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Dead & Company at the Sphere: Skeletal grooving, iconic images

Updated May 27, 2024 - 7:15 pm

For all of the dazzling video display animating Dead & Company’s shows at the bulbous wonder, one image stands alone.

Glowing in black and white, he is an old hippy, an icon of the ’60s now in his 70s. His hair is long and silver and flows where it wants. He surveys his audience intensely and unflinchingly, his hands dancing across a favorite Fender guitar.

Grateful Dead deacon Bob Weir is the lord of the manor now. For the next 23 shows, this is Weir’s Sphere. The band is along for the ride (ride, ride) after opening to an adoring, soaring crowd Thursday night.

“Dead Forever” is the title and the promise. Guitar great John Mayer, adding younger-generation infusion to the band’s evolving audience, had promised something unprecedented out of these shows. He was note perfect, from the jump, during the Dead’s “Feel Like a Stranger,” a mind-blowing opening number that launches the audience into space.

The show opens with a close-up of a half-dozen Victorian houses in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district. The shot pans out, and moves up, up, ascending through the clouds, with the crowd shouting, “Woooo-hooo!”

We observe, in a slightly unsteady way, the San Francisco Bay, Golden Gate Bridge and Transamerica Pyramid in this great American city. We walk the clouds and enter an orbit best understood and appreciated by original Deadheads.

The opening contrasts U2’s voyage through Las Vegas history, with its flowing montage of our city’s images. There are no tossed dice, showgirls or Elvis images for Dead & Co. But a kickline of skeletons? They have that covered.

Also in this audio-visual concoction: a paint-by-numbers creek and woodsy landscape. An animated rain forest where the breeze catches your face. And a singular drum solo by Mickey Hart, to his solo number “Space,” which invokes dozens of different percussion instruments floating around the globe.

The Uncle Sam skeleton races across the screen on a Harley chopper during “Hell in a Bucket,” a highlight musically and visually. Tortoises danced. Bears grooved. So did the Deadheads in the crowd, where spirits are high and rhythm optional.

Weir and Mayer are steadily at the center. Mayer, a transcendent talent, delivers his mastery while also keeping his position as a simple bandmate. Oteil Burbridge is a master on bass, veteran Weir sideman Jeff Chimenti is on keys, and Jay Lane (who has replaced the original Dead member Bill Kreutzmann last year) joining Hart on percussion.

The show spans 19 songs for more than 3 1/2 hours, including a 20-minute break. This Dead & Co. performance was not totally sold out at show time, with GA seats running $80 on secondary-market sites just before the band took the stage. It’s a comparably accessible experience, if you are willing to invest more than five hours of life. More than 20 dates are coming, running through July.

The band closes with a gradual descent back to the cozy home in the Haight, where it all started in the mid-’60s (and a great touch to use a convertible Corvair and Buick Roadmaster, along with a vintage VW bus). A VO refers to a “young, psychedelic rock and roll band that calls themselves the Grateful Dead, a group of musicians that has amassed an impressive fan base of hippies.” And, “To the faithful following of this vibrant young band, there is no such thing as too many Grateful Dead shows.”

A cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and the Crickets’ “Fade Away” shuts it down. The sendoff plays to scrapbook images and time-worn ticket stubs. The unseen broadcaster from yesteryear says, “These free-spirited show-goers would prefer the music never stop.” For those in the community, “Dead Forever” is a forever way of life.

Have we confirmation?

Sphere Entertainment CEO James Dolan name-checked the Eagles in the venue’s earnings call last week. Dolan held up the legendary American rock band as among the acts planned for the Sphere. Great pickup on this from USA Today’s Melissa Ruggieri on this note.

During the call, Dolan spoke of the emphasis on visual artistry from the bands booked at the venue. “Every time an act books the Sphere, they have to create content around it. We will never have an act play the Sphere that doesn’t have something compelling on the screen … I think you’re going to find (with Dead & Company) that even if you’re not a Deadhead, you’re going to love this show. And I think the same will be true for the Eagles and the next acts we bring in.”

Sphere and Eagles officials have nothing to add or clarify on this statement.

To update recent Sphere buzz: Dolan has mentioned the Eagles, and Zac Brown has announced on comic Theo Von’s podcast that the Zac Brown Band is building a show for the Sphere. Prep the screen for little bit of chicken-fried, a cold beer on a Friday night, a pair of jeans that fit just right.

Cool Hang Alert

It’s Myron’s Nation at Cool Hang Central, with Michael Grimm at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Lon Bronson Band at 7 p.m. May 24. Grimm returns to The Smith Center with his blues revival of B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Johnny Lang. Bronson leads a powerhouse program of such luminaries as Tower of Power, Chicago, James Brown, Steely Dan and Joe Cocker. Both shows are nearly sold out, but hit thesmithcenter.com.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on X, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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