Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, with John Mayer and featuring Oteil Burbridge and Jeff Chimenti, better known collectively as Dead & Company, opened their highly anticipated Summer 2016 tour by announcing a free show at The Fillmore in San Francisco on Monday, May 23.
The building unofficially stands as a testament to the long-lasting and unyielding influence of The Grateful Dead, arguably the musical lead of the counter-cultural revolution of the late 1960s, headquartered in the Haight-Ashbury district where the band lived. Dead & Company is the latest project in the name of that legacy, following the "core four" reunion of the Fare Thee Well concerts.
Monday's show was special on multiple fronts, not only because of the associated acts involved with the project, but there was an intentional parallel drawn between the hey-day of Dead shows in San Francisco. Although they probably could not get away with setting up their gear in the middle of a street intersection and playing for the neighborhood, they were still able to offer fans, friends and family members an intimate performance, free of charge.
"We only ask that you pay it forward, in some way, large or small," read the announcement.
The scene outside of The Fillmore began attracting personnel as early as 11am on Monday. Some people had a ticket in hand, but the majority were looking for a "miracle", walking around with their pointer finger extended high as an indicator. Even members of Hell's Angels, a notorious motorcycle group that used to offer security services at Dead shows arrived early, parking their choppers on the sidewalk just out front of the venue.
The on-line availability of tickets was spent in the blink of an eye, but more tickets were made available at the door for a few dedicated locals. Additionally, the band sponsored a scavenger hunt around SF in which they hid handbills of the event poster with the message, "Your Miracle for Monday is an invitation to see Dead & Company at the Fillmore. This invitation is for you alone and cannot be transferred to another person." Kreutzmann was found at the old GD house, 710 Ashbury, handing out miracles to his old neighbors and new passerbys.
The Fillmore was packed. With no opener, and arguably the biggest single act bill in this century, names like Bill Walton and Peter Shapiro mingled with veteran Deadheads and first timers alike, and shortly after 8:30pm, the band took the stage.
Opening with "St. Stephen", Mayer manned the bandleader reigns and carried the jam with flair, hitting the crowd hard and early. He traded Weir the spotlight for "Hell in a Bucket" and they moved quickly into "Cold Rain & Snow", an unusual pick for the start of a summer tour, but stranger still appropriate of the cold mist that had been blanketing the SF streets all afternoon. Aside from some wrenching guitar and vocal acrobatics from Mayer, the beginning of the first set was tame and remained well within the songs nature without too much exploration.
Things began to heat up quick, however, as Monterey-born "Red Rocker" Sammy Hagar confirmed many fans suspicions and took the stage. Over the weekend, Oteil Burbridge posted a video to his Facebook account that featured the former Van Halen crooner singing along with the band during a practice session. Monday morning Hagar's personal Facebook page featured a blurb on the practice session, and revealed he was asked to sit in on a song or two. Although he only sat in on one, a sloppy but rocking rendition of "Loose Lucy", Hagar did the evening justice reminding that the audience and the band were really just one big group of friends, partying the night away.
The Dead & Company cover debut of Bob Dylan's "Queen Jane Approximately" came one day before the legend's 75th birthday on May 24, and closed with a high spirited "Brown Eyed Woman" once again featuring Mayer on lead vocals. Just like that, an hour has passed in the blink of an eye and there was a mutual sense of incompleteness where I was standing in the crowd, immediately creating anticipation for the next set.
Following the shortest set-break of all time (exactly five minutes had passed before the band returned), as if they had a microphone to capture the murmur of the crowd's musings and kicked off the second set with the second Dead & Company debut: The Grateful Dead original "Big Railroad Blues". Although there were plenty of instances where the song could have gone in a unique and jam-heavy direction, it never did and the band quickly moved into "Sugaree".
Weir, who at times can slow down a tune to an almost unbearable point, was kept in check on "Sugaree" by Mayer. Even though the song was slowed beyond my own immediate recognition, Mayer used the half-time tempo as an opportunity to show off his excruciatingly long-winded tremolo skills, keeping the song driving. The more these two play together, the better their styles seem to compliment the other.
Weir took vocal duties once again as they began playing "Estimated Prophet". The next 25 minutes were surreal, as "Prophet" gave way into a mystical "Dark Star" segue that stole the second set highlight from "Sugaree". But as if that weren't enough, Mayer and Weir each took a step back allowing for Burbridge and Chimenti plenty of ethereal space to accentuate the duel drum syncopation. This medley gave way to discordant jazz voicings and eerie semi tonal bends between guitarists, segueing further and into "The Other One", which featured an outstanding vocal performance from Weir.
The show ended with a Grateful Dead staple: pairing "China Cat Sunflower" with a segue into the traditional Deadhead favorite, "I Know You Rider" to close the set. There was nothing staple or traditional about the segue, however, which featured a furious Mayer vs. Weir guitar duel that saw both parties refusing to back down. Tears were streaming down the faces of several audience members, euphoric joy and uncontrollable sadness were indifferent to each other as the crowd sang along at the top of their lungs, swaying back and forth along with the lyrics.
They encored with a single tune, "Brokedown Palace", from which the namesake of the ultimate reunification project borrows its name and serves as a perfectly appropriate parting piece for the impromptu show, standing to remind the world that the Bay Area will always be home to the Dead and Dead faithful.
The rest of the tour gets underway in three weeks in Charlotte, NC and comes full circle on July 30 for the summer tour closer at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View.