Dead & Company 7.22.16

Moda Center
Portland, OR

Words By Mitch Melheim
Photos By Jason Charme Photography

“He dated Jennifer Aniston. Give the man a chance is all I’m saying,” coughed out some guy named Bug in between puffs of Maui Chemdog. Bug, a man whom I perceived to be somewhere in his sixties and had just met while waiting for my train, claimed to have seen the Dead with Jerry over 100 times. With that experience however came no doubt or hostility towards John Mayer as the lead guitarist for the newest spin-off of his favorite band.

It being my first Dead & Company show, I will admit that I was wary about Mayer’s ability to play Jerry. The reviews I’d heard had been mixed but steadily improving and while cautious, I remained optimistic as I boarded my MAX train towards Portland’s Rose Quartz.

The lot scene at the Moda Center, home of the Portland Trail Blazers, was unique to say the least. With no real room for a “lot” considering its location in the middle of Portland, Deadheads got creative and set up in the area around the large fountain in front of the arena. As a Moda Center regular, the scene was a sight to behold. The fountain was filled with smiling folks in tye-die and there were more dogs than you see at most dog parks, some of which playing fetch with their owners in the fountain until they were told (very politely) that their dogs need to be on a leash.

After a long wait to get inside the venue, I had my ticket checked just as I began to hear a bit of noodling from the stage. Once I reached my seat, the opening synth note hit and out came “Feel Like a Stranger.” Mayer was funky, Bob’s vocals sounded good, Chimenti’s synthesizer was rich, and Oteil was establishing his dominance on the low end as usual. “Gonna be a long, long crazy night” Weir sang as they wrapped up a fifteen minute version of the early 80’s staple.

Up next, the band debuted the Pigpen classic “Easy Wind” with Mayer on vocals. This was Mayer in his natural habitat playing the blues like his life depended on it. Nobody will argue against him being a great guitarist, but what really surprised me was how good his vocals sounded on this song.

Bob Weir followed with “Me and My Uncle” which brought with it a swinging piano solo from Chimenti. The John Phillips tune and most played Grateful Dead cover preceded the always funky “West LA Fadeaway." The funk gave way to a blues jam from Mayer before fading right back into the funk for another verse, weaving seamlessly between the two genres until both were one.

With my dance mode now fully engaged, I walked away from my seat for some more dancing room. An extra slow and hanging “Tennessee Jed” had me stomping through the aisle like a dinosaur before stopping to sing along with an old couple who while cemented in their chair, were as into the music as anybody in the arena.

The pace slowed down again for “Lost Sailor." Always a beautiful song, this version did not disappoint as Weir’s voice held up throughout and Mayer led the instrumental portion with an emotional solo that segued into the usual Go to Heaven companion piece “Saint of Circumstances” whose ending brought upon a bit more energy and got the crowd moving again.

A soft segue into the previous songs’ album mate “Don’t Ease Me In” wrapped up an early 80’s-heavy first set and had everybody dancing and smiling as we approached set break. Scanning the crowd during this song, I had a surreal moment that put into perspective the greatness in which I was surrounded by that night. Starting with a stage full of legendary musicians on my left, scanning to the right through the crowd up to NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton’s #32 jersey hung proudly and retired atop the Moda Center, and straight below to the soundboard where I see Walton dancing with his hands stretched high into the air, then back to the stage where I find Mayer, apparently as excited as me, using jumping jacks as a human metronome. One quick chuckle about that and it’s off to set break, but not without a quick reminder from Weir to register to vote with Headcount. “It’s your future,” he warned.

After a slow battle, the rest of the cattle and I eventually herded our way out to the smoking section to let our cannabinoid receptors know we still care about them. We decided on a couple bowls of Stardawg to continue down the Chemdawg trail we were fully committed to by this point.

The hot topic of conversation during the break seemed to be people’s near unanimous approval of Mayer’s playing in the first set. That, and the fact that everybody wanted to hear some more jamming in the second set. A quick two bowls and we headed back into the arena and grabbed our seats, making sure not to miss the beginning of a much anticipated second set.

“Here Comes Sunshine” opened and while this was the first time in the show I found myself off put by Mayer’s vocals, it was by far his best jam of the night as he built his way up to multiple peaks, each time dropping into a dancey groove until finally returning to the song for the final verse. A funky segue led us into “China Cat Sunflower” and I knew where we were riding from there.

After another solid jam came the expected “I Know You Rider” which was a segue that started great until an abrupt jump into the Blind Lemon Jefferson classic. The vocals began sloppy and ended average, contributing to a somewhat forgettable version.

A funked out blues intro kicked off a percussive “Viola Lee Blues” that immediately made up for any gripe I may have had with the song prior. Everybody on the stage seemed to get a little funkier for this one which included some bombs from Oteil and Chimenti slapping the clav like a Franzia at FloydFest. I’m creating a "Jam of the Night" award just to give it to this song.

Off went everybody, but the Rhythm Devils and “Drums” began. This was not your grand pappy’s “Drums,” in fact I literally had the girl beside me tell me it sounded like, “old school EOTO.” While I may not go that far, the types of squishes and wobbles that were coming from that stage were not what I expected when boarding that train towards the show a few hours prior.

Suddenly, it transitioned to a hip-hop beat and Kreutzmann got up to beat on his stand up drum while Oteil took the stage and joined in on his kit. Mickey Hart then turned to his horns to create reverberating sounds that could only be compared to a duck quacking.

Yes, a duck quacking, but somehow I couldn’t get enough.

Oteil then joined in on the quacking and the “Drums” jam eventually faded into “Space” as Mickey Hart shifted the focus to his beam. Bill and Oteil snuck off stage as Mayer and Weir picked up their instruments for some spacey strings. It wasn’t long before Oteil was back out and playing with one of the weirdest, crunchiest effects on a bass guitar that I’ve ever heard. Mayer then bent down to his amp to provide us with some feedback as Chimenti eventually chimed in with an eerie carnival-esque sound while Kreutzmann got back on his kit.

After diving down a deep pit of darkness, the band slowly segued into “Dear Prudence” as everybody took a breath and swayed along to the beautiful Beatles cover. The lights accompanied this song perfectly and brought upon a hopeful energy after visual artist Johnathan Singer had just warped our minds with his stunning live visuals during the “Drums” > “Space” jam.

Weir’s voice was flawless this entire cover. Another highlight of the night, the song was placed perfectly in the set list and preceded Robert Hunter’s “The Wheel.” It was great to see Weir get a little animated during this one, clearly still having fun up there on the stage even though his stoic demeanor may not always show it. Speaking of having fun, to end the song Mayer led a full band vocal interpolation of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ doo-wop hit “Stay," fittingly asking us to “stay just a little bit longer” for the encore.

After a quick encore break, “Sugar Magnolia” began much to the delight of myself who had some Sunshine Daydream in my pocket and laughing at the coincidence, chose to smoke a bowl of it with the people around me. One of my favorite codas in music, I danced, smiled, and spun around until I became a hazard to those around me. As happy as I could be with what I thought was the ending, I then noticed stage techs bringing two acoustic guitars and an acoustic bass out to the stage.

Once the opening notes of “Ripple” hit, the crowd erupted. Singing along with 20,000+ sent goosebumps up and down my spine. This was without question, the best harmonies I had heard from them all night and they nailed this perfect encore choice.

More than satisfied with our night, my photographer and I decided to avoid the lot and head straight to our MAX train home only to find that the MAX stop had developed a lot scene of its own. Eventually, we boarded our train and almost 6 miles later I departed and found a group of about ten Deadheads reminiscing on the night and preparing for the next night at the Gorge. We all walked together towards our respective homes and upon walking into mine, I realized that this “spin-off band” or whatever you want to call them just took over an entire city.

They’ve still got it.

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