Having put in the good, hard work on yet another hugely successful Summer tour, Dead & Company decided to bring 2019 to a close with a series of shows fewer in quantity but of optimal quality, starting in mid-Autumn with 6 shows – split two apiece between three venues with revered roles in Grateful Dead history - then concluding in December with two-night runs in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the latter culminating in the traditional New Year’s Eve revelry. To kick off the first leg of the mini-tour, known as the “Fall Fun Run,” the band couldn’t have hoped for a more perfect location or occasion: in New York City, at the iconic Madison Square Garden, on one of the most eagerly anticipated of all dates on the Dead Head calendar, Halloween night.
However, the festive mood had a certain solemn undercurrent about it this time, as this would be the first Dead & Company performance following the passing a few weeks earlier of an irreplaceable member of the family: longtime Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. It was expected that the band would pay appropriate tribute to our beloved bard. What they delivered was much more than just appropriate.
In an inspired and deeply moving opening to the show, core Grateful Dead alumni, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart take to the stage by themselves while their newer bandmates, John Mayer, Jeff Chimenti and Oteil Burbridge wait in the wings. With Bob on acoustic guitar, the trio launches into one of the most treasured of all the songs Hunter wrote with Jerry Garcia, “Ripple,” with images of Robert projected on the video screens flanking the stage, and the rest of the band joining them in mid-song. From that beautiful beginning Dead and Company moves through a stellar and varied first set including such highlights as “Shakedown Street,” “Bertha,” “They Love Each Other” and the always powerful “Terrapin Station.” As usual, Bob announces that the band will be back in just a little bit, but Mickey and Bill have a little Halloween treat in store – inviting Oteil Burbridge back onstage for a rare honor: a “horning” ceremony marking his induction into the brotherhood of Rhythm Devils. Taken completely by surprise, Oteil is presented with cape and devil-horned mask to make it official.
After intermission, a bit of variation on some spontaneously created chord changes eventually morphs into a satisfying excursion into “Playing In The Band.” But just as they seem about to arrive at the song’s reprise, the band makes a deft detour into the unmistakable intro to “Truckin’” which in turn gives way dovetails into an “Uncle John’s Band” that opens up into some fine improvisational give and take on its way to what one would think was the song’s vocal coda – but just as with “Playing In The Band,” the ending is jettisoned, replaced by a solo piano interlude from Jeff that becomes the opening of the heartbreaking “China Doll.” After that poignant and reflective moment, the dance floor heats up again with an impeccably swinging “Eyes Of The World,” featuring strong instrumental statements John, Jeff and Oteil, before the stage is turned over to Mickey and Bill – joined, of course, by the newly anointed Rhythm Devil, Oteil - for an especially lengthy and spirited Drums outing. A Space sequence full of intriguing twists and turns lights the way toward the always-uplifting “The Wheel,” a characteristically affecting “Standing On The Moon” and to bring it home, the dependably joy-inducing “Sugar Magnolia.”
Those with a keen eye will note that every single song played in those two wide-ranging sets had one feature in common: lyrics by Robert Hunter. Dead & Company had chosen the best imaginable way to honor the man: through his extraordinary art.
Of course, it was still Halloween, so for the encore the band allowed a single departure from the evening’s theme - Warren Zevon’s classic “Werewolves of London.” We figure Hunter wouldn’t have minded the company.