Dead & Company
Photo: Jay Blakesberg

Dead & Company Shine in Finale at San Francisco’s Oracle Park

A three-night run at the San Francisco Giants’ ballpark finds Dead & Company at the top of their game, leaving the fans grateful.

It’s a Friday night at Oracle Park here on 14 July, and the San Francisco Giants’ magnificent ballpark is buzzing with activity, even though the baseball club is out on a road trip. The headliners still have home-field advantage, though, because Dead & Company are here to cap off their final tour with three sold-out shows in their hometown. Dead & Company are down to two members of the Grateful Dead after drummer Bill Kreutzmann exited the lineup in a mysterious fashion shortly before the summer tour launched. But with guitarist Bob Weir and drummer Mickey Hart still leading the way, Dead & Company have won raves across the country as they’ve delivered large-scale Grateful Dead music to the masses one last time around. 

The 75-year-old Weir has noted that he’s probably spent more time on stage than anyone in music history after co-founding the Grateful Dead as a teenager. He’s also been on a late-career renaissance over the past five years, leading acclaimed smaller tours with his cosmic cowboy outfit Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros. Thus, Wolf Bros’ drummer Jay Lane was called up to the major league squad once again to fill in for Kreutzmann, as he did at times on the summer 2022 tour when Kreutzmann was dealing with some health issues. The rest of the lineup has been the same since Dead & Company launched in the fall of 2015, with three aces in guitarist John Mayer, bassist Oteil Burbridge, and Jeff Chimenti on keyboards.

It’s puzzling at this point to find some observers still trying to question Mayer’s worthiness eight years in. Many fans were understandably skeptical when Mayer’s inclusion in the lineup was announced, but Mayer just went about winning over fans one show at a time. This included a sensational performance on New Year’s Eve 2015-2016 at the Los Angeles Forum, where he was ripping off early 1970s Garcia licks on hot jams to power a glorious evening. It was a heartwarming moment when he came out for the encore, thanked the audience for accepting him, and sincerely declared that the experience of being in the band had changed his life forever.

Photo: Jay Blakesberg

Another generation of fans has now had the opportunity to experience the traveling circus and psychedelic rock counterculture of large-scale Grateful Dead music, an incalculable service. This is similar to how Gen-Xers were blessed after Jerry Garcia survived a 1986 coma to come back and keep playing until his untimely departure from the Earth in 1995. It was also during that time that Garcia and Weir helped cement the bond between the Dead and the Giants when they sang the Star-Spangled Banner (along with keyboardist Vince Welnick) at the team’s 1993 home opener. It was a gala affair after the ballclub had almost been moved to Tampa that offseason, also featuring the recently departed Tony Bennett singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” before a sellout crowd that included numerous Deadheads. 

The relationship between the Grateful Dead and the Giants would continue to grow, particularly with a synchronicity that played out when the Giants held their first annual Jerry Garcia Night on 9 August 2010 (the 15-year anniversary of Garcia’s passing.) Garcia bobbleheads with the guitarist wearing a Giants jacket as he did at the 1993 opener were passed out to tens of thousands of fans, along with some 40,000 kazoos. Weir and Phil Lesh sang the anthem, followed by Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, and famous Deadhead Bill Walton leading a seventh-inning stretch kazoo version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with everyone in the park playing along. 

The Giants won that night’s game 4-3 in 11 innings, the same result as the 1993 opener – a 4-3 win in 11 innings. It seemed like a fortuitous sign for the ballclub, which then went on to win the 2010 World Series for their first Major League title in San Francisco. This launched a historic run, with the Giants going on to win two more World Series titles in 2012 and 2014. Weir and Lesh were again singing national anthems during the 2012 playoffs with Giants coach Tim Flannery.

Photo: Jay Blakesberg

The victory in game seven of the 2014 World Series also featured a momentous harmonic convergence when Gen-X jam-rockers Phish were concluding a three-night run at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on the same night and played a “We are the Champions” tease after the Giants secured the title. Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio was soon tabbed to fill the lead guitar slot for the Dead’s historic “Fare Thee Well” shows in Chicago and Santa Clara for the band’s 50th anniversary in 2015, billed as the last time that the four surviving members of the Grateful Dead would perform together in public. 

Bay Area fans are thus reveling in seeing Dead & Company close out their final tour here at Oracle Park. Industry sources suggest the majority of the weekend’s attendees are actually coming in from out of town, as these shows are akin to a Grateful Dead convention with fans traveling in from all over. There’s a massive “Shakedown Street” outside the ballpark winding along the Bay for the band’s legendary fan vending scene, demonstrating that the City has worked with the band to make sure everything about this special event is as close to just exactly perfect as possible. When the band hits the stage with the classic closer “Not Fade Away”, it serves as an acknowledgment that this nearly six-decade love affair will never die.  

A performance of 1978’s “Shakedown Street” injects some funky dance party energy, and “Cold, Rain and Snow” is well received too. But it’s on “Brown-Eyed Women” where the set really ignites, a melodic yet also bluesy number right in Mayer’s wheelhouse that opens up for a jam with Chimenti taking the lead on an extended piano solo as Burbridge steps up with some lead bass behind him to really crank up the vibe. Hearing Weir sing of how “this darkness got to give” on 1969’s “New Speedway Boogie” adds some extra zeitgeist, as much of America swelters in record-breaking heat impacted by climate change caused by society’s use of fossil fuels (though the weather is near perfect in San Francisco this weekend.) 

Photo: Jay Blakesberg

The second set is where the show soars to a cosmic level, with nighttime bringing Dead & Company’s legendary light show into dazzling effect on the classic “China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider” combo. A euphoric vibe overtakes the ballpark, with spinning geometric shapes of light shining across the upper deck while everyone falls into a collective groove. Prototype psychedelia from the late 1960s ignites as the band digs into the uplifting jam. Another wave of euphoria washes over the audience when the band segues into the galloping groove of “I Know You Rider”, with Weir leading the band like cowboys riding off into the sunset. There’s a special vibe here as it starts to feel like this could be a Dead show from the early 1990s, as the timeless power of Grateful Dead music works its sonic magic.

The elegiac “He’s Gone” provides a breather before the band doubles down on big fun with another fan-fave combo of “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain”. The energy level soars again since getting both a “China Cat>Rider” and a “Scarlet>Fire” in the same set is what setlist dreams are made of. The traditional “Drums” segment is special too, with images of the Golden Gate Bridge on the video screens while Hart incorporates samples of genuine bridge vibrations he recorded to blend here in trippy fashion.

A surprise jam that starts off sounding like “Dark Star” before rocking out more like Johnny Cash’s “Big River” makes for a fun curveball before giving way to the classic ballad “Standing on the Moon”. It’s a sentimental moment that hits in the feels as Weir wins a huge cheer when he sings of how he’d rather be “somewhere in San Francisco on a back porch in July”, rather than on the lunar surface with a view of Earth’s war-torn decline. Rousing takes on “Casey Jones” and “U.S. Blues” close the set with a flourish before Dead & Company tug on the heartstrings again by encoring with Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”, accompanied by images of departed Grateful Dead family.

Photo: Jay Blakesberg

After the show, many fans head back to a festive but crowded scene out on Shakedown Street. Giants fans in the know, however, find they can walk right across the street to Underdogs Cantina and quickly be served libations and tacos since most of the crowd doesn’t even know the place exists, and it’s far less busy than it is for ball games. 

Saturday, 15 July – Night Two

Twenty-four hours later, Oracle Park is buzzing with fans ready to do it again with an entirely different setlist. It was the Grateful Dead who pioneered the jam-rock tradition of building out large repertoires to make each show different since playing the same show every night would get repetitive, and where’s the adventure in that? Thus legions of fans developed the desire to follow the band on tour because they knew each show was going to be different, yet could never be sure which nights would be the hottest performances.

Opening with “Let the Good Times Roll” invokes that early 1990s vibe again before an upbeat “Hell in a Bucket” with Mayer ripping off hot licks. Mayer is clearly on, and so it’s great to see him take the lead on “It Hurts Me Too”, an old-school blues special from the Grateful Dead’s original keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. Chimenti adds an extended organ solo for a standout moment that’s not easy to pull off before a big crowd on a traditional blues number. Everyone is clicking on a rollicking “Jack Straw”, and that makes it even better when “Big Railroad Blues” follows, as Mayer rips more sweet bluesy licks on an early 1970s staple that became a rare Garcia deep cut by the 1990s.

Photo: Jay Blakesberg

Weir’s classic “Cassidy” is truly electrifying, with Burbridge and the drummers laying down a nimble groove for a soaring jam, while Chimenti’s jazzy piano seems to drive everyone to a higher tempo. “Dead and Slow”? Hell no. The smoking “Cassidy” jam leads to a funky up-tempo version of “They Love Each Other”, before a quick yet vibrant “Turn on Your Lovelight” brings the set to a close by invoking Pigpen once again.

Garcia’s “Deal” makes for a surprise second set opener, with Mayer and Burbridge really digging in during the jam section. Bassist Phil Lesh was typically the one who could and would send Grateful Dead jams into the deep end with his uniquely progressive tone science alchemy, and Burbridge seems to have been let off the leash this tour to make a huge difference in Dead & Company’s jam factor. Weir’s anthemic “Playin’ in the Band” is another prime example. The song doesn’t surpass ten minutes, but Burbridge really digs into pushing the low end. Mayer is ripping off those liquid early 1970s licks, Weir is right there with up-tempo chording, and the rest of the group follows along to generate a scintillating moment where the music plays, and the massive groove overtakes the audience for a collective get-down of ecstatic proportions.

Photo: Jay Blakesberg

“The Other One” follows with Weir’s seminal excursion on prototype 1960s psychedelic rock that’s powered Grateful Dead shows for more than five decades. In the 2015 Netflix documentary of the same title on Weir’s life, he speaks of learning that friend and Merry Prankster Neal Cassidy had passed away on the same night he was writing the song. Weir testifies to feeling like Cassidy’s spirit was there with him during the process in a truly mystical fashion. It’s another peak moment here as the psychedelia overtakes Oracle Park. But instead of coming back for the last verse, Dead & Company move into “Terrapin Station”, another mystical classic where Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics during a Bay Area lightning storm in which Jerry Garcia also found himself separately inspired to write the music which they then put together the next day. 

Dead & Company come out of space with the timeless wisdom of “Uncle John’s Band”, a song that’s been hitting the sweet spot of the soul since 1969 as few others can. A quick reprise of “Playin’ in the Band” leads back into “The Other One”, underscoring how these timeless tunes have continued to power Weir’s career in an enduring fashion. What a journey to be playing these songs here at age 75 and still making them sound fresh, as they contain the DNA of a psychedelic rock sound that Weir helped forge during that pivotal era of the late 1960s/early 1970s, which impacted American culture in a way that’s extremely unlikely ever to happen again.

Photo: Jay Blakesberg

Then “Morning Dew” comes to close the set, a cover song recorded on the Grateful Dead’s first album in 1967 and a concert staple ever since. Many critics wrote them off as apolitical over the years, but this inherent statement of concern about a looming nuclear apocalypse has long said otherwise. The song remains as zeitgeisty as ever in 2023, with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ annual Doomsday Clock update being set at 90 seconds to midnight. Weir sings here with a gravitas that transcends time and space, for as long as someone’s still singing this song, then there’s still a chance for a better world that isn’t run by the insane greedheads of the military-industrial complex.

Garcia’s big guitar solo at the end of the song’s climactic build typically felt like a sermon in a sonic temple of sorts, and Mayer goes deep to conjure that kind of catharsis here. A “Ripple” encore brings the evening home in illustrious fashion. The Grateful Dead hardly ever played “Ripple” in the 1990s, so it’s been a treat to see it brought back in the 21st century.

Photo: Jay Blakesberg

Sunday, 16 July – Night Three

It’s another festive scene out on Shakedown Street before the final show. There are no mixed emotions about it being the end of the road, just great vibes everywhere as a warming trend sees the high temperature break 70 degrees for an ideal setting. This includes Grahame Lesh and Friends throwing down a stellar afternoon performance outdoors at Harmonic Brewing next to the Chase Center down the street, as did different lineups of Terrapin All-Stars the previous two days (musicians who were regulars at Phil Lesh’s now-defunct Terrapin Crossroads club, including Reed Mathis, Ezra Lipp, Jordan Feinstein, Alex Jordan, and Jeannette Ferber.)

“Bertha” makes an ideal opener for Dead & Company’s tour finale, an instant dance party classic that always signaled Garcia was in a good mood when the Grateful Dead opened with it in the 1990s. It lights a feel-good fuse here, then makes a move to the 1970s by segueing into “Good Lovin’“. It’s a great choice to keep the good vibes going, with Weir calling out “Who needs it?” to the audience in the breakdown toward the end to win a huge cheer across the ballpark as if Giants’ Gold Glove shortstop Brandon Crawford had just made a spectacular play in the field.

Photo: Jay Blakesberg

The bluesy “Loser” and melancholy “High Time” slow things down quite a bit before “Sampson and Delilah” and “Althea” get the park rocking again. Mayer stars on “Althea” with some tasty lead guitar on the song that pulled him down the Grateful Dead rabbit hole about a decade ago. A welcome bust out of Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Phantasy” feels like an appropriate nod to both Garcia and Brent Mydland, including a segue into the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” for a big singalong. A jazzy jam on “Birdsong” hits the mark on a warmer evening like tonight. It winds up closing the set, and then there’s just one more set to go.

Throwing down the classic “Help on the Way>Slipknot>Franklin’s Tower” sequence to open the second set ignites the night with one of the Dead & Company’s most dynamic and anthemic fan-favorite combos. “Help on the Way” also features some of Robert Hunter’s most tangible lyrics, speaking truth to power about this greed-driven rat race while also speaking to the spiritual authority of the rock ‘n’ roll counterculture: “Sell everything; without love day to day insanity’s king…” The “Franklin’s Tower” climax shows how impactful a three-chord song can be, as the whole audience grooves out in a way that goes to a higher level with a stadium-sized audience.

“Estimated Prophet” is like a victory lap, with Weir singing, “California, prophet on the burning shore, knocking on the golden door, like an angel standing in a shaft of light, rising up to paradise…” Being here at Oracle Park on the edge of the Bay to see Dead & Company this weekend has indeed felt like knocking on a golden door in paradise. The angelic vibes continue on “Eyes of the World” with 18 minutes of pure sonic bliss. The band-audience connection comes alive in another collective wave of harmonious unity, and it’s the best of the best because Dead & Company are so dialed in, and everyone’s riding the same groovy melodic wavelength. 

Photo: Jay Blakesberg

Mickey Hart throws down some trippy modulator effects during the “Space” sequence that sound like he could be communicating with extraterrestrial visitors. And why wouldn’t Earth’s visitors be attracted to this blissful scene of peace and harmony? Music is the true universal language, and the Dead have created the longest-running and kindest music scene on the planet.  Jerry Garcia even teased the Close Encounters of the Third Kind theme at a show in Eugene, Oregon, on 22 January 1978 (released a few years back as Dave’s Picks 23.)

The somber “Days Between” fills the ballad slot, seeming to invoke a theme of reflection on how Father Time is undefeated. The set bounces back in a big way with a hot run through “Cumberland Blues” and a big crowd-pleasing closer with the ever-uplifting “Sugar Magnolia” that really gets the park rocking. Sandwiching the traditional farewell ballad of “Brokedown Palace” in between “Truckin’” and a “Not Fade Away” reprise makes a fitting triple encore to summarize the theme of this historic moment. There’s no melancholy when it’s all over because Dead & Company have crushed the three-night run in sensational fashion (and a dazzling drone light show depicting Grateful Dead as icons is uplifting as well.) “Please be kind” is the final message of the drone show, lighting up the sky with the Dead’s ultimate motto.

Photo: Jay Blakesberg

What’s the next step on the Golden Road?

After the weekend has concluded, the question naturally arises of what’s next. Mickey Hart was quoted earlier in the week saying that this had only been the last tour, not necessarily the end of Dead & Company, and John Mayer confirmed this a couple of days later. “Something magical happened on this tour, and I don’t think any of us saw it coming. Dead & Company is still a band – we just don’t know what the next show will be,” Mayer tweeted, among other deep thoughts.

If we’ve learned anything about bandleader Bobby Weir in the 21st century, it’s never to doubt his ability to pull another ace from up his sleeve. The band could conceivably play another New Year’s Eve run at the Chase Center down the street, as they did in 2019. Looking toward next summer, rumors are already swirling about a potential festival event in Golden Gate Park. 

What’s beyond doubt is that Grateful Dead music will continue in one form or another, as the songbook has proven to have a life of its own much like jazz standards that have outlived their originators. Countless musicians from multiple genres have been influenced by the Dead’s adventurous approach, both musically and spiritually. When asked about “the goals of the hippie movement” in an interview during 1967’s “Summer of Love”, Jerry Garcia said, “What we’re thinking about is a peaceful planet” and “moving the whole human race ahead a step.” The fact this music remains so popular and influential suggests that the dream is still very much alive, with Dead & Company playing a key role by keeping the torch burning as long as they can. 

Photo: Jay Blakesberg