Dead Forever: Dead and Company at The Sphere | 6/8/2024

Article Contributed by Gabriel David Barkin | Published on Monday, June 10, 2024

I didn’t plan on going to the Sphere to see Dead and Company (a.k.a. “Dead & Co.”) during their months-long “Dead Forever” residency. But after missing U2 and Phish during the inaugural year of the high-tech Las Vegas arena, it was high time I went to check out the uber-visual experience. It doesn’t hurt that Dead & Co. (featuring Grateful Dead alumni Bob Weir on guitar and vocals and Mickey Hart on drums and percussion, with John Mayer on lead guitar and vocals, Oteil Burbridge on bass, Jeff Chimenti on keys and vocals, and Jay Lane on drums) plays some of my favorite music. And the early reports from friends and other fans about The Sphere itself were glowing.

Shakedown at the Sphere | Las Vegas, NV

My wife and I decided just a few weeks ago to join the pilgrimage. We picked a date that coincided with a friend’s birthday, planning to surprise her by showing up in Vegas unannounced. We hooked up with a pair of tickets via and booked a flight using miles.

Dead Forever Experience | Las Vegas, NV

The first time I saw the Grateful Dead in Las Vegas was at the Aladdin Hotel in 1983. I traveled from L.A. on a pot-smoke-filled chartered bus full of 60 deadheads. The second time was the following year with ten guys from Santa Cruz, all of us piled into a rental station wagon for ten hours to get to Vegas. The hotel and casino workers were all on strike that year — except at the Aladdin, which was a non-union shop. The PA in the casino before the show was abuzz with pages for “August West,” “Jack Straw,” and members of the band. Great memories!

The Venetian | Las Vegas, NV

So yes, forty years had passed since I’d been to Vegas for a Dead show. (I skipped the Silver Stadium years.)

Shakedown in Vegas

The Sphere is one of the newest additions to the Las Vegas skyline. The outside of the globe displays animated projections 24/7, such as a rotating “Steal Your Face” image featured prominently during Dead & Co.’s residency. The interior has a capacity that can hold around 20,000 people, mostly in seated tiers. The interior visual technology, which covers roughly 2/3 of the arena walls, is billed as the highest-resolution LED screen on the planet.

The Sphere | Las Vegas, Nevada

Our Saturday morning travels started off auspiciously when “deadhead” appeared as one of the words in my morning New York Times “Spelling Bee” puzzle. More auspiciously, our Lyft driver on the way to the Oakland airport was playing the Dead on Spotify. We started talking. Turns out he’s Phil Lesh’s driver when Phil’s in town, and he recognized me from the TXR show with Peter Rowan, Stu Allen and others that I’d photographed last weekend. He even had a picture of me taking a picture of the band! Serendipity doo-dah.

Shakedown in Vegas goes inside to beat the heat

On the other hand, our Lyft driver in Vegas wore a “Let’s Go Brandon” cap (Google it) and was playing some bland modern country. Can’t win ‘em all. But he was friendly enough.

Venetian Hotel | Las Vegas, NV

Dead Forever Experience | Las Vegas, NV

We headed straight for the Venetian Hotel, neighbor of The Sphere and host of the “Dead Forever Experience,” a quasi-gift shop / quasi-museum installation of memorabilia. You know, some band member guitars, a decorated VW bus, an opportunity to have your picture taken with a person in a dancing bear costume, stuff like that. We only spent a few moments inside, and then we stopped to take pictures in the hotel mall atrium (along with many tourists, deadheads and others) of Dancing Bear statues and a “Love” sculpture.

Dead Forever Experience | Las Vegas, NV

Vegas, as usual, was a sea of humanity — a veritable cornucopia of Americana. Tens of thousands of travelers were kicking off their summer vacations in the adult playground. The World Series of Poker and Christina Aguilera were also in town. And did you know there’s gambling in these parts? Something for everyone. The hotel got more and more crowded as the day wore on.

Dead Forever Experience | Las Vegas, NV

Next, we headed over to the nearby Tuscany Hotel to do some shopping at “Shakedown Street,” the sanctioned location for vendors hawking everything from tie-dyed t-shirts to jewelry to posters, etc.

Vending in Vegas

When I was a tourhead in the 1980s, we just called it “the lot,” and the lot was a free-for-all smorgasbord of vendors with stalls, free-ranging bumper sticker and t-shirt salespeople, nomads cooking up “kind veggie burritos,” and (to put it euphemistically) an army of entrepreneurs offering experiential enhancements. Nowadays, Shakedown Street is a pay-per-stall shopping experience more akin to a holiday gift show. Housing the marketplace for the Dead & Co. Sphere shows in a completely different hotel a half mile from the arena in a large convention hall room was just plain weird. But the vendors, as always, had some pretty cool shit. No kind veggie burritos, though.

Las Vegas, NV

After a brief detour at the Holiday Inn to surprise our birthday buddy (she nearly had a heart attack, so mission accomplished!), we headed over to The Sphere. We entered the arena from an air-conditioned pedestrian bridge that led from the Venetian casino. We did not encounter the long lines we were told to expect. It was more than an hour before showtime, that probably helped. I hear it turns into quite the clusterfuck.

The Sphere - Las Vegas, NV

We entered the main atrium of The Sphere, which has a very modern science fiction’y / airport’y feel, and found our way up a series of escalators to our seats in section 300, the third of four elevated sections. We had learned from our homework (by which I mean perusing posts on Facebook) that the upper levels were considered by many fans to be the best for viewing the entirety of the large, curved “screen” that fills nearly the entire field of vision once you’ve entered the arena. We spent the entire show at our seats, mostly standing up and dancing like the majority of the crowd.

fans filing in before the show | Las Vegas, NV

At this point, I should mention that I did not have any camera with me other than my iPhone, so all of the pictures posted here are from the same vantage point using a less-than-high-quality lens. As you look through these pictures, take note of the relatively small stage at the bottom of the photos. The band was lit only by a few white spotlights and some rear-stage vertical spots. There was no overhead light rig. The “light show” was the screen videos and animations.

Dead & Company | The Sphere

Dead & Co. took the stage just a few minutes past the 7:30 show time. During the opening “Cold Rain and Snow,” the Sphere screen was used sparingly, just some video of the performers. Notably, we could see that Weir and Mayer both had stickers on their guitars that said “32,” the jersey number of NBA legend Bill Walton, a longtime hardcore deadhead and band associate who died recently.

Dead & Company | The Sphere

Spherical things began to take off, somewhat more than metaphorically, during the next song, “Mississippi-Half Step Uptown Toodleoo.” An image mirroring the inner scaffolding supporting the hefty sphere globe began to part like a curtain, eliciting the first oohs and aahs of the evening. As this “curtain” parted, a high-def street-side view of several Victorian houses on Ashbury Street in San Francisco — including the famed 710 Ashbury house that once housed the fledgling band in the mid-60s — came into view.

Dead & Company | The Sphere

Combining photography and some pretty cool CGI, the view began to widen and rise, revealing in turn the entire Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, the skyline of San Francisco behind it, the entire Bay Area (now viewed from above), and so on until the audience was in outer space looking back at a distant earth. The effect was executed well, giving a strong sense of motion. (And perhaps for some, inciting a touch of vertigo. If you’re susceptible to motion sickness, consider taking Dramamine or something similar before the show.)

Dead & Company | The Sphere

Dead & Company | Las Vegas, NV

Each song thereafter had its own accompanying visuals. There were nebulous blooms of colorful mushroom clouds, fast-moving tire-track swirls, and lightspeed tunnels of color. When a giant disco ball began to spin during “West L.A. Fadeaway,” revealing a mirrored “Steal Your Face” logo with each revolution, it was hard not to feel the room spinning along with it. The effect of motion was quite real and truly mesmerizing.

Dead & Company | Winterland backdrop

Dead & Company | Barton Hall backdrop

One of my favorite sequences was during “Jack Straw.” First, an external shot of the storied Winterland Arena appeared behind the band. Soon it morphed into Barton Hall at Cornell University, site of a 1977 Grateful Dead show considered an all-time top ten by many fans. That image in turn segued into Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater, a mecca (not unlike The Sphere today) for deadheads across America. Radio City Music Hall, with a marquee showing dates from the Dead’s 1980 Halloween week run, got the East Coasters to howl their approval.

Dead & Company | Radio City Music Hall backdrop

For “One More Saturday Night,” the first-set closer, a pastiche of dozens of Grateful Dead ticket stubs and backstage passes flooded the dome. Many of us who actually saw the Grateful Dead play took inventory of the shows we’d seen. I didn’t count, but I spotted maybe 20-30 shows I’d attended. (I looked in vain for the show where I met my wife, darn it.)

Dead & Company | The Sphere

The sound mix during the first set was not ideal, at least not where we were sitting. It wasn’t bad, but there was a bit of echo in the cavernous Sphere, which was built primarily for visuals, not for sound quality. I would have liked a bit more of the highs. Also, I felt all night that Weir’s mic wasn’t mixed loud enough – and/or he mumbled a lot. Unfortunately, I also think Weir is no longer at the top of his game with lyrics or phrasing. He’s a legend no less. Just noting my impression, don’t hate me.

as per usual, the Dead's music attracts fans of all ages

Indeed, that legendary status, for the entire band and their music, and not just for Weir, is what attracts new fans year after year. A few rows behind me, four mid-20-something bros in tie dyes were as enthusiastic as all the baby boomers and Gen Xers in the house. One said he got turned onto the Dead in high school. Another said his mother was a deadhead. (My friends and I jokingly call these young’uns “BADJ’ers,” a silly acronym for “born after the death of Jerry.”)

Dead & Company | The Sphere

While we’re at the break, here’s a big nit to pick with The Sphere: on my level of the arena, the lines for the two men’s room snaked into the atrium with easily over 150 guys in each line. C’mon, arena architects, more urinals please! (Hint: you’ll sell more beer.)

Dead & Company | The Sphere

Set two began after a 40-minute break, during which the Sphere screen counted down only the first 30 minutes while showing lyric quotes like, “All good things in all good time.” Then, for Dead & Co.’s cover of Sam Cooke’s “Good Times,” a virtual 250-foot red curtain parted to reveal a giant “Steal Your Face” logo with the live band on video inside the skull where the lightning bolt usually appears.

Dead & Company | The Sphere

“Sugar Magnolia” followed. This song was set in front of a pastoral paint-by-numbers scene complete with dancing terrapins and what looked like a tiny Jerry Garcia playing banjo on the front porch of a mountain cabin. It was one of my favorite scenes of the evening. Other visuals in the songs before “Drums” included a depiction of the great pyramids and the sphinx that were the backdrop for the epochal Dead show in Egypt in the late 70s, and a slow flyover above snow-capped Sierra peaks. A myriad of dancing bears, peace signs, and flying eyeballs during “Terrapin Station” was perhaps the “trippiest” segment of the night.

Dead & Company | Las Vegas, NV

Pre-Drums Interlude (with a “Curmudgeonly Reviewer Rant” alert): Dead & Co. is not my favorite Grateful Dead live music experience in the current era. I’m among those controversial complainers who are not fond of the slower pacing of many Dead & Co. songs, and I often feel they lack a certain punch that, for me, brought the Grateful Dead with Jerry Garcia to a higher place. Again, don’t hate me. It’s my totally subjective opinion, but there it is.

Dead & Company | The Sphere

Okay, curmudgeonly rant over.

Dead & Company | The Sphere

And that being said, Dead & Co. certainly have their high moments. Mickey Hart, Jay Lane, and Oteil Burbridge always deliver a monster jam during the “Drums” and “Space” segment of the show. Mayer kicked down not just one, but two masterful solos in “Standing on the Moon” that confirm his standing as a unique and gifted interpreter of the GD library. (He’s at his best when he’s not emulating Garcia in any way, just doing his own thing.) And gosh darn it, it’s pretty darn cool to see Weir up there every night after what, 60 years of performing?! Keep on truckin’, Bobby!

Dead & Company | The Sphere

About “Drums”: The Sphere has “wired” the seats with “haptic technology” to rumble and vibrate when the house techies flip a switch. (People in the GA floor section don’t get to experience this.) They do this during “Drums” and “Space” each night, and it’s worth sitting down during the jam. The vibrations add a deep visceral feeling — kind of like that all-body jolt you feel when you’re close to a fireworks show and the rockets explode, your heart exploding with them. The sensation adds a lot to the experience. Also during “Drums,” the soundboard folks made the best use of the auditorium’s acoustic potential, spreading bits and pieces of the aural mélange throughout the arena. More of that, please!

Dead & Company | The Sphere

The Sphere screen began the “Drums” section of the show by pairing a circular live video of the drummers surrounded by flying tom-toms and other percussion pieces. As the rhythms decayed and Mickey took over on the Beam and his other electronics for “Space,” kaleidoscopic dragonfly eye fractals hypnotized the audience. I could see people on the GA floor lying down on the ground to trip out on the show above them.

After “Drums” and Hart’s portion of “Space” (and then a very short “Space” jam by Weir, Mayer, Burbridge, and Chimenti), the visuals mostly paled for the remainder of the show, generally being subpar and less impressive than everything up to that point. “Standing on the Moon” was one of the best songs of the night — I mentioned those killer Mayer solos — but the only visual was a black and white video of the band playing on stage. For “Good Lovin’,” there were more dancing bears, growing larger and larger as they danced in an increasingly wider and higher spiral. The bears got blurry when they got bigger, and the tie-dye digital backdrop was pixilated and not as pretty as it could have been.

Dead & Company | The Sphere

Things picked up for “Deal” as a photographic Wall of Sound was assembled piece by piece on the screen behind the band. Like the earlier images of Egypt, Barton Hall, etc., it evoked the Dead’s history and added a timeless connection to days gone by.

For “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” the visuals took us back to where we started, (literally, visually) from outer space back to Ashbury Street. It was cool, but the outward journey during “Mississippi Half Step” in the first set was cooler, and the déjà vu in reverse was not as magical as the initial thrill ride.

Dead & Company | Las Vegas, NV

Bringing it all back home, Dead & Co. closed the set (there was no encore) with the anthemic beat of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” Once more establishing and honoring their deep roots, photographs of the many predecessors of the current lineup floated on screen. Garcia got the biggest cheers, of course.

Overall, I’d give the visual experience an A-. Where it was good, it was epic. At times, it was underwhelming, especially after “Drums” as I noted above. To be fair, I don’t know how much variety the visual engineers pack into each night, and perhaps this was not their best selection. Like the music in every Dead show (the OGs, Dead & Co., and every cover band), you can’t expect every night to be an all-timer.

Dead & Company | The Sphere

Regarding climate: we’d heard the temperature in the arena was cold. For me, it was just right for dancing, but people who don’t move a lot or just sit might want to bring a layer. Your experience may vary. If you’re someone who gets chilled easily and doesn’t expect to burn a lot of calories during a Sphere show, bring a long-sleeved shirt or light jacket. Otherwise, be prepared to spend a small fortune at the merch booth for a hoodie.

So – was it worth it? Abso-fuckin’-lutely. Could it be better? Ditto. My impression is that the “Dead Forever” Sphere production barely scratched the surface of the capabilities and creative potential of this forum.

Dead & Company | The Sphere

I do think the Sphere experience is the shape of the future for many live performances. I foresee the cost and technical challenges of this sort of venue both will decrease over time, and it would not surprise me to see smaller versions of this venue built and operated profitably in regions around the country. A five- to ten-thousand-seat version might be a better fit to allow the audience to see the performers better while still offering a larger-than-life optical thrill ride.

Dead & Company | Las Vegas, NV

That being said, there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert, and Dead & Co. falls into that category. During the exodus from the arena (warning: it’s another clusterfuck!), the Deadheads on the crowded escalators frequently burst into “Not Fade Away” clapping and loud roars of approval. “Dead Forever” is no overstatement. The kids, they dance, they shake their bones — and Dead & Co. continue to reign supreme in the land of the Dead. Wave that flag!


Set 1: Cold Rain and Snow Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo Bertha West L.A. Fadeaway They Love Each Other Jack Straw One More Saturday Night

Set 2: Good Times Sugar Magnolia Althea Terrapin Station Drums Space Standing on the Moon Good Lovin' Deal Knockin' on Heaven's Door Not Fade Away