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Published: 2015/11/12
by Matt Nestor

Dead & Company, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA- 11/5

Photo by Dave Sullenger

When Dead & Company announced their tour with John Mayer, it seemed like an opportunity to extend the Grateful Dead’s legacy to another generation of kids – or perhaps alienate their parents (or even their grandparents). But neither outcome was apparent on Thursday night in Philadelphia. Mayer’s presence did not bring hordes of teenyboppers to Wells Fargo Center. And, from the opening “Here Comes Sunshine” to the “U.S. Blues” encore, whether it was Mayer or Bob Weir singing, the mostly middle-aged crowd sang along full-heartedly.

“Here Comes Sunshine” lingered for 15 minutes to kick off a first set comprised almost entirely of tour debuts. Weir then slowed down “Loose Lucy” to a funky strut, before Mayer took soulful lead vocals on “Candyman.” The “Mississippi Half-Step” that followed saw the night’s first display of inspiring improvisation, as Mayer and bassist Oteil Burbridge faced one another, building a quiet melodic interplay to soaring heights. The jam dissolved into “Bird Song,” the set’s lone tour repeat. With its elegant verses and near-anthemic choruses, “Bird Song” seemed like a song Mayer was almost destined to sing. The tune fit neatly into an otherwise rocking blues segment, wedged between “Mississippi Half Step” and “Cumberland Blues.” The set-closing “Casey Jones” finished at double speed, the band nearly driving that train off the tracks before it came to a halt, and set break.

The first “Iko Iko” of the tour began the second set in a lively manner, followed by a thoroughly explored “Feel Like A Stranger,” complete with sultry Weir and Mayer interplay. Mayer sang lead vocals on the ensuing “China Cat Sunflower,” and brought the crowd to roaring peaks with his guitar solo, as the music and crowd were part of one large cacophony of sound, hardly distinguishable from one another. The “China Cat” jam seemed to boost Mayer’s confidence as he began going off with Stevie Ray Vaughan-style one-handed licks. The guitarist then stuck the landing, locking in with Weir for the opening chords of “I Know You Rider.” Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann had their time in the spotlight in a heady “Drums” jam which followed the raucous “Rider.” After about 10 minutes, the band returned to the stage for the “Space” segment, evoking Hendrix’s “1983…” in subdued sounds. The psychedelia continued with a 14-minute “Playing In The Band.” Jeff Chimenti’s piano work added a nice texture to Mayer and Burbridge’s meandering runs. At times, it sounded like a less-rocking version of a Led Zeppelin “No Quarter” jam.

If Mayer’s shining moment was “China Cat Sunflower,” Weir’s was “Standing On The Moon,” which followed “Playing In The Band” and maintained that jam’s mellow vibe. Weir’s vocals packed a punch and he added a slide guitar solo. A strong second set concluded with the first “Sugar Magnolia” of the tour, before an exalting “U.S. Blues” encore sent nearly 20,000 fans off into the Philadelphia night in good spirits.

Comparisons between these Dead & Company shows and this summer’s Fare Thee Well concerts are inevitable, but saying one is better than the other is fruitless. Dead & Company is a different animal – a well-oiled machine which is more bullheaded and less apprehensive as it navigates the legendary Dead catalog. The Fare Thee Well group had just five shows to celebrate the Dead’s legacy, while Dead & Company has a full tour to do so. And, this group is getting better and better one show at a time.

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