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Dead & Company kick off farewell tour with a soaring show at the Kia Forum

“I need a miracle,” read the signs held by dozens of fans outside the Kia Forum before Dead & Company took the stage Friday for the first of two shows in Inglewood this weekend.

“I need a miracle.” It’s been Deadhead code for decades, long before Dead & Company brought three surviving members of the legendary San Francisco group together with singer-guitarist John Mayer in 2015 to keep the music of the Dead alive. In the parlance of the parking lot, it’s a prayer, a plea from the ticketless to the ticketed for a way into the show.

Now the miracles are running out. For Dead & Company, despite success enough to fill arenas and stadiums, this is the final tour. What began at the Forum on Friday and Saturday will end at Oracle Park in San Francisco on July 14-15.

John Mayer of Dead & Company performs on the first of two nights at the KIA Forum in Inglewood on Friday, May 19, 2023. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

Mickey Hart of Dead & Company performs on the first of two nights at the KIA Forum in Inglewood on Friday, May 19, 2023. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

Dead & Company performs on the first of two nights at the KIA Forum in Inglewood on Friday, May 19, 2023. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

Bob Weir of Dead & Company performs on the first of two nights at the KIA Forum in Inglewood on Friday, May 19, 2023. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

John Mayer of Dead & Company performs at the KIA Forum in Inglewood on Friday, May 19, 2023. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

John Mayer of Dead & Company performs on the first of two nights at the KIA Forum in Inglewood on Friday, May 19, 2023. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

Jay Lane of Dead & Company performs on the first of two nights at the KIA Forum in Inglewood on Friday, May 19, 2023. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

Dead & Company performs at the KIA Forum in Inglewood on Friday, May 19, 2023. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

The band Mums The Word performs in the parking lot before Dead & Company’s first of two nights at the KIA Forum in Inglewood on Friday, May 19, 2023. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

From left, long time Dead & Company fans Andy Bielanow and Clay Archer pose for a photograph before their performance at the KIA Forum in Inglewood on Friday, May 19, 2023. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

Sunglasses available for purchase in the parking lot before Dead & Company’s performance at the KIA Forum in Inglewood on Friday, May 19, 2023. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

From left, Wendy Calhoun, Nichole Banks and Allison Wolcott pose for a photograph before attending Dead & Company’s performance at the KIA Forum in Inglewood on Friday, May 19, 2023. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

Bob Weir of Dead & Company performs at the KIA Forum in Inglewood on Friday, May 19, 2023. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

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What do you do when the end is nigh? For the Dead, you celebrate life, and that’s exactly what happened as the band played 18 songs in two sets over four glorious hours of music like only Dead & Company, and the Grateful Dead before them, can make.

Taking off: Set 1

“Shakedown Street,” the title track of the Dead’s 1978 album, kicked off the show, its laidback dance-beat rhythms getting the sold-out crowd onto their feet, dancing, hands aloft, chiming in on every “Woo!” in the song.

Guitarist Bobby Weir, 75, took lead vocals on this one. He and drummer Mickey Hart, 79, got huge cheers as their faces appeared on the video screens. With drummer Bill Kreutzmann, 77, choosing to sit out this tour, Weir and Hart are the last of the original Dead.

John Mayer, 45, a star in his own right before his love for the Dead led him to co-create Dead & Company, stood to Weir’s right, singing backing vocals on “Shakedown Street” before taking the first of many long, lyrical guitar solos that wove in and out of the jams laid down by the rest of the band – bassist Oteil Burbridge, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, and drummer Jay Lane.

“Cold Rain and Snow,” a song from the Grateful Dead’s 1967 debut followed, done here with more of a funk feel than the country vibe of the original recording. This time Mayer sang lead, filling the vocal and instrumental role once played by the late Jerry Garcia.

Other highlights of the opening set included the rollicking “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” and the slow blues of “They Have Each Other.” The fan favorite “St. Stephen,” at 20 minutes, the longest single song of the night, was gorgeous from start to finish, but especially an extended section where Weir and Mayer traded guitar licks back and forth.

Ninety minutes after it started, “Deal,” one of three songs pulled from Jerry Garcia’s 1972 solo debut “Garcia,” wrapped up the first set with a hard-rocking blues that showcased both Mayer’s similarities to Garcia as a musician – the lyrical beauty of his playing most of all – and his differences: He’s often got a heavy, harder edge to his sound.

Earlier in the parking lot

There’s no opening act for Dead & Company. You don’t really need one given the show that takes place hours before the concert in Participation Row, a vendor village that travels with the Dead from venue to venue selling, well, anything a Deadhead might want or need.

Tie-dyed T-shirts and other wearable merch filled many of the 100 or so booths on the Manchester Avenue border of the Kia Forum. You want something with a skull or a skeleton on it? They got you covered. Dancing bears, a nod to the Dead’s legendary soundman Owsley “Bear” Stanley, were another popular motif on everything from infant onesies to bucket hats made of hemp.

You may not be surprised to learn that other things are also on offer throughout the parking lot. From pot – duh, it’s legal here now – to mushroom-infused chocolate to giant balloons filled with nitrous oxide – laughing gas like your dentist used to give you, you could find it.

If you thought that hippies in the style of the Summer of Love were a thing of the past, a stroll down Participation Row would quickly change that idea.

Peaking: Set 2

“Sugaree,” another crowd favorite, opened the second set of the night, a gentler, rolling blues that demonstrated Chementi’s jaunty piano and Mayer’s ability to unleash long single-note licks that show off his technical chops without ever losing the emotional content of the song.

“New Speedway Boogie” gave fans a cut from the popular 1970 release “Workingman’s Dead,” with Weir’s gruff vocals meshing wonderfully with the chunk-a-chunk rhythms of the song. “Eyes of the World” clocked in at 18 minutes, enough time for everyone in the band to take a solo – Burbridge’s bass solo was particularly lovely – and enough time, too, to close your eyes and let the spotlights flash in random patterns on your eyelids as you felt the groove wash over you.

Dead & Company mix up the setlist from night to night more than most bands – most of Friday’s songs won’t be repeated on Saturday – but you are always going to get “Drums” and “Space,” two instrumental songs that for years have given the spotlight to Hart and Kreutzmann (or Lane on this tour) and also given a good number of fans to head for the bathroom or the bar.

Weir and Mayer eventually came back on stage to add guitars to the almost ambient music of “Space,” and then segue into “The Wheel” and “Wharf Rat,” the latter a highlight for Weir’s vocals in particular.

“Sugar Magnolia,” after “Shakedown Street” the song even the most casual fan would know in the show, closed out the main set with a sweet, upbeat glide through its lyrics and music. The only track in the set from 1970’s “American Beauty” album, it wrapped things up beautifully, with Weir’s shift into the “Sunshine Daydream” coda a perfect finish to the song.

“Thank you, you’re too kind,” Weir said on returning to the stage for the encore, and that was pretty much the extent of the stage banter on Friday. Why bother when you’ve got the music to speak for you, I suppose? “Black Muddy River,” a gorgeous Americana blues, delivered the encore, and then it was back to the parking lot, one less show on the road to the finish.

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