One month ago, it appeared that the concert season — rearranged, stifled or outright canceled for more than a year — may have begun to return to what music fans have hoped for and expected: sweaty, unmasked mosh pits for some, cozy seats with obscenely large cupholders for others. Tours began to rebook. Fans planned road trips. And the worst of the pandemic to many seemed more retrospective fever dream than continuing nightmare.
But with recent outbreaks spreading across festivals and concerts, giant promoters like Live Nation and AEG have been forced to rethink protocols, recently announcing proof of vaccinations for all their respective venues as the industry tiptoes between artist, staff and fan health and safety and the ability to orchestrate a proper show.
Less than a week before their tour launch, Dead & Company became the latest band to announce new policies, enforcing proof of vaccination or a negative test upon entry. And even that couldn’t stop 20,000 mostly unmasked Deadheads from filtering in the Walnut Creek amphitheater in Raleigh, North Carolina on Monday night, a sea of tie dye soaked from a rainstorm.
The Grateful Dead offshoot haven’t performed since the Before Times, when they played their three-day residency in Riviera Cancun, Mexico in January 2020. When their tour was cancelled last year, the band kept themselves busy, with Bob Weir performing livestreams (and working out) while John Mayer released Sob Rock (does he still like to be called Slowhand Jr. these days?) Their anticipation and excitement as they took the stage was palpable even though they tried to play it off, with Weir casually strolling up in his Birkenstocks and capris and Mayer tossing his hair out of his face.
They kicked off with “Touch of Grey,” their first time opening with the MTV hit in five years. It usually serves as their triumphant closer, but the message of survival hits hard these days, and it was a perfect way to set the tone for the evening. The crowd jumped up and down, carefully clutching their cardboard tubes of posters, chanting the mantra “We will get by! We will survive!” It was difficult to find a moment where keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and bassist Oteil Burbridge weren’t beaming — these guys have missed us just as much as we missed them.
The first set was concise yet loose, as they grooved into “Shakedown Street” and closed with the gem “New Speedway Boogie” from Workingman’s Dead. The band rarely spoke to the crowd, save for a twinkling of a moment when Weir announced they were taking a short break. The second half was packed with fan favorites like “Truckin’” and “Franklin’s Tower,” and during the latter, the camera focused on a guy in the pit wearing an Owsley Stanley shirt, blissfully dancing back and forth.
The band sprinkled “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” into the set — Dead & Company’s first time playing the Live/Dead track — before closing with a sprawling “Not Fade Away.” Six years after forming the band, Mayer appeared confident and even comfortable performing Jerry Garcia’s parts, interlocking guitars with Weir and sharing vocal duties throughout the night.
The band will continue touring mostly throughout the east coast before heading out west for a three-night stand at L.A.’s Hollywood Bowl ending on Halloween (you can get tickets online now at Vivid Seats). The ongoing pandemic has scuttled many music fans’ visions of a normal concert season, but as one woman in the crowd said, “This is like a psychedelic daydream.”