Maybe no lyric better typifies the Grateful Dead than that line from “Truckin’,” the band’s classic 1970 song: “Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.”
Dead and Company, who played two sets at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Monday night to ecstatic fans, is just the latest episode of that long, strange trip.
The all-star group features former members of the Grateful Dead who keep the improvisational band’s spirit alive onstage. Longtime Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir formed the outfit in 2015 with original Dead drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, former Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge, longtime Dead associate Jeff Chimenti (keyboards) and pop-blues singer-guitarist John Mayer.
Swarms of Deadheads filled SPAC on Monday night to revel in that history, some wearing t-shirts updated for modern times with “Make America Grateful Again,” a sarcastic take on the Trump slogan that reflected the Dead’s counterculture hippie roots.
A triple-paneled video screen flashed psychedelic imagery from the band’s lysergic, symbol-heavy past: roses, skeletons in cowboy hats, and the iconic steal-your-face symbol.
“It may be the end of the end. Might as well make it a celebration,” said a fan in the crowd of the chance to see Grateful Dead songs performed by original members at what may be the tail end of their long, strange trip.
But now in their fourth year, Dead and Company shows no signs of slowing down. When Weir sang the words to “Truckin’ ” shortly after the start of the group’s second set, the amphitheater exploded, with fans twirling and dancing and singing in the aisles to one of the night’s best songs.
Dead and Company avoids repeating songs night-to-night – they’ve only played “Truckin’ ” once so far on their 24-date summer tour – so it was a good get of a much-loved fan favorite. Other fan favorites from the night included “Friend of the Devil,” “New Speedway Boogie,” “Jack Straw” (though it sounded a bit too slow and turgid) and a rather smoking “Uncle John’s Band.”
Other songs, like the bluesy “Easy Wind” and Weir-led “Corrina” and “Cassidy” were bathroom and beer breaks for a crowd that spent plenty of time milling about and socializing.
Mayer often takes over the vocal role for principal Dead vocalist and guitarist Jerry Garcia, who died in 1995.
He brings a more youthful presence to the group, and a lot of guitar prowess, but he can seem a bit robotic.
His voice lacks the warm, worn-in tone of Garcia or Weir, who sings about half the songs.
The second set, which opened with a life-affirming cover of The Band’s “The Weight,” was where the night took off, especially when followed by the rollicking “Truckin’ ” and “He’s Gone,” a soul-stirring tune.
“Uncle John’s Band” served as the launching point for Mickey Hart’s trippy “Drums” into “Space” solo, another potential opportunity for a bathroom break that found the drummer getting into near-electronica territory with an extended percussive jam that veered from swirling psychedelia to harsher discordant noise.
“Good Lovin’,” a cover of the Young Rascals, provided the feel-good, celebratory vibe that fans were craving before the set-ending encore of ’80s Grateful Dead hit “Touch of Grey.”