Did I say one? Better make it two. While Dead & Company trounced Dallas this past Friday with a meaty rocker of a show, Saturday night in Austin received a more deliberate performance befitting the band’s early era of improvised exploration. Which was better? Well, that depends on the opinion of the most opinionated fans in music. But we can all agree that for one weekend there was a seventh flag flying over Texas: the Freak Flag.
The fact that the Lone Star State received any shows at all is a development fourteen years in the making. Bob Weir and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann last played Texas with former band mate Phil Lesh in 2003 as The Dead. Want to dig deeper? The last time the Grateful Dead played Texas was 1988 when Jerry Garcia had seven years left on his troubled soul.
Things have changed since 1988: the Cold War has thawed-despite Russia’s prominence in national media-and I’m no longer an infant. Americans that once condemned Dallas for the assassination of John F. Kennedy now flock to see America’s team, The Cowboys, and join the corporate rat race built on the extensive railroad lines that dominated the region in the late 1800’s.
These days, the only blues left down in Deep Ellum are hues of spray-painted buildings, and on this Friday, plenty of tie-dye dotting the road to Victory Park and the American Airlines Center.
Fingers in the air, Deadheads meandered down Elm Street with brown-bagged Lone Star Beers. Vendors gathered in an adjacent lot hawking goods. Tailgating is nothing new at a concert, but DeadHeads have made a living off of it or at least paid to get to the next show.
You’ve got your dreadlocked wooks cooking up grilled cheese and veggie burritos, your lot shirts, with a little Texas flair (and of course the ubiquitous Morning Dew t-shirt). You’ve got your pop-up bars stocked with well and top-shelf spirits, your makeshift head shops. There’s always something shaking on “Shakedown Street.”
Of course, there’s also the carelessly sinister side: hundreds if not thousands of deflated balloons litter the parking lots. The nitrous mafia coordinates their hustle from corner to corner to stay a step ahead of the (out of sight but not out of mind) law. Like a clown at the circus, the street peddlers clutch balloons of varying colors and oversee cash transactions with minimalistic yet rapid-fire dialogue, bleeding (willing) hippies dry.
But hey, how about the music?
A fun and energetic first set featured a fine mix of murder and robbery tropes, each bringing to life deceitful storybook lyrics. Even the slower-paced “They Love Each Other” sticks out with this ensemble because of the energetic tenacity John Mayer and Oteil Burbridge bring to music.
Minus the swinging and swaying of “El Paso” and some playful banter, the “The Music Never Stopped>Easy Answers” sandwich highlighted the first set. To all the haters in the crowd-“You don’t have to say a word, you got dick to say.”
“Here Comes Sunshine” got the band ready for a robust second set that revolved around a pre-drums segue of “Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain>Eyes of the World.”
Post-drums Bob howled at the moon and only missed a few vocal cues on “Dear Prudence” before the set got stir crazy and closed with “Casey Jones.” An encore of “Knockin on Heaven’s Door” bid us adieu until the next evening.
The three-hour-plus stretch from Dallas to Austin is vast and empty minus the wonderfully oversized gas stations and the city of Waco. Traffic engulfs the once little liberal capital, snarling it into a tech Mecca. It’s been washed clean of its Armadillo World Headquarters days, and a sign on the road now marks the once-discreet beaches of Hippie Hollow. But hell, it’s Austin, and it beats Dallas just about any day.
With posters running low and lines for just about anything moving slow within The Frank Erwin Center, the band took the stage and eased into “Jack Straw.” The first set amounted to ease along sing along, and while it had its moments, the Dallas adrenaline had subsided. Instead came doses of the X-factor between the lines of each song. Exemplary playing, but it took them a bit to get in the groove and find their footing.
The set bopped along with Texas references in “Minglewood Blues,” and despite the slower arrangement befuddling everybody in the arena but Bob, the crowd came to life with his howling of “Austin Phillies start looking good.” John gave everybody a shot in the arm with a bluesy “Next Time You See Me,” and the set-closing “Sugaree” had great leads, but overall the set felt cobbled together.
After a set break filled with seat shuffling and soul-searching, the band jumped out of the gate with “China Cat>I Know You Rider” before plunging into a lengthy “Dark Star” and “The Other One” filled with exploratory jamming.
“Uncle Johns Band” got the audience back into the game, er, show, and “St. Stephen>Morning Dew” fulfilled the hype before a requisite “One More Saturday Night” encore. “Morning Dew” was high energy, similar to “Sugaree,” but I’ve never really thought of either as a set closer.
While Dallas was the preferred show for this Deadhead, it’s only my opinion. The rocking stomping energy and accelerated jamming was more in line with my vibe, though I always enjoy a more introspective trip through space and time, which Austin presented. If you’re going to do it right, you need to see at least two shows, as the script and narration vary wildly from night to night. Well, until next time, Texas. Adios.