For Deadheads across the land, this has been a wonderful week to be in Colorado. Tuesday night, Dead and Company kicked off the first of four Denver Area shows to take place in the Centennial State. Originally scheduled as just two performances at Fiddler’s Green in Englewood, the band announced mid-September that they were adding two more shows at the famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre. This unveiling brought about a whole other level of excitement for the Deadhead community, as this would be the band’s debut performance at the intimate setting and, as expected, tickets sold out within minutes of going on sale.
Arriving around 3 o’clock, the sky was overcast with temperatures in the 50’s and a projected drop in the upper 30’s by the end of the night. Unsurprisingly, the bleak atmosphere did not diminish the tried and true from participating in the Shakedown scene going on in several parking lots and for those who were more business than pleasure, lines were already quite established and snaked their way down the concrete stairs at multiple entrances. With doors finally open, one could certainly feel the electricity of anticipation from the soon-to-be participants, taking the cooperative trip down the golden road. Tie dye and smiles could be seen filling every seat and before anyone took the stage, the concert of conversation was well underway as friend and stranger alike shared their stories of how they had ended up making it to the here and now.
The moment finally arrived and the lights dropped to the deafening roar of the Grateful as the psychedelic troubadours made their way to their respective positions. Taking only a moment to get settled in with their instrumentation, Bob Weir stepped to the microphone. He informed the crowd that there was a situation at hand and he was enlisting the help of John “JohnBo” Mayer to help explain it. Mayer almost immediately said, “It’s not COVID”, to which the crowd cheered, but then Weir quickly responded, “But it ain’t good”. Weir then informed the crowd that Billy (Kreutzmann) would not be joining the band due to some medical concerns and that the good news was that the Billy was okay and would be fine. Weir, having a proclivity for humor, then stated that the bad news was that Jay Lane would be sitting in for the night, resulting in laughter among both the audience and the band, with the exception of Lane of course. With that, Weir concluded that “the show must go on”, amusing the audience once again and eliciting another round of applause.
In light of the unfortunate circumstances, the band appropriately chose back-to-back inspirationals, getting the show underway with the Deadhead anthem “Not Fade Away” transitioning without pause into “New Speedway Boogie”. Although Kreutzmann would be missed, this strong pairing immediately got the crowd to dancing and singing along. The opening “Not Fade Away” got the place rocking with Chimenti’s B-3 Leslie work while Mayer and Weir took turns at commanding the rhythm and leads. Weir also accentuated the tune with stuttered vocal exaggeration keeping the smiles growing throughout the house. Lane also demonstrated early on his ability to fill the big shoes of the missing Kreutzmann and Hart seemed more than satisfied with his counterpart for the evening. For “New Speedway”, Chimenti shifted from organ to piano and tickled his way through the number while Mayer took some extensive soloing. The close of the tune also contained a long outro that had the whole place moving as the band boogied along. By the end of the “NFA > New Speedway” opener, Tuesday already felt more like a Friday and the party was underway.
Taking it up a notch, the group kept everyone dancing with a lively, Mayer-led “Big Railroad Blues”. Chimenti returning to rocking the Hammond and Leslie, transporting the sound and feel back to the Mydland era. The band then slowed things down with a great rendition of “Tennessee Jed”, affording the crowd the opportunity to sing along with Weir. The tune’s big finish had Mayer contorted as he fanned his guitar in pure Jerry form as the rest of the band aided in taking the crescendo over the top, leaving huge grins in the wake of bliss. Mayer and Weir alternated stanzas through “Friend of Devil” and had everyone in the stands throwing in vocally. The instrumental interlude shone bright with Weir’s metallic effect and perfectly counterbalanced the warm tones of Mayer’s emotional runs. Chimenti took an extended ragtime solo that received audible recognition. “They Love Each Other” was a pleasant surprise and the band certainly gave it the treatment. The tune was filled with great interplay, improvisation, and clocked in at just under twelve minutes. “Dear Prudence” was certainly a standout in the set, being the second of two versions performed on the tour. With Mayer’s watery textures, Weir’s vocal delays and Burbidge melodically filling the spaces between, the tune had the audience floating down an echoey, meandering auditory river of joy.
The band closed the set with a rockin’ “Don’t Ease Me In”, once again having Weir and Mayer taking turns at lyrical duties. The upbeat piece aided in warming the audience before the break as the temperatures continued to drop. Speaking to this fact, at the song’s end, Weir iterated, “All right, we will be back in just a few minutes. You all hang loose and stay warm, somehow”.
Following a short intermission, set two got moving with a 15 minute “Scarlet Begonias”. Although slow in tempo, the playing was certain and spot on, getting everyone to their feet. The improv section showed a strong delivery on all fronts, encompassing a driving start and eventually dissolving into spacey attributes, and contained a “Love Supreme” tease by Chimenti. Rising from the fallen petals of the disintegrated opener, “Estimated Prophet” came calling. The low end of Burbidge shook the walls and the toms of the timekeepers rumbled the hallowed ground as Mayer took lead after lead over the top all the while accented by Weir’s angular dynamics. Although Bobby did not venture out to the edge of the stage, he certainly demonstrated enough rockstar to erupt the audience at the end of the midsection crescendo. The tailings of the tune contained great minor interplay between Mayer and Chimenti in call and response fashion before the weird gave way to the seamless “Eyes of the World” transition. Starting out its sweet, subdued sense, this nearly 18-minute version morphed from the quiet to the mountainous and walked the audience through all soundscapes in between. The ending let Oteil shine on the upper registry, rolling out long lines of notes as Chimenti supported him structurally. The pre-space closer made for more Oteil time with “Fire on the Mountain”, Burbidge taking the vocal role and dolling out the indicative bass melody that defines the tune.
The calypso inferno stopped on a dime and without pause the Rhythm Devils took over and upped the ante and the beat into a tribal get down that kept many dancing. It was great to see Lane have the opportunity to demonstrate that his abilities are not confined to the kit. The duo exchanged for a few minutes before being joined by a wide smiled Burbidge, who by his very appearance was just as excited to bang it out with Lane and Hart as he does playing stringed. Eventually Hart found himself alone and turned to the beam, where he actively set out to shake the very core of every individual in the county. A short “Space” was filled with more harmony than discord and kept things soft. At the return of the timekeepers, the group resumed with an upbeat jam that contained some remnant “Fire on the Mountain” embers and, as the meter increased, the jam finally gave way to “Turn on Your Lovelight”, sending the crowd into a dancing frenzy with hands in the air, arms akimbo, and hair everywhere. Father Bob certainly took the congregation to church on this version!
The opening notes of “Morning Dew” were met strong recognition. This version contained a haunting lyrical read from Weir and apexed with a great build, with Mayer going nuts and stomping his foot as onlookers got off on the moment. “Casey Jones” closed the set with a bang, even when Hart left the stage halfway through the tune for some unknown reason. He would later turn to social media to reassure everyone he was fine but providing no further explanation for his departure. With temperatures nearing freezing, the band warmed the audience one last time with an emotion-filled “Althea” that came in at ten minutes and left those who had remained with a beaming face and a full heart.
In the end, fans got three hours of great music and no one left the venue unsatisfied, even in light of the absence of Bill Kreutzmann. The band was upbeat, unhurried, and delivered on the expectations of many that this inaugural performance at Red Rocks would be magic. It came as no surprise that Jay Lane could and did handle his pinch hitter duties without issue and his incorporation further showed the caliber of these players to adapt to the moment and make gold out of lead. From a technical standpoint, the lights and sound were dialed in from the beginning and further demonstrated that the quality of the Dead is not solely relegated to the playing, but to the whole of the experience. The remainder of the nights under the Rocky Mountain horizon proved to be equally exceptional and showed once again that in the musical world, Colorado holds a special place and brings the greatness out in all things played.