The legacy that Dead & Company has secured for itself was on full display Friday night at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Band leader Bob Weir and the Dead’s original duo drummers anchor the elder, traditional sound of the band. They are juxtaposed — buoyed — by the youthful, earnest energy of guitarist John Mayer, who is no longer cutting his teeth right in front of us, rather, as he showed us Friday, has fully arrived.
It started with a classic opener “Shakedown Street.” A slow, draggy tempo that seemed to struggle at first, but soon enough emerged as the intended groove. In fact, this was the tempo of most of the show.
It followed with “Bertha,” again slow and seemingly lazy. But once you accept this sluggish, unhurried approach, and stop wishing it forward faster, you embrace and appreciate Weir’s transformation as an elder statesman. For those who know the old “Bertha” as high energy with the promise of bass and drums flexing their muscles, that no longer happens with this band. Instead, you get a peacefully flowing tune with a few nice currents.
To be certain, Dead & Company chased ambitious ideas, adventured far from the song structures, and hit its mark on numerous jams. Its sweet spot, as in “They Love Each Other,” was a soft, weathered groove of fellowship.
It played “West L.A. Fade Away” and “Scarlet Begonias” with a freshness the original Dead struggled with in its later years. Weir, who has been playing SPAC for decades — when lawn seats were less than nine dollars — has transformed his singing into master storytelling. His inflections, his accents, his understated intensity transcended age-old standards into one-act plays. He delivered ballads like “Peggy-O” and the beautiful song-poem “Days Between” — perhaps his best singing of the night — with the control and depth that reflect his years at the mic.
Mayer improves every year, and he was fantastic this show. He works hard, no longer feels like a guest, and delivers appropriately — rarely over the top, but high-reaching when it’s time.
The band is evenly divided between the three Grateful Dead members — two drummers and Weir — and Mayer, bassist Oteil Burbridge, and keyboardist John Chimenti. You can sometimes feel their collective younger energy push against the restraint of Weir and the soft-hitting drummers. But they are a great unit and seem to enjoy themselves.
Scientists have been pondering for half a century the point of having “space” and “drums” at every show. Why not have it every other show? Or three times a tour? But every show? It was not needed Friday night, except for the thousands who raced for a drink or bathroom.
Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman are no longer a source of excitement for the band. They are there, and they can be felt, but they don’t push the band with the thrumming thunder they once wielded during their more fierce days. Weir is probably not asking for anything more than the small amount they deliver. But you have to wonder what sharp, energized percussion might bring to the show.
There were some bouncy be-bop moments during “Help on the Way,” and twangy upbeat swing during “Cumberland Blues,” where Weir ceded the controls to Chimenti and Mayer, who showed off their chops a bit.
For the most part, there were no Herculean feats or mountaintop moments. Instead the sold-out crowd — 25,000 people — got real nice, thoughtful jams and cohesive teamwork from one of today’s greatest jam bands. While Dead & Company plays a traditional Grateful Dead concert, it has transformed the feel of the songs subtlety, organically, into their own space. The band members may continue to change going forward, but the music may never stop.