Dead & Company songs fill the air at Blossom Music Center

Dead & Company rolled into Blossom Music Center Tuesday night in all its magical, tie-dyed jamming glory. The band – which features original Grateful Dead members guitarist Bob Weir, and percussionists Bill Kreutzman and Mickey Hart, along with bassist Oteil Burbridge, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and guitar virtuoso John Mayer – made the most of the 12th stop on its summer tour. But only after COVID protocols had been met.

The tour is among many summer music events requiring ticket holders to provide proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 diagnostic test within 48-hours prior to entry. Additionally, all fans in the pit for each show are required to be fully vaccinated.

Blossom Music Center has come under fire all summer for traffic and parking issues, as well as the labor shortages that have plagued so many businesses during the pandemic. Ticket entry has never been a smooth sail there, and the additional step of showing ID plus vaccination card did not help matters, with long lines and restless music fans anxious to get through the gates.

But several Blossom shows have been postponed or canceled because of COVID concerns this summer. Just this morning, the Doobie Brothers announced that they were postponing the band’s scheduled Thursday night gig at the venue because of a positive coronavirus test in the touring party.

So, a little hassle and wait Tuesday was certainly better than the alternative of no show at all.

As the lights went down, with the band taking the stage at 7:15 p.m., Dead & Company launched into the first song of the night, a cover of Sam Cooke’s “Good Times.” The crowd was certainly ready for some.

Previous stops on the tour have been notable for criticisms ranging from slow song tempo to uninspired song choices to God forbid, Mayer wearing headphones while playing. But this show was an indication that with a dozen appearances under its belt this year, the band was ready to hit its groove and explore its song catalog with depth and precision.

If one thing was apparent during the second song, “Feels Like a Stranger,” it is that Weir’s voice sounds stronger than ever. The song also served as the first showcase of the night for Mayer’s formidable guitar work.

After a funky take on the Junior Walker standard “Next Time You See Me,” the band slowed it down for “Loser” and a long expansive “They Love Each Other,” featuring a sweet keyboard solo from Chimenti, demonstrating why his work is a long-standing staple of the band’s sound.

Weir, looking like a white-haired and bearded Old-Testament prophet, wore capri’s, Birkenstocks and a sleeveless skull t-shirt, arm muscles rippling. He dug into John Perry Barlow’s lyrics for “Cassidy,” delivering a darkly reflective, almost liturgical version, which evolved into a lengthy jam, and a “Cassidy” reprise.

If the theme of the night was taking a deep dive into classic Grateful Dead songs, a long, jazzy “Bird Song” as the first-set closer exemplified that. The song flew off into uncharted skies, even incorporating a rhumba-like riff, and the back and forth between Mayer and Chimenti was made for prime-time. Not to be outdone, Burbridge’s bass soared while Kreutzman and Hart filled the back side with impressive drum work.

The second set opened with a meaty “Althea,” one of the songs that Mayer admits paved the way for his journey into the music of the Grateful Dead. He took the lead vocal with gusto and threw down some hot licks as well to get the crowd back on its feet after the break.

Fans jam during the Dead and Company performance Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021, at Blossom Music Center. (Photo: Mark S. Kuhar)

One of the highlights of the night was “Scarlet Begonias.” It was positively jubilant. Preceded by slow-burn classics and expanded musical exploration, this was pure rock and roll. By the time the band emerged out of the mid-song jam to deliver the lines, “The wind in the willows played tea for two/the sky was yellow and the sun was blue” the crowd was in full fist-pumping dance mode from the Pavilion to the top of the Lawn.

After inserting a carefully constructed “Viola Lee Blues” the band launched into its normal “Scarlet Begonias” follow-up, “Fire on the Mountain.” This was Burbridge’s moment to shine, as he took the lead vocal, once again accompanied by Mayer’s deft guitar work.

Out of the bouncy opening of “Eyes of the World” came a pleasing lead vocal from Weir, softening his voice as the crowd swayed along to the music. Like “Bird Song” before it, the song turned into a set piece for each band member to open up and go where the moment took them.

As “Eyes of the World” slipped away, it was time for the Rhythm Devils,” Kreutzman and Hart, to go full percussion with the obligatory “Drums/Space” segment. Coupled with a dizzying array of psychedelic visuals behind them, the two did what they do best: pound the skins with superb integrity and powerful, hypnotic determination. But the segment was also punctuated by a contribution from Burbridge, who demonstrated that in addition to the bass, he can go toe to toe with his two bandmates, even if only for a short time.

Out of “Drums/Space” a vibrant group jam morphed into a stately “Standing on the Moon” with a Viola Lee Blues reprise after it. Then the distinctive drum riff of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” filled the venue and it was off to the races. Of all the covers the Grateful Dead and its incarnations have played, “Not Fade Away” may be the most beloved, and it showed, as the fans ate it up. As the song ended, the band left the stage and the crowd continued the refrain, “Our love is real, not fade away.”

Dead & Company encored with “Brokedown Palace,” with its “fare you well” refrain, a fitting finale for a show that while short on some of the band’s better-known and more popular songs, was long on musicianship and meditative energy. This was a show for the purists, and it delivered note for note and line by line.

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