I had the treat to head to Chicago from my northern Indiana home and catch the good ol’ Grateful Dead at Wrigley Field on July 1, 2017. I shouldn't say it was the Grateful Dead, though, as this entity, called Dead and Company, is a very different animal, containing three original members of the Dead (Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart) along with three other, quite accomplished musicians (John Mayer, Oteil Burbridge, and Jeff Chimenti). Like other iterations of the Grateful Dead since Jerry’s passing, this was a formidable band that carried on the great traditions and, most importantly, the music of the Grateful Dead. Unlike other iterations, though, they brought someone in as the lead guitarist who does not come from the “jam” world, and that brought a whole new thought process to the way the songs were played.
First, can I share, I was quite skeptical of the band bringing in Mayer. I’m not a real fan of his solo work, although I thought that his John Mayer Trio was ok, it was a blues band. And the Grateful Dead is so much more than a blues band. I thought Mayer would have trouble keeping up and having enough in his arsenal to come up with ideas that pushed the songs in new and exciting directions. I just did not think that he had it in him….and he proved me wrong. This tour, the band had been on fire, and I decided to hop on the train one more time (I had decided to never hop on after Fare The Well, which was such an incredible celebration of the band). After some encouraging by my brother, who saw them at Folsom in Boulder, I grabbed a ticket, headed west, and prepared to get my boogie on.
It should also be noted that a major selling point for me was that the show was going to be at Wrigley Field. Growing up in northern Indiana and living there now, I love to head up to Cubs games for the day, catch baseball, and just enjoy “The Friendly Confines.” Wrigley is a magical place to me that is home to some of my favorite times as both kid and adult. To catch Dead and Company there, as I did Phish the year before, was a treat, something special. And, to catch them on their tour closer only solidified my need to be there, in a special place. And the band lived up to everything I could have expected and more.
The band walked out into the sun that lit up the stage at about 6:45 pm. After tuning and checking instruments, they launched into “Cold, Rain, and Snow.” I initially thought this was an odd choice, as the song is a bit down-tempo. I wanted something peppy and quick to get going. Dead and Company, though, knew what they were doing, as “Cold, Rain, and Snow” turned into a massive sing-along, the whole crowd into it. As the band wound up the song, they launched into a little jam that featured some cool interplay between Mayer, Weir, and Chimenti that eventually wound around to the song “Jack Straw.” There was a stellar jam in the middle of “Jack Straw” that showed that Mayer was truly in the fold and that he had more than enough ideas to keep the band flowing right along. Next was “Tennessee Jed.” Here, Mayer began to have a little guitar trouble and, for quite a stretch of the song, never seemed to get comfortable. Then something Chimenti did opened up space for Mayer to settle in, as he brought forth a fantastic solo and led the group through some good jams. The tour debut of “Ship of Fools” was next, and featured Oteil on vocals, sharing with Mayer. After “Ship of Fools,” Mayer and Weir grabbed their acoustic guitars and began to jam a little, finally weaving into the second verse of “Dark Star,” which the band had left unfinished the night before. It was a fabulous take on a tune that I never really imagined as being an acoustic number. The acoustic guitars stayed out for “Friend of the Devil”, where Bob Weir showed off his chops on the guitar, and Jeff Chimenti led through a fantastic piano jam that had the whole crowd pumped. Mayer and Weir put down the acoustic guitars and out came that Mayer favorite, the song that got him into the Grateful Dead, “Althea.” And, while there were a few sound problems where I was seated, the band was crisp and on top of it and Mayer showed why he loves the song so much. The first set closed with the favorite “Casey Jones,” leaving the crowd panting for what came next.
After about a 45-minute break, the band walked back out onto the stage and the crowd was pumped to see what they had in store. I, myself, was hoping for a tasty “Dancin’ in the Streets,” but the band came out and played those familiar notes to “Sugar Magnolia” instead. Honestly, I was not disappointed. The song was smooth and tight, but left unfinished, with “Sunshine Daydream” left for exploration somewhere else. “Sugar Magnolia” led right into the best song of the night from my perspective….”Dancin’ in the Street.” The song was a true group jam, with everybody getting to say something. During the song, though, Mayer and Oteil found some common ground and moved and interacted together. And some of the stuff that John Mayer did with the guitar was phenomenal. He pushed the band forward without dragging them. After “Dancin’”, we were treated to the odyssey that is “Playin’ in the Band.” While “Dancin’” was free-flowing, but had a clear direction, “Playin’” kept a very spacey vibe and allowed the band to explore. Next, we had Oteil singing “Comes a Time.” Here, I thought Oteil’s vocals were crisp and perfect. He sang well all night, but it was a good call for the band to have him do such a song. After “Comes a Time” came to the couplet “Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain.” In “Scarlet Begonias” John Mayer took a scorching solo and the band just flew right along with him. The jam in between the songs was fresh and groovy, and then Oteil stepped up to the mic to sing “Fire.” It was a stunner in my opinion. The band dropped some fire there. Drums/Space ended the first half of the second set.
After coming back on and doing the work on “Space,” the band went back to some of their psychedelic roots and pulled out “The Other One.” This was a beautiful rendition of the song with some great jamming and interaction going on. The band slowed things down again with “Days Between,” a song that left room for them to explore. I wish it would have heated up at some points, but the band let the song simmer and it worked. This is because they ended the second set with the Buddy Holly classic “Not Fade Away.” It was a hot take on an old song and let the whole band get into the act. Dead and Company were not finished though, coming back to tell us “fare thee well” in the first song of the encore, “Brokedown Palace.” It was a solid rendition of the tune. The band ended the night with fireworks both on and above the stage, as a firework show went along with the “Sunshine Daydream” portion of “Sugar Magnolia.”
In all, I did not hear one person walking out of Wrigley Field disappointed or questioning what Dead and Company had done. The band had delivered and done so in a dignified way in a perfect setting. I’ll never promise myself that I won’t hop on the bus again. In fact, when’s fall tour?