There were lots of feel-good, exuberant moments during the performance by Dead & Co. at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Tuesday night.
One came during a somewhat rare cover of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence,” the crowd cheering every vocal from frontman and Grateful Dead-founding member Bob Weir. The delicately subdued song ended on a high note. And when the band immediately launched into “Casey Jones,” one of their best-loved tunes, the place exploded.
It was still light outside and reportedly there were still lines of people waiting to get into SPAC when the band opened the two-set show with “Feel Like a Stranger” around 7:20 p.m. It’s a perfect opening song, filled with innuendo about a love affair that may or may not be about to launch. When Weir sang, “Gonna be a long, long, crazy, crazy night,” it felt like a prediction.
But if anything, the Dead & Co. crowd is fairly tame these days, a mellow older scene of longtime Grateful Dead fans, in tie-dyes and concert shirts from seasons long past, grooving to the band’s pastoral jams. With a shock of white hair and flowing white mustache and beard, Weir himself has aged, but he still retains the trim, tan look of a California fitness buff.
Following up two big nights at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, this all-star group of former Grateful Dead members and associates returned to SPAC with the crew from last year’s show at the Saratoga amphitheater: Weir, original Grateful Dead drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, former Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti.
Newer-addition John Mayer, a pop star in his own right, injects the younger blood in the band and fills the vocal role for Grateful Dead vocalist and guitarist Jerry Garcia, who died in 1995. Dressed in white pants and a denim shirt, he led vocally on “Alabama Getaway,” “It Must Have Been the Roses” (a bathroom break song for the sometimes-restless crowd) and “Here Comes Sunshine,” a great summertime anthem.
An oriental carpet covered the stage and a video screen shaped like a mushroom cap or half of a cogged wheel flashed psychedelic imagery: vivid geometric Aztec-like patterns, a red-white-and-blue skeleton dressed like Uncle Sam, and the iconic steal-your-face symbol.
A cartoonish biker cruised on the screen for “Hell in a Bucket,” a tune whose catchy chorus (“I may be going to hell in a bucket, babe / But at least I'm enjoying the ride”) served as a reminder of how many Grateful Dead lyrics are now aphorisms that stand the test of time.
Fan favorites from the first set included a Weir-sung cover of Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” “Cumberland Blues” (accompanied by some grim black and white photos of coal miners) and the counterculture “U.S. Blues.”
The second set took off with “Shakedown Street,” the Grateful Dead’s indelible 1970s disco jam. The band coalesced on a joyful “Uncle John’s Band,” followed by Mickey Hart’s and Bill Kreutzmann’s galactic, exploratory “Drums” into “Space” solo. The night ended with an encore of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” followed by a reprise of “Playing in the Band.”