Dead & Company Kept OC Alive and Together at Irvine Meadows

Dead & Company
Irvine Meadows Amphitheater

Thanks Dead & Company; Orange County needed that! Actually, the whole country can really use a bit of the timeless experience of a Grateful Dead show at this time. While each show the Dead or any subsequent incarnation of it has ever put on has been its own, unique space-cadet episode, the experience, in general, is a great way to relax, let off steam, remind ourselves of what it feels like to live in a great country, or just forget about everything else for the duration of the evening.

As always, it all starts in the parking lot hours prior to the concert. Concert goers and Deadheads establish a bazaar of sorts. There are people selling food, drinks, clothing, accessories, and there are people kicking back in their vehicles, listening to tunes or playing them (for money or for fun). Then there are also people holding their fingers up to alert some charitable other that they are looking for a “miracle ticket,” a free ticket to be gifted, out of kindness, to a fellow Deadhead. Tuesday night’s miracle seekers ranged from a breastfeeding woman to a disgruntled vet, who declared that he was owed a free ticket as payment to his service to the country.

For the fortunate fans who got to see the show, the stage was decked out, as always, with the Persian rugs that the three axe players stand on while they play. For this incarnation of the Dead, original members Bob Weir (guitar/voice), Bill Kreutzmann (drums/percussion), and Mickey Hart (drums/percussion) were joined by the Allman Brothers’ Oteil Burbridge (bass), Ratdog’s Jeff Chimenti (keys) and John Mayer (guitar/voice). Weir, who was once the baby of the band, now has the endearing appearance of a grizzled prospector. Mayer, who is 38, currently is the baby of the band, and his worn / torn t-shirt, which featured the ice cream graphic from the Dead’s Europe ‘72 album, revealed his reverence for the elderly band of which he now holds a center position.

Standing in the spot once occupied by the late and legendary Jerry Garcia is an incredible responsibility; fortunately for the fans and for the rest of the band, Mayer demonstrated that he was more than aware of the gravitas of that prospect, and his performance would have made Jerry proud. The show opened with “Cold Rain and Snow,” and by the second and third songs (“Jack Straw” and “Bertha”) the whole band was getting into some serious jams. Burbridge’s bass playing was so subtle and understated that without focusing on it, one might not have noticed that it was indeed brilliant. One couldn’t have helped notice the piano playing, however, since at a certain point, Chimenti asked the soundman to turn him up, which slightly messed up the delicately balanced mix for a while.

As the band played on, more and more people were dancing. Also, as in the days of yore, the venue became a safe haven for pot-smoking, and as more people realized this, their attempts at concealment gradually faded away. By the fifth song, a persistent cloud had been formed throughout the amphitheatre, and the people’s altered state was cajoled by the relaxed strains of “Loose Lucy.” At this time, those good old feelings of knowing that we were all in and that we were in no rush to the finish line had set in. For additional stimulation, the amphitheatre’s two side screens were filled with psychedelic, video art. During a chance look at one of them, within the waves of morphing designs and random patterns, an image of The Pick of Destiny seemed to materialize.

During the two songs prior to the end of the first set, a cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” and “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,” Mayer reached his peak. With the latter, the synergy between the band and the audience was so palpable that it would be hard not to consider the number an affirmation of the power of live music to transform and elevate people on emotional as well as spiritual levels. Suffice it to say, Mayer’s performance of this song was legendary.

Prior to the half-hour intermission, Weir softly announced that there were stations to register for voting on the venue’s grounds. He didn’t offer a suggestion as to whom people should vote for. When the intermission was over, the band performed “Deal” and “Scarlet Begonias.” Mayer’s playing was still great and reminiscent of Jerry’s in that even when he wasn’t jamming with that perfect balance of energy and skill, his music was powerfully honest and vulnerable. The affirmation of the audience’s religious glow was pronounced during “Scarlet” when the lights hit the crowd as it formed a chorus with the band, singing: “Once in a while you get shown the light / In the strangest of places if you look at it right.” Interestingly, when Bob sang “Scarlet,” his voice and appearance were very reminiscent of Jerry’s.

Next came “Fire on the Mountain,” then “Dark Star,” during which Mayer started to really find his groove again after the insane peak he’d had during “Mississippi.” As usual, most of the band cleared the stage during “Drums.” An electronic drum rhythm initiated a base pattern upon which predominantly Hart layered experimental percussion and theremin sounds. The whole thing started off sounding very tribal and techno, but the layers were eventually deconstructed to the point of the primal bass resonations generated by Hart’s hitting of a series of strings with a metal tube, bowing them, or plucking them with a gloved hand.

The band gradually returned for a hypnotic “Space,” and then broke into “The Other One.” After that, they got back into some strong jams for “Stella Blue” and “U.S. Blues” before ending the evening with encores “Brokedown Palace” and a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Minus the intermission, the band played for a good three hours, and apart from the previously mentioned phenomenal aspects of the evening, it was noteworthy that such a memorable experience was not tainted by the sight of cell phones; everyone was too busy dancing. Mind, once in a while, someone would take a picture or two or a short video clip [many people took video of the spectacular crowd as well as the band], but the presence of cell phones was nowhere near as distracting as it is with most shows. This is truly ironic given the powerfully moving experience of this concert.

One aspect of the shows from way back that seems to have changed is the taping community. There used to be a preponderance of people recording the music; the band would allow this and tapers were allowed to set up their mics near the mixing board at the center of the venue. While there still may have been tapers, there was definitely a professional array of microphones, which not only professionally archived the show, but which provide the audience an opportunity to buy a recording by visiting (not dot com).

As the audience filed out of the arena, free candy, set up on a picnic bench, provided a nice treat while people decompressed from this great entry in the final season of programming at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre. Several young girls made their way through the crowd while clutching a long handkerchief, which they used as a rope to keep together. One of them advised, “Stay together.” A slightly tipsy man, walking with his girlfriend or wife, found some poetry in the phrase, and he comically echoed their sentiment as a mantra: “Stay together. Stay together.” The girls laughed and smiled as did everyone else within earshot as those words resonated strongly with people returning to their respective worlds. Stay together. Stay together.

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