The Fall 2015 tour was amazing; they didn't do a Winter or Spring tour, and when they finally announced a Summer 2016 tour (back in March?), many people got tickets immediately. Especially with the historic venues they were going to play, including three major league ballparks (correction: two major league parks and one Div 1 football stadium). One of these is Fenway Park and we've got "turf" tickets for both shows there this coming July. But never mind that, we also got tickets to see them in Hartford this June 28th!!
They've been on tour since June 10 and Hartford was basically the end of the first leg, hitting up various places on the East coast and as far West as Indiana. After the Hartford show they have a few days off and then surface in Colorado, from where they'll depart for Wisconsin, Michigan, and then back East to Fenway for the last dates of the second leg of their tour, which will resume a few days after that out in the Pacific Northwest.
But enough setting the scene, we were VERY excited to see them, to have tickets, and to have the date be so wonderfully positioned to kick off our summer. The present day tried to fuck things up of course, including Dave being sick and the traffic being amazingly oppressive for a Tuesday afternoon. But we were eventually trucking down to Hartford with Dave and his friend J, and arrived there through a final madhouse of cars trying to get into the parking lots by 5:30 or so for the 7:30 show. It was mobbed!
Perfect timing apparently to get the farthest spaces in the parking lot from the venue itself (which is partly good but mostly bad). I suspected that the parking lot was built on a toxic waste dump. And there were no porta-potties! But whatever, we pissed in the woods by the railroad track, set up our chairs, and had a few sandwiches and beers while the authorities did a few desultory sweeps of the lots and a few vendors strolled by with their wares.
Rain and thunderstorms had been forecast, and we sure experienced some rain on the way down there and the way back, but that evening the rain mostly held off and luckily, the lightning was being very lazy and didn't come close. OK, done with the hanging out, time to trek over to the venue: Xfinity Theatre.
The official t-shirt stands were set up in the plaza in front of the amphitheater, and Dave ended up getting a good one. We entered and found our seats, which were close to the stage but as far right as could be, up against the wall. Oh well, wish we could have seen better (a lot was blocked by Jeff's keyboard setup and we couldn't even see him that well), but the sound was fine and we had a wonderful, wonderful time. Our seats way over on the right were $85 and I saw that almost every other seat in that section was $150, so we couldn't complain.
Wandered up to the lawn to check things out. The far side of it overlooked the load-in lot and there were 5 tour busses parked there (which of the band doesn't get his own bus?), and at least 10 identical tractor trailers with sleek, red cabs. Then eventually wound back to the seats. By then our section was pretty filled, though people were still streaming in at 7:30. The show started pretty much on time anyway. What can I say, the guys came out and lined up as expected and we were flying! Here's the first set:
Hell In a Bucket
Cold Rain and Snow
Queen Jane Approximately
Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo
Dead & Company are phenomenal, and the most fascinating thing about the phenomenon is John Mayer's playing. Great songs have a depth of melodic possibilities, and one of the great things about Garcia was that he could plumb all the melodic possibilities of a song and present them in a freaky order that had you standing on your ear. Mayer can do the same thing, with the same songs, exposing different melodic possibilities and standing on different ears. He plays the whole song, not just drifting on top of it but exuding the guts to dive deep under the dark surface and emerge with a gem. Person after person I've talked to says he's the best fill-in for Garcia they've heard since Garcia's death, and then quickly follow that up with, "But he's more than a fill-in!" I'm in total agreement.
- Hell In a Bucket was not the most dynamic start to a set, though this song can really rock and they warmed to it very quickly. Fantastic Barlow lyric.
- Cold Rain and Snow has always been a favorite of mine. This song has *possibilities* (see above) which have been plumbed by some great guitarists over the years, but Mayer has plenty to add and he went right to it. Listen to these leads!
- This was one of the best Queen Jane's I've heard, one of the classics from Dylan's finest period.
- Big River started off really funky, or disorganized, or both, but then they got it together and killed it.
- Row Jimmy and Mississippi Uptown came from outer space and thundered through our souls. What I said about John; and Oteil on bass and harmony was incredible, and the drummers were just hammering stuff, and Jeff was so in sync with everybody...
- BUT don't forget Bob Weir. He played it all a little mellow, not using an aggressive guitar sound, and not over-expressing on his vocals. But when you speak of melody or rhythm or dynamics or anything musically ... well, you just have to listen to him. I was listening to him as hard as I could, never mind the other incredible musicians on stage.
- Cumberland was great too, though we knew it signalled the end of the first set. This was possibly not as good as the first set we saw in Worcester last Fall (which was AMAZING), but still beyond belief.
There had been a lot of conjecture about what they'd play, and dismay at the fact that they'd played all their best songs over the weekend and so wouldn't be repeating them. But come on ... all their best songs? They have so many great songs they could play for a long time at a high level without repeats ... and they did. We anticipated Estimated and Eyes, and that's how they started:
Eyes Of the World
Viola Lee Blues
- Not the best Estimated I've heard, but I've heard a lot and this is one of those ineffable Grateful Dead songs. The harmonies all night were great, with John contributing spacey (spooky in this case) overtones (and lead!) and Oteil reinforcing the tenor. But the thing that stood out the most here was Weir's vocal, done in a subtly sad tone rather than a frenzied or preaching one. It was like the apocalypse had already occurred and he was just repeating what he'd been telling us for decades.
- OK, this was a great Eyes. Again, I've heard so many, and there has to be a feature for one to stand out. The feature here was that Oteil did a mellow, funky, spacey, perfect solo, deep into the second jam. You have to hear this.
- Deal has become part of the second set-Estimated-Eyes palette for them, Still not sure how I feel about this, but this was a great cover. They opened the second set in Worcester with it, and this wasn't quite to that level, but great.
- Viola Lee Blues! So glad that they're continuing to do this song, though the casual observer would have had a hard time believing that John was really up for a solid year. He just doesn't look that tough.
- Drums and Space were good, with Oteil (maybe someone else??) contributing some African-inflected rap and Jeff actually beating away on the drums. Mickey got out his kalimba or something again. As mentioned, we did not have the greatest sight lines, but we could hear the clown horns going at full tilt.
- And then we were treated to their evolved cover of The Wheel, which was one of the high points of the night. John does a "Stay just a little bit longer" tag (that is, he sings "Try just a little bit harder" with that melody), and then they shift it into a reggae beat that stands the song on edge. And this song is pretty good anyway, to say the least.
- I've come to realize that Bobby is going to sing Black Peter to me until I like it. Search "Black Peter" in this blog to see all the times he's tried that. I put this song near the top of my Dead pantheon and I continue to be a bit bothered when Bobby sings it and doesn't get the gravitas that Garcia (or Jim Lauderdale, listen to his cover) gave it. But though the lead vocal wasn't there for me, it was closer, and the playing and harmonies and arrangement of this were just top-notch. This cover of Black Peter spoke to me the way you want a great song to do.
- Pretty quick U.S. Blues to end the set, sung by John. They were getting tired and so were we.
Let the crowd exit for a bit. One of the good things about our seats was that we were right near the exits. Long trek over the toxic waste to our car, where J was waiting. He'd scored a pit ticket!
We got out the chairs (and beer and sandwiches) and had to wait about 45 minutes before the line started to move at all, and then we eventually loaded up and got in it. Long crawl to the highway before we broke free and headed back to Massachusetts. I slept most of the way back (as did J), but Dave coached Sarah very well through torrents of rain, and the bus made it back. In bed by 3:30 or so!