Met Dave at Bukowski’s for a beer and some highly important recapping of last night and predictions for tonight. Trundled over the [Green] Muddy River and past an urban rabbit over to Yard House and had another excellent late lunch and couple of rounds of beers. We were psyched, and did the now familiar truck into Fenway and out onto the field(!), this time settling into section B5 in excellent seats on a very humid and very hazy-bright late Spring day.
We’d had an easier time getting good seats for Sunday than we had for Saturday, but by the time the show started we realized it was almost as packed. I had some nice time to spread out in the seats and enjoy the late afternoon, the funny clouds whipping by (the wind was blowing out to left, promising quite a game), and the arriving crowd. Many people wore my t-shirt of choice that day, Fare Thee Well; I also saw one woman with my second choice, Golden Gate Wingmen.
The guys came out a bit after 6:30 again that day, and started right off into their classic Sunday song. But before I get into the first set, let me get a little meta here.
There’s a school of thought, which is a pretty good one, that one of the things that makes “Grateful Dead music” so compelling is the element of risk and unknown possibilities woven into it, and that a band playing that type of music should be pursuing that fine edge of improvisation over rote capability. One possible criticism of Dead & Company is that they haven’t really been pursuing that edge, though in lieu of that they’ve been pursuing performing excellence IMO, and have been pleasingly successful at that (to put it mildly). But in their Fenway concert on 6/18 they showed an ability to walk their own edge that made the concert incredibly exciting, though it might also be labeled a bit strange.
Their recently-rolled-out twist of switching to acoustics for the last bit of the first set, their doing songs out of turn such as Dark Star and Let It Grow, their innovative vocals such as Oteil singing FOTM, and their ability to add other beats and textures (à la JRAD) to set-in-stone songs like FOTM, NFA, and Days Between, are all exciting in a new way. And isn’t that what we want, to be excited in new ways? Though I’ve criticized some of Dead & Company’s choices, I can’t help but admire their style, and I immensely have enjoyed every second of their performances that I’ve heard.
Well anyway, enough of generalization. I hope to describe the event, and my point is that this was far from your ordinary “Grateful Dead” concert, if there is such a thing. John is still new and every measure of his leads has the promise of something new, and Jeff and Oteil have a lot to say. Bobby lets them say it and Billy and Mickey egg them on; this is quite a band. Here’s the first set:
Samson and Delilah
Let It Grow
Friend Of the Devil
Samson was as great as can be, with the drummers pounding out a rhythm that echoed through the Fens. Big River was short, and Candyman was long … the kind of up and down you’d expect in a first set. They did a great Let It Grow, though this is a song they could really add to (like, maybe do the whole Weather Report Suite!?!). But then they switched to acoustics so quickly after the end of Let It Grow that you could tell they had lots up their sleeves and were eager to let those ferrets out.
FOTD was fantastic, including an amazing lead from Jeff on piano. And what was next? Dark Star on acoustic guitars over the Fenway and into American history. Geez, you had to be there for this one. Of course, I don’t think this will become as famous as the 1970 Fillmore East acoustic sets; but this was a rarity, a first. And it was as successful as a lot of things this band does: John’s leads were firecrackers in the late afternoon, and Bobby’s ability to deploy his great variety of sounds was on full display. Bobby’s had a lot of time to play this sucker, and he knows where the darkest rooms and the brightest vistas are.
And just as you were wondering if they were going to go into a second 20 minutes of the song or wind up the second verse and move on … they shared one of those “we know what we’re doing” glances and changed down into Ripple. At the time we were amazed and delighted, but the full impact of what they were doing was a little lost in the gloriousness of the moment.
Wow, I say again! What a first set!! The Saturday show had been stellar to me, and I wondered if Sunday’s show would come up to that level. Damn, it was on a whole different level and was already beyond comparison. Oh well, time for our pedestrian between-set concerns, such as waiting in bathroom lines and trying to get around the Park without freaking out at the crush of people. The rain was holding off and the sky was beautiful as the sun set, far behind the left field grandstand.
And then we waited … it was a long set break, seemingly over an hour. Oh well, the guys came back out and started up into a jam. Dave called it at the first change and a few minutes later one of the guys in front of us whipped around and said, “Wait a minute, did you call that??” These guys were Deadicated but big … I spent a lot of the concert trying to see around or through the guy in front of me, who was wearing an Isaiah Thomas jersey (though he was maybe twice his size), and I was unsuccessful at that most of the time. Anyway, it was Jam > Truckin’ of course … here’s the second set:
Fire On the Mountain
Not Fade Away
Geez, only a 7(ish)-song second set?!? Don’t worry, we were not ripped off. This was a feast. Truckin’ was slow, stately, mellow, and resonant. FOTM was sung by Oteil, only his second vocal on the tour (twice on China Doll) after many hints that he’d be doing such. And St. Stephen was sung with reverence by John.
Let me digress a bit here. One of the best things about the 2016 tour IMO was the tandem backup vocals by John and Oteil. This layer is almost totally lacking in their current tour and the result can leave lots of holes and raggedness, as in the Here Comes Sunshine in Atlanta. They really haven’t replaced this part of their sound, but the lead vocals so far have been so excellent it’s not missed as much as it could be.
Ok, what next? How about a great Drums/Space segment with Mickey tooting those clown horns again and cranking up The Beam in the sudden Fenway night? And then, one of the most magical stretches of the night: a reprise of Dark Star on electrics (including the last verse), and then a beautiful, beautiful deconstruction of the sound into a Jeff Chimenti piano solo that has to go down in history … slowly leading us by the hands and minds into Days Between.
As mentioned, Bobby has done a few fine things on vocals, and he was sure up to this one, singing one of the ultimate Dead anthems (maybe THE ultimate Dead anthem) into the humid dark in front of tens of thousands of awe-struck pilgrims. No Sailor/Saint this time, or GDTRFB, or Dew, but this was the touch that we all wanted and needed.
And then they shrugged it off and ended it all with a rocking Not Fade Away with some fantastic, screwy drumming, and a masterful transfer to the crowd of the chorus. They’ve done this before.
Back out for the encore after just a minute, and they did the Brokedown Palace we’d all been waiting for, most of all us legions with the Fare Thee Well t-shirts. This was an epic second set, but we turned to each other after it was over and said, “What did we just hear?” How great was this? We’ll have to let time tell, but it sure was good.
Damn, the Fenway shows were over, and we had to get out of there through the hordes and hordes of people. Oh well, we’ve done this before ourselves, and it actually went pretty well. Shuffled out of the stadium and back over the Fens and finally back to the parking garage, where the attendants showed some unique incompetence of their own.
Out to Boylston at last, down to Berkeley, left Dave at Charles Circle, and then back up to 93 North. Have to wake up early the next morning to continue the adventure!