When the Grateful Dead really get deep into a song my wife, who prefers songs with a discernible beginning, middle, and end, finds it musically “over-indulgent.” When she’s in a less charitable mood, among other colorful descriptors she’s described extended jams as like listening to cats being tortured. A dozen rows from the stage she once fell asleep during an especially meandering “Eyes of the World,” and was sober as a judge at the time. I should note, though, she and I did see Phil Lesh and an amazing cast of players in the intimate setting of Levon Helms’ New York barn and she allowed that it was a pretty fantastic experience. Still, most of the time I catch this kind of music with a friend, the wife of an old fishing buddy who shares my wife’s musical sensibilities.
On June 22, Grateful Dead wife and I found ourselves at an amphitheater in Bristow, Virginia to catch the latest version of the remnants of The Grateful Dead, now touring as “Dead & Company.” Like The Dead and Further the band’s organized around a core of key players, Grateful Dead veterans Mickey Hart and Bill Kruetzmann on percussion and Bob Weir in front. Normally the absence of bassist Phil Lesh leaves a big hole, musically, charismatically, and spiritually but Washington, D.C. born Oteil Burbridge brings an offsetting and fresh energy and enthusiasm. Jeff Chimenti, a veteran of The Dead, Further, Rat Dog, and keyboard duties at last summer’s Grateful Dead reunion is reliably outstanding on keyboards. And while no one can accuse me of being a John Mayer fan, he does a better than reasonable job picking up some Jerry Garcia vocal and guitar roles – big shoes to fill musically and given the critical sensibilities of the audience.
The parking lot scene was alive on an afternoon that would have been insufferably hot but for some merciful clouds. In a fun schooling twist, Grateful Dead wife’s daughter, a full of life high school senior, was along for her first show and we promptly bumped into her math teacher in the lot. That’s them above. Education is everywhere.
The show itself was a solid two sets. First set highlights included a rollicking “Bertha,” lovely “Althea,” and a set closing “Woman Are Smarter,” a debut for this band and a song choice needing little explanation just now.
“Playing in the Band” bracketed most of the second half, a Burbridge-led “Fire on the Mountain” punched things up and it got political with Bob Weir covering Dylan’s “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” an energetic “Throwing Stones” and a pretty hot “U.S. Blues.” U2 played Washington a few nights earlier with Bono’s characteristic and more right on the nose political admonitions. The Dead have generally made their point in subtler ways. (I guess, though, it’s a sign of the times that Weir’s ad libbed “the whole goddam government’s for sale” during “Throwing Stones” got a stronger reaction from the audience than “steal your face right off your head” did a few songs earlier in the evening.)
Anyway, in case you didn’t get it, they reprised “U.S. Blues” in the encore, then closed out with “Liberty,” a quirky ode to the libertarian spirit. Maybe it’s just me but it seems every time the band is in any physical proximity to Washington D.C., they play this song, often as an encore. For a band with a catalog of hundreds of songs, and a catalog of just encore numbers bigger than the full catalogs of most bands, it leaves me a little hungry.
Still, if you’re one of the millions of Americans who would rather make America grateful again than endure this goat rodeo of a government, it was a few hours that made you feel at once younger and a little forgetful of the current scene. Maybe they’re not a band beyond description these days, but they still deliver.