One of the longest enduring traditions in the Grateful Dead world, going all the way back to 1966, has been the coming together of the tribe at the end of December, to say goodbye to one year and usher in another in the most celebratory fashion humanly possible. Needless to say, Dead & Company weren’t about to mess with that cherished ritual. And so, just as they were gearing up for their Fall Fun Run on the East Coast, the band announced that they would wrap up 2019 with an exclamation point, beginning with a pair of shows in Los Angeles and then bringing it all back home to the Bay Area for two nights, concluding with the customary New Year’s Eve revelry.
Over the course of five-plus decades, the Grateful Dead – as well as various projects featuring core band members – have played various venues of escalating size to observe the turning of the year, from intimate rooms like the original Fillmore Auditorium (and, in the case of Jerry Garcia in a couple of years the Dead took the big night off, Keystone Berkeley) all the way up to large arenas such as the Cow Palace and Oakland Coliseum, with intermediate steps during that ascent at hallowed spots including Winterland and Oakland Auditorium (later redubbed the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center).
But in 2019, Dead & Company enjoyed a unique distinction – presiding over the very first New Year’s festivities at a brand-spankin’-new venue: Chase Center, a state-of-the-art multi-purpose arena on the San Francisco waterfront that had opened just a few months earlier, primarily to serve as home court for local hoop heroes the Golden State Warriors, lured across the Bay from Oakland by the promise of such snazzy new digs, but also well-designed with musical events in mind, offering excellent sightlines, cushy seating (not that sitting would be a high priority on these particular nights) and plenty of room to roam (and dance). The shiny new building generated an appropriate degree of oohing-and-ahhing from Dead Heads checking out the deluxe amenities on opening night of the two-show stand.
Oh, one more very important thing about this venue: the place sounds really good. That’s far from a given when it comes to arenas built for basketball, hockey and the like, but in this case a great deal of attention was paid to acoustical design, with the intention of providing the greatest sonic clarity attainable in a room of that size, and the proof was in the hearing from the first notes of the first song in Dead & Company’s Chase Center debut (of course, it helps to have a P.A. system as good as the one Dead & Co. carries, not to mention an audio wizard like Derek Featherstone doing the house mix).
Speaking of those first notes of that first song, Dead & Company made just the right call to launch the two-night celebration: the huge, unmistakable opening chord to “Shakedown Street” – just the thing to inspire the crowd to start heating up that brand-new dance floor and set the stage for a spirited first set with plenty of stylistic variety, from country to blues, from ballads to jazz-inspired exploration, with highlights including “Cumberland Blues,” “It Hurts Me Too,” and “High Time,” with an extended “Bird Song” to close out the first half.
Having gotten the feel of the new room in a hurry, the band hit the stage with a full head of steam for part two, embarking on a seamless dash through a killer list of favorites, starting with a relaxed “Music Never Stops,” and then a quick boost to the intensity quotient with “Deal.” Next up is one of the more potent combos in the repertoire: “St. Stephen” into “The Eleven” (complete with the “William Tell Bridge”) into “Turn On Your Love Light” (or as we oldsters who remember LPs like to put it, Sides Two & Three of Live/Dead). The momentum of “Lovelight” carries through to a pulsating Drums segment that’s at once highly energetic and hypnotic, followed by a Space sojourn that starts out abstract and ethereal but takes a turn about halfway through into a Jeff Chimenti-John Mayer-driven jam that feels something like George Benson’s hit arrangement of “On Broadway.” That rhythmic detour spirals neatly into “The Wheel,” which moves from a Caribbean-flavored coda into the exquisite “Stella Blue,” and to finish off the set, a hard-driving “Casey Jones.”
For the encore, a nice surprise: Dead & Company’s first-ever performance of Bob Dylan’s comic gem from the Basement Tapes era, “Quinn The Eskimo (Mighty Quinn).” And then it was time to head homeward, to rest up for the big fun to come on the following night.