Much has changed in Austin since the Grateful Dead last played here in 1985. And much has changed about the band.
The most obvious is the death of its leader, Jerry Garcia, 20 years later. After a three-year hiatus, the remaining band members have come together in various configurations and names over the decades, but it proved hard to find a guitarist who could not only sound somewhat like Garcia in all his different styles, and be bold enough to find new places to take the familiar songs.
Enter guitarist-extraordinaire John Mayer, who with surviving Dead members Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart have formed Dead & Company, the band that easily comes closest to matching the original.
At the Erwin Center on Saturday night, Dead & Co. did much to bring back the vibe of the Grateful Dead’s glory days. It helped that the usual trappings of a Dead show were still in evidence — the gorgeous light show, dancers spinning in the aisles and enough smoke that the folks at the top of the arena are certainly still high.
Weir, who wrote and sang most of the Grateful Dead songs that Garcia didn’t, now looks like his departed friend, wearing a black T-shirt with long white hair and full white beard, standing in the spot on the stage where Jerry once stood. And standing in Bobby’s old spot is Mayer, who since joining the band two years ago has proven that at his best, he sounds like Garcia did on a good night.
Reminiscent of Garcia, who could seemingly play an entire song without looking at his guitar and staring into space, Mayer would often tilt his face up with his eyes closed as he played one long run of notes after another. If he was not channeling Garcia, he was at least tapping into the same source that inspired Jerry.
And he plays with a muscularity and energy that Garcia often lacked in his latter years.
The fall tour has been getting rave reviews, so it was nice that the many Austin Deadheads had a chance to see what all the fuss is about without leaving home. Drummers Kreutzmann and Hart, a combined 145 years old, still have enough fluidity (Kreutzmann) and power (Hart) to propel the ship. Oteil Burbridge, who joined when Phil Lesh begged off on the grueling touring schedule, manages to sound like the bassist-who-sounds-like-no-other, with the added benefit of having a strong singing voice. And the unsung hero of the evening was keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, who often took control of the proceedings, trading licks with Mayer that left both with beaming faces.
What made the show unusual is that nearly every song had already been written by the time the Grateful Dead played in Austin the first two times, in 1970 and 1971. Of the 15 songs Saturday night, the only one written after 1971 was the ballad “If I Had The World To Give,” a Garcia song that was performed a handful of times in 1978 and then abandoned.
The show opener “Jack Straw” — with the line “Leaving Texas, first day of July” igniting the first of dozens of roars from the crowd — set a strong tone, with Mayer’s solo getting an even stronger response from the crowd and hinting at the fireworks to come.
Other standouts were a particularly chunky “Cold Rain & Snow,” the Pigpen staple “Next Time You See Me,” and “If I Had The World To Give,” sung sweetly by Burbridge. The set-closing “Sugaree” was the highlight of the first half, gradually building up to another Mayor tour-de-force that had the crowd in a frenzy halfway through.
As with any Dead show, the first set is merely an appetizer for the improvisational jamming to come in the second. The China Cat Sunflower -> I Know You Rider combo got things off to a jaunty start, with Garcia’s smiling face making a cameo appearance on the overhead screens during one chorus as the band sang “gonna miss me when I’m gone.”
The trip through your typical 1970 Dead show continued with the height of the band’s psychedelia, “Dark Star” and “The Other One.” Especially in the former, Weir showed that at age 70, he has never sung better.
Coming out of Drums and Space were two of the more popular Dead tunes, “Uncle John’s Band” and “St. Stephen,” followed by the highlight of the night: “Morning Dew.” It was one of those “Dews” that started out so slow you could hear a pin drop, but gradually built up strength until Mayer unleashed a two-minute solo that swirled, soared and lapped itself before crashing to a powerful crescendo.
Judging by the smiles in the audience, no one wants to wait another 32 years for the next dose.
Cold Rain & Snow
Next Time You See Me
Ramble On Rose
If I Had The World To Give
China Cat Sunflower ->
I Know You Rider
Dark Star Star ->
The Other One –>
Uncle John’s Band ->
St. Stephen ->
One More Saturday Night