John Mayer has come a long way since his debut with the Dead & Company seven months ago in the Capital Region. He spent most of Tuesday night at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center way out in front of the group, confident with the Dead’s songbook and acceptance by a demanding fan base since that first night in October.
The band struggled for parts of a lethargic first half, though there were bright moments and quality songs. But for the second set the band played upbeat and energetically — not quite the energy of the old days, but energy for these days.
They started with a standard Grateful Dead opener, Bob Weir’s “Feel Like a Stranger,” where Weir forecasts, “gonna be a long, long, crazy, crazy night.” The prediction was somewhat accurate.
Once out of the gate, they seemed to play slower and slower with each song. Mayer tugged the band behind him in “Here Comes Sunshine.” The classic “Brown Eyed Woman” came at us slow but sure, the band moving sluggishly together. Their slow, smooth groove eventually brought the song home.
They should have followed here with something bouncy and upbeat, but instead brought it down to a near standstill with Weir singing “Loser.” Despite its patient tempo, Weir was intense, and transformed the song into something as old and wise as when Jerry Garcia sang it. Mayer went for a big solo here, playing round after round and then some; Garcia rarely, if ever, took more than two rounds on this tune, so it was nice to see Mayer stepping into his own shoes.
Mayer’s unexpected attacks through the night were fun and exciting set against the mostly feint, bendable layers of the older members. The other younger players — Oteil Burbridge on bass and Jeff Chimenti on keys — jumped in with Mayer’s aggressiveness while the drummers and Weir laid it down subtly.
No one could dispute that Mayer gave it his all on every tune.
Original Dead drummers Mickey Hart and Billy Kreutzmann are far from the fascinating four-armed spectacle they were in their heyday. Certainly the visual show is gone. Now they lay back, underneath it all, hit the drum softly, Hart mostly with brushes, and occasionally bang a tight tom-tom drum that offered a nostalgic thud or two, but never the thunder they brought to the jams years ago.
The Dead have never been a blues band, but Mayer changed all that with his hardcore playing on Weir’s cover of “Little Red Rooster.” Weir still plays his slide guitar solo on this song, and it has not improved in 30 years.
They ventured into their first spacey playing with “Cassidy” and then finally lit into “Deal,” the highlight of the first half of the show.
While the audience was predominantly older, there were patches of young people in brand-named clothing, presumably to see Mayer play.
The second set started with a decent “Aiko Aiko,” then “Estimated Prophet.” Weir sunk into his lyrics, gave a few classic growls during the bridge, and, as hoped for, some high shrills at the end of the tune, before Mayer and the band wandered astray into a spacey meander.
The young half of the band cooked on “I Know You Rider,” careful to leave space for Weir’s vocals, and a grand piano solo by Chimenti, who took several enjoyable, jazzy solos through the night.
They treated “Uncle John’s Band” very gently, the band leaving a lot of space for the singing, the harmony of Mayer and Weir feeling full and fresh, before the finale of “Good Lovin’.”
The show offered the full range of a standard 1980s Grateful Dead show, with a slower tempo, and less magic than the original. But the night contained great music and dancing, and the feel of the original band’s concerts, enough to generate a full house and a carefree, peaceful time for thousands.