, turned on and thumbed a ride on the bus or are you languishing with the normies who do not know the true joy of a 26 minute version of Help Is On The Way/Slipknot/Franklin’s Tower.

The scene outside the stadium on Sunday was bittersweet. Shakedown Street was there in its final incarnation outside Oracle Park, selling tie dye and tapestries, and the people started to gather. There were the usual suspects holding up a finger or three trying to score a miracle, a ticket for a sold out show, they were very unlikely to get into. One hopeful soul was offering a 1/4 ounce of weed in exchange for a ticket, someone else held up a sign saying ‘good karma in exchange for a ticket’. I truly hope everyone who wanted to get in managed to get in somehow. I suspect the party was going on outside regardless, just how it should be.

I’ll gloss over the very expensive merch, there were more than enough people who were willing and able to fork out the outrageous prices that Dead & Co were shaking us down for, but putting on a show like last night does not come cheap and as long as the music keeps playing, I’ll just shake my head at the $70 tees and go take my seat.

The band walked on the stage with no fanfare and simply started playing. The first notes of Bertha rang out throughout the stadium. It felt a little quiet, like the sound needed turning up, a problem which was soon rectified. Bertha, for the uninitiated, is the womanly skeleton with the roses in her hair that haunts Grateful Dead shows since 1971. To me the song always sounds like the exorcism of a tough trip, in which the bony Bertha chases our erstwhile heroes all about the place, while they beg, on their knees for her to leave them alone.

Bad vibes duly dissipated, dead skeletal Bertha satisfied with her song and the recognition of her rose-clad loveliness, the show carried on apace. There was to be no bad vibes in the Stadium tonight, Bertha had to be appeased and by the end of the song the good ship Dead had settled into a sense of awe and happiness. The spinners were happily spinning in circles in the lower field, twirling their trippy way through the songs, the hooters, hollerers, shouters, and those who wanted nothing more than to sing along like their entire heart meant every single word (and I don’t doubt for a second it did, as I know how much the words mean to me and I am no different to any other Deadhead in that regard) were settling in for a long night of bliss. The swayers and dancers started up movements that travelled as if by telepathy along entire aisles. For a night we were all connected by the music of the Dead and the ghosts of the past were brought forth.

My notes say the band played Loser, though it is not on the official setlist. I am not sure if I dreamed it or it actually happened. My notebook reads, “everyone in here was born and everyone will die and become one of the Grateful Dead, and right now everyone here is a glorious loser, transfixed by the Dead themselves, of which there is nothing to fear. Something very special happens when a group of people moves together, moved by music, by sound, by dance, by love. The band asks ‘do you need good loving?’ because that is exactly what the band is dealing.”

The early part of the show, in daylight, had the feel of a festival, even if San Francisco was being cold and breezy. The first half of the set was a party. Good Lovin’ nodded to the Grateful Dead’s roots as a blues band led by Pigpen. In the words of American Pie, “A long, long time ago / I can still remember how that music / Used to make me smile /And I knew if I had my chance / That I could make those people dance /
And maybe they’d be happy for a while.” Dead & Co know how to make people happy, and make people dance, and make people remember the music and how it makes us smile. Watching this band is pure bottled superman sunshine. It is the summer of 1969 distilled into a vat of Owsley acid and dispensed to the waiting eyes and ears of the world that waits for the next ‘good time’. Watching Dead & Co is nostalgia of the very best kind – no it is not Jerry’s Dead, but it is the next best thing. It captures the spirit of the band, and not only that these modern incarnations of the songs are faithful to the originals whilst maintaining the spirit of improvisation within those boundaries that the jams and grooves of the Dead legacy are built upon. This is the High Time, the essence of Good Lovin’, and a merciful response to our collective calls for Mr. Fantasy to play us something to raise our spirits out of the gloom.

Dear Mr. Fantasy play us a tune
Something to keep us all happy
Do anything, take us out of this gloom
Sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy

Dear Mr. Fantasy, Grateful Dead

Mr. Fantasy as is traditional, merged into the band’s response to the audience’s need for a happy song – Hey Jude by The Beatles. “Take a sad song and make it better”. The evening, of course, being the last Dead & Co show that ever will be, people were emotional. The band looked as if they were feeling the emotion too. It was at this point that the disparate tribes of The Dead came together to sing and move and rejoice in gladness that whilst the party was close to being over, at least it had happened in the first place. This is a strange alchemy, and one that the Dead, in whatever incarnation we are talking about, is very good at doing – taking a group of people and getting them to sync-up, to get on the same wavelength and become a group with the same mindset. Harnessing the power of thousands of Deadheads, in a stadium is powerful juju, especially when so many of them were tripping. It is almost magic. In fact I could almost believe that if we just raised the consciousness level a little higher, we might well summon the aliens to come and groove with us on a field in San Francisco on a cold July evening in 2023.

That almost happened when the band kicked into Drums/Space. Mickey Hart is a conduit to the primordial roots of the human shamanic experience. It felt as if we were entering a sacred space of worship and our hidden collective history as a planet and a species. He created thunder, the sound of the future, born out of the sounds of the extreme past. He called up into the heavens and showed us a representation of what he was doing: talking to the great beyond and hoping that one day it will answer. We had to make do with drone spaceship fleets and Stealie blinking down at us, rendered from drones, but I got the idea: Mickey is talking to the ancients. I hope one day he gets there and hears a reply booming from the ether, beaming in from the great beyond.

Once the night kicked in and darkness fell, the strobes, the images projected onto the big screen, and yes, the drone show, wove music, visuals, the effects of the sheer amount of psychedelics and the good feeling summoned up by the band, mingled together in a glorious whole. The drones are the Dead & Co secret weapon. An entire fleet of UFO green drones were summoned up by the vibrational frequencies and the heavy beat of the drum solo, which is the only version of a drum solo I have ever enjoyed. Once the drones had more or less convinced us we were being visted by aliens, if not invaded, they moved to form Stealie himself, ready to steal our faces. His big brain shifted and moved between galaxies, lightning bolts and rainbow telepathy, sending the entire audience oohing and ahhing and partially wondering if the big guy was really there or not. Society might not have been able to increase its vibrational frequencies back in the 1960s, but it does not stop the Dead from trying to call up ET and see if we can all get back to the Garden.

Cumberland Blues with its blue-collar, going to work down the mine, Americana groove, got a rollercoaster projection of an old fashioned mine car barreling down a mine shaft, with the band members projected onto the screen, going down the mine with us. The lighting and the visuals combined to make the equivalent of Disneyworld for trippers. That adrenaline buzz, the joy of being entertained, gently challenged and that playful drive the band exhibit is a beautiful thing.

At this point I need to salute John Meyer. As far as I am concerned he is an honorary member of the Grateful Dead. His guitarwork is so sensitive it stands not in competition to Jerry Garcia, but as a complementary footnote alongside it in the Grateful Dead history of the evolution of these songs which shift and change upon each live incarnation of their blooming. His solos are not the same kind of rare flower as Jerry’s, but they are a flowering of a different and beautiful kind, whilst remaining close enough to satisfy the Deadheads. John Meyer has walked that fine line between homage and imitation, and succeed to err on the safe side of both of those inevitable things. Meyer’s rocking, noodling, rolling Althea holds up against any Grateful Dead performance, and I will stand on Phil Lesh’s coffee table and say so.

Meyer is complimented by the immensely talented and stunningly face-painted bassist and multi-instrumentalist Oteil Burbridge, formerly of the ’90s reincarnation of the Allman Brothers amongst other projects. Oteil is the engine of Dead & Co. His energy is infectious, his bass work stunning, he has the groove the band need and all that tightness to hold it together and stop it coming apart at the seams. Every time his face flashed up on the screen (sorry I don’t have a clear shot, I was too busy dancing as best I can nowadays), he made me smile. Oteil has got something special. It breaks my heart that his band say that they are done. They do not sound done, and that is probably a sign for them to go out on top, but really? They are way too good this, and there are way too many people who want them to carry on playing.

The Dead have been through various keyboardists, but Chimenti appears to be the go to keys man for any Dead-affiliated endeavor, and his expert work shows why. Chimenti can hold his own honky tonk pianist weight with any Dead keyboardist. His work brightens and livens up the sound. The band doesn’t just gel, it works together as a smooth machine with a heart and soul that befits the band. I like to think Jerry (whose mugshot was flashed up on the screen to rapturous applause) would approve, even if the purists are still having conniptions and temper tantrums.

There were moments so magical that even those who seemed to spend more time lining up at the bar and merch concessions than watching the show were transfixed and utterly in on the whole dead deal. Truckin’ was one of those moments. It came in the three song encore, which I didn’t realize was an encore. Thousands of people singing along and meaning every word of ‘what a long strange trip it’s been!’ And it has, hasn’t it? What a strange trip from the early days of the warlocks, through to the glory years of the Grateful Dead, to the post Jerry years that felt as if all was lost, but then Dead and Co found ‘it’, the thing we have been missing the thing we are all looking for, the call to the tribe, to tell them that they are willing to play our ‘Mr Fantasy’ and make all those sad songs better, and drive away the gloom, summon the aliens, and come with us on a long strange trip into other realms.

I have often said that The Grateful Dead have an almost unique ability to untangle even the most caught up trip, and in that, it shows they have tapped into something deep in the human psyche. It is this primal connection that I think most Deadheads are searching for, alongside the mythical miracle ticket, some top shelf weed, Owsley acid and mushrooms that will melt your face right off. This was not my dream setlist, there was no St Stephen, no Touch of Grey, no Uncle John’s Band and no China Cat Sunflower. We didn’t even get a Ripple. That said, it might not have been the set list I would have chosen, though it is perhaps the one we all needed, the one that the band needed, and I feel honored to have been there to witness a little bit of history – the potential end of the Dead in whatever form, playing in the City that formed them, or anywhere for that matter, however sad that makes me feel.

For a while I thought I saw a bird fly on the horizon as the skeletal Uncle Sam raised his hat, wrought of out of drone. The bird’s wings were white and airy, but it was just a trick of the light, a momentary memory, a stray strobe…or perhaps it was the spirit of the Dead flying off to find another group of musicians and lovers and travelers to the coast of perfection to make the people dance and see if we can all move together and summon up something better . . . or at least another Dead & Co tour next year . . .


  1. jerry

    Great review; I liked -The band doesn’t just gel, it works together as a smooth machine with a heart and soul that befits the band. I like to think Jerry (whose mugshot was flashed up on the screen to rapturous applause) would approve, even if the purists are still having conniptions and temper tantrums.

    1. The Paltry Sum: Detroit Richards

      Hello Jerry! Thank you for saying hello. I think Jerry would have approved, after all he worked so hard his entire life to make people happy and Dead and Co made people very happy indeed. Let them have their temper tantrums, they missed out on a great party.

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