Dead & Company at Las Vegas’ Sphere: Review

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Dead & Company graphic from Sphere (photo courtesy Dead & Company, used with permission)

It’s been nearly six decades since a Bay Area jug band plugged in and became the Grateful Dead, eventually evolving into an unprecedented musical and cultural phenomenon. With the 1995 death of lead guitarist and singer Jerry Garcia, two of the surviving members have since morphed into Dead & Company, whose current personnel consists of original Dead members Bobby Weir (guitar, vocals) and Mickey Hart (drums, percussion), with the band filled out by John Mayer (lead guitar, vocals), Oteil Burbridge (bass, percussion, vocals), Jeff Chimenti (keyboards) and Jay Lane (drums).

Graphic of the Grateful Dead’s 1970s-era Wall of Sound behind the current Dead & Company stage setup (Photo courtesy of Dead & Company, used with permission)

On June 13-14, 2024, Dead & Company were midway through an eight-weekend residency at the recently opened Sphere in Las Vegas, where they reprised many of the Dead’s beloved tunes and made excellent use of the venue’s technological capabilities.

The band is well-oiled, and there were no discernible glitches either night. Continuing in the tradition of the Dead, the band delivered two sets at Sphere each night. The first set at each show, around an hour long, largely consisted of shorter stand-alone songs and the latter, much longer and more jam-focused, featured medleys serving as a connecting thread. Keeping another Dead tradition alive, the setlists (and visuals) were sufficiently different both nights so that true Dead Heads ponying up for multiple shows were rewarded with a different experience each visit.

Dead & Company’s Bobby Weir at Sphere (Photo courtesy of Dead & Company, used with permission)

There was no overlap in the song selection either night, but the structure of the shows was similar. The second set included the usual freeform section (long ago dubbed “Drums>Space” by fans) that is either nirvana or the best time to go get another beer, depending on one’s interest in experimental improvisation. Regardless, the lights finally came back up each night about four hours after the start time.

Comparing the two nights, this reviewer felt that the music was better the first night and the visual accompaniment better the second. “Truckin’,” a song that first appeared on 1970’s American Beauty and has remained a mainstay of Dead-related live shows since, was the second song on that first night, its lyrics reflecting on the peripatetic nature of the band. Another highlight was the Johnny Cash song “Big River,” another ode to traveling that has been a staple of Dead shows for decades, with Weir singing the lead vocal.

Related: Our Album Rewind of American Beauty

“St. Stephen,” an early showcase stemming from the Dead’s peak psychedelic era, written by the late Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter with Dead bassist Phil Lesh (who, at 84, still performs with his own groups, featuring an ever-revolving personnel), opened the second set. That segment also featured a couple of British covers, Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and the Beatles’  “Hey Jude” (the latter a song that the Dead first performed in 1969, then shelved until the ’80s), before rolling into the aforementioned “Drums>Space,” which allowed Hart and Lane to flex their percussive chops. The graphics, by this point in the evening, were especially galactic, with nebulae and visual kaleidoscopes often staggering in their complexity.

Watch the band perform “St. Stephen” on June 13, 2024

When the rest of the band returned to the stage and the music returned closer to Earth, they launched into a gentle version of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Remember You.” Weir’s plaintive vocals were perfect. A swing through “Fire on the Mountain,” Garcia-Hunter’s “Brown-Eyed Women”  and then the penultimate song “Black Muddy River” closed the loop on where we started.

Watch “I’ll Remember You” as performed at Sphere

The musicianship across both evenings was astounding. Weir and Mayer traded guitar licks with aplomb while the rhythm section of Hart and Lane, joined by Burbridge, kept everything from going off the rails. Keyboardist Chimenti was given enough room to stretch out in several numbers.

On the next night, the second song, “The Music Never Stopped” (which followed an opening “Good Lovin’,” the Olympics/Rascals hit sung by the late Ron “Pigpen” McKernan in the Dead’s early years), was an equally effective choice, but the remainder of the first set was a bit sluggish. The once boyish Weir, who looks these days like your crazy hairy uncle, returned to the stage before Hart was finished touring the stratosphere with “Drums>Space,” causing Weir to retreat for five more minutes. “Morning Dew,” a folk song repurposed by the Dead on their debut album and a staple of their shows for the duration, was the penultimate song of the evening and was almost as effective as the similar song the night before.

Grateful Dead memorabilia graphic overtakes Las Vegas’ Sphere during Dead & Company’s June 2024 performance (Photo courtesy of Dead & Company, used with permission)

The domed Sphere, incidentally, is a phenomenal venue. Much is made, understandably, of the incredible graphics available to the artist, but it should be noted that the sound system is one of the best in any venue anywhere. With the Beatles’ Cirque du Soleil “LOVE” show closing in a couple of weeks, that will leave Sphere as the undisputed audiophile location west of the Mississippi, or perhaps anywhere.

Eagles have announced a residency at Sphere, which provides an interesting dichotomy. Whereas Dead & Company plays a different set every night and each song is never played the same way twice, Eagles will perform the songs exactly the way we hear them on record.

But the Dead have always done things the “wrong” way. They allowed fans to tape their shows, they started their own ticketing service, and they usually don’t bother performing their only top 10 hit, “Touch of Grey.” These performances at Sphere indicate that not following that list of long, strange rules can lead to success.

Watch “Jack Straw” from June 13 with the full Sphere graphics

Tickets to see the residency at Sphere are available here. The Grateful Dead’s recorded output, including many 50th anniversary editions, is available here.

Brad Auerbach

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