Dead & Company | June 20, 21 & 22, 2024 | Sphere | Las Vegas, NV – Concert Review & Photo Gallery

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Review & photos by Shawn Perry

“After this, I don’t know if I can ever go to another concert again…”

That was a sentiment I heard at least a half-dozen times over the three nights Dead & Company played Sphere in Las Vegas. It was the third and final weekend of June for the group’s summer-long residency that started in May (they still have July and August to go). In other words, we were near the halfway point of an eyes-and-ears all-in immersive production that fans will likely talk about for years to come. Whether or not, this will be the final concert for anyone is another conversation for another day, though it would certainly be a high note to go out on.

Like so many, I thought I’d seen my last Dead & Company show. Their final tour in 2023, however, was open to interpretation…“tour” being the operative term. Even so, it ain’t over until it’s over, and when it comes to anything to do with the Grateful Dead, there’s always a card up someone’s sleeve. Clearly, the spectacular one-of-a-kind Sphere in Las Vegas offered a formidable challenge. U2 and Phish had already showed their fans what the dome-shaped venue outfitted with the most advanced high-definition audio-visual technology was capable of. For Dead & Company, a four-month residency is taking the whole concept even further.

I hadn’t tackled a three-show marathon since 1995 when I attended the Grateful Dead’s final stand in Las Vegas. Nearly 30 years later, the city hasn’t lost its love affair with the group and the numerous Deadheads who follow them. Only this time, it’s far more organized and centralized. In addition to Dead & Company’s three-night runs, there are plenty of related attractions close by. During my stay, I would visit both the Dead Forever Experience at The Venetian Resort and Shakedown Street at the Tuscany Suites and Casino. More on that later.

For now, it was all about getting to the Sphere for the first show. On this particular day, the first day of summer, the temps were registering a dry heat of around 107. Out-of-towners like myself have a range of options on how to angle the weather. I chose a nearby hotel, within walking distance, and braved the heat for a 30-minute stroll. Once you reach the Sphere and step inside, you may notice a sudden coolness — agreeable for some; an I-need-a-sweater-or-hoodie situation for others. Either way, you can’t ignore the great respite from the sweltering inferno on the outside. If it gets too chilly, hoodies are available for $80 at the merch table.

Inside the ball, so to speak, the scantily lit framing creates a mysterious aura — and you try to make sense of how exactly the whole venue comes alive. For a first-timer, which I was tonight, there’s a lot to take in as the floor fills up and more ticket-holders find their seats on the 100, 200, 300 or 400 level. The sheer scale…and the spectacle that follows is beyond description. You really have to see it firsthand to appreciate its breadth.

Receiving its residency debut, “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” adequately got the party started without giving up the ghost. Everyone in the band had a wall cameo and the house shook from its roots. So far, the visuals were minimal and the framing was still visible. But then the tinkling of “Playing In The Band” cracked the dome open and the entire wall transformed into an eye-popping concentration of San Francisco Victorian row houses, including the famous 710 Ashbury residence where members of the Grateful Dead once lived and worked. A car passed by, and the Bay Area skyline started to expand. The whole scene pulled back and away and upward. We’d be orbiting the earth for the next three hours.

Obviously, in order to coordinate the images with the music, the songs and their extended jams had to conform to a more rigid structure than usual. Any chance for a little ad lib noodling was strictly off the table. That, fortunately, wasn’t an issue. The players easily coalesced into a free-flowing machine without a hint of adherence to a specific pattern or arrangement, providing a nurtured and super-sonically charged soundtrack to the most incredible concert experience in the world.

Bob Weir was in remarkably fine form vocally, given his gruffier delivery that has somehow worked to his advantage. Guitarist John Meyer is simply extraordinary; his guitar playing very much aligned with Jerry Garcia’s gift to flourish, but a little edgier and defiant in its assault. The guitarist’s facial expressions when he dive-bombs through a solo spot is telling about his depth of appreciation for this music. Given his status as a solo artist and celebrity of sorts, it was striking to see Meyer’s astute approach and reverence to the vamp he unleashed as a rocket ship blasted overhead with a roar.

“Tennessee Jed” was embellished with a colorful animation of a Tennessee countryside with presumably the Cumberland or Tennessee River streaming down the middle, a flock of birds flying across, a log cabin with a chimney spewing puffs of smoke, and a relaxed Jerry Garcia on the front porch. It felt just like home. “Dire Wolf” and “Greatest Story Ever Told” were two more new ones to the Las Vegas setlist. The crowd happily sang out the chorus of “Don’t murder me” on the latter as the entire backdrop and ceiling populated with Grateful Dead ticket stubs, concert posters, and backstage passes. Billows of color absorbed the room when “Sugaree” closed the set. Watching Weir and Meyer exchange complementary leads was reminiscent of seeing how it was done in the Grateful Dead. We were already half-way through the night, and it felt like the best was yet to come.

During the intermission, some folks scrambled for refreshments and the restroom, while others sat still, trying to figure out just what happened. The Sphere truly enables a veritable feast of visuals, and the world of the Grateful Dead is rife with an image-rich history all its own. The U2 and Phish runs certainly had their own way of enhancing the music; Dead & Company’s angle aligns with one of the greatest rock and roll stories of all time. The Eagles’ upcoming fall gigs at the Sphere could follow that route or possibly be something else altogether. Given the Sphere’s scope and dimensions, one can only imagine what the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and the Who could do here. Taylor Swift could also undoubtedly tap into the full potential of the Sphere.

Sunflowers began falling from above and settle into place, building up a fortress while Dead & Company casually slipped into “China Cat Sunflower.” Weir huffed through the lines and Meyer scuttled around the melody before jumping into a solo that sent chills up into the 400s. They segued into “I Know You Rider” and more Grateful Dead lore filled in the sightlines, this time images of famous venues the group played at — Winterland, Cornell, the Fillmore West, Radio City Music Hall, and Madison Square Garden. No doubt landmark locations, though a nod to the Silver Bowl might have been nice.

Where Weir’s finely aged voice came to a fore was during “He’s Gone,” a song written loosely about the Grateful Dead’s first fallen member from grace, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. It was always emotive when Garcia sang it; Weir moves the needle over as he delivers “Nothin’s gonna bring him back…” with an authentic tinge of sadness and finality. As he’s said, singing Garcia’s parts help keep those songs alive. Tonight, Weir, Meyer and the rest of the band carried out that sentiment throughout.

Amidst a sensory overload of dancing bears, floating eyeballs, and banjo-wielding turtles, a profound chemistry came to a boil during “The Other One,” especially between John Meyer and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti. The two eye-balled each other with expectation and surprise. Chimenti’s gift for brightening the voids and driving the direction thrives with Meyer’s accompaniment. Meanwhile, bassist Oteil Burbridge lightly brushes the lower end with the touch of an impressionistic painter. And keeping it tight and on pace, drummers Mickey Hart and Jay Lane intuitively maneuver the beats and rhythms that give the rest of the ensemble a springboard to evolve and formulate from. It all seemed to fall together under a gazing moon above the Pyramids and Great Sphinx of Giza, reminders of the Dead’s insouciant sojourn to Egypt in 1978.

During the “Drums/Space” sequence of Grateful Dead shows, a good portion of the audience stepped away. If you do the same during any of the Sphere shows, you are doing yourself a great disservice. Always a full-bodied aural experience, “Drums/Space” notches it up to a whole other dimension in the Sphere. After the full-frontal assault by Hart, Lane and Burbridge on the arsenal of percussion devices, Hart took centerstage, exploring the soundscape with his blaster beam, described as a “long C-shaped slab of metal fitted with guitar pickups and piano strings.” This is an instrument Hart had a hand in inventing and it’s been part of Grateful Dead shows and the drummer’s own catalog since the 1980s (Fun fact: It was also used incidentally in the film, Apocalypse Now.)

Sphere has, according to one report, “the world’s most advanced concert-grade audio system” with a 3D beam-forming sound that focuses on specific areas throughout the space of the venue. Hart stroked the strings of his MIDI-fired blaster beam, creating a sound wave that rang out into the atmosphere, panning left to right, front to back, his image on the ceiling and floating drums, levitating brains, electromatic fish, and fluttering space dust everywhere else. A full withdrawal began as soon as the rest of the band resumed their positions and “The Wheel” emerged to snap everyone out of their “Drum/Space” trance.

Meyer chiseled out the Garcia guitar lines on “The Wheel” to a fine sharpness before the group spilled right into “Franklin’s Tower” and its joy-befitted refrain of “roll away the dew.” The room began to spin just as a giant simulated disco ball came into view. “U.S. Blues” introduced a dancing “Uncle Sam” skeleton, briefly joined by a skeleton chorus line before jumping on a motorcycle and taking everyone for a wild ride through Grateful Dead land.

It was certainly a night of favorites, so when Weir’s “Throwing Stones” wafted out from the stage, how much better could it get? And this was only the first night! Weir was at his most winsome — a showcase of existential ballyhooing. It was the wind-down portion of the show, where the earth was on the radar and we’d soon be back in Haight-Ashbury. A short news segment about the Grateful Dead’s early days in the neighborhood followed. A nostalgic walk-through of “Turn On Your Love Light” ended the night on a high note. There was definitely a spring in everyone’s step as we exited and made our way across the bridge to the Venetian.

At various times between shows, I explored both the Dead Forever Experience at The Venetian Resort and Shakedown Street at the Tuscany Suites and Casino. Each offers glimpses into the Grateful Dead culture, if you’re willing to spend the time and money to push the envelope. The Dead Forever Experience at the Venetian has a very nice array of photographs, posters, and exhibits to check out. It also has offers plenty of collectible merchandise, including show posters, apparel, and accessories. Open to all and free of admission, it’s a must-see if you’re in town for a show…or two…or all three.

Just before heading to Sphere for the second show, I walked over to the Tuscany Suites and Casino for Shakedown Street. As someone who used to love the Shakedown Street stroll before and after a Grateful Dead show, I found this one to   a little more reigned in with posted hours and a line to wait in. Considering the hot weather, it probably makes more sense than anyone is willing to admit keeping it indoors, within the confines of the Tuscany’s air-conditioned meeting rooms.

There’s a good number of vendors selling Grateful Dead and Dead & Company t-shirts, stickers, pins, and assorted ephemeral. Pricing is just a tad under what you’ll pay at The Dead Forever Experience shops and Sphere pop-ups. Missing in action are $5 IPAs and parking lot grilled cheese sandwiches. Thankfully, the bartender at the downstairs Tuscany bar made really good White Russians.

Finding my way to my seat on the 100 level, I assessed the sections above and around me. Everyone raves about how the upper levels are the best places to be for the most immersive elements of the shows. I was lucky in that I had a full view of the walls and the ceiling. Someone sitting a few rows back from where I was would have an obstructed view because the eaves of the upper sections block the ceiling. I never heard any complaints, nor did I step back to see for myself. I didn’t feel as though I was missing out on any of the action. It might have been interesting to roam up to the 300 section to see what all the fuss was about, but I couldn’t pull myself away.

As I was to find out, much of the same imagery and visual gimmicks from the first night would pop up behind different songs on night two. (Spoiler alert: the same would happen on the third night). This didn’t, in anyway, detract from their impact and placement within the sets. It would take years to create different sequences for every song Dead & Company play. Everything they had worked well with each pairing.

I realized that all three nights were bookended with the same San Francisco-to-space sequence, and it made the story all the more fascinating. Opening with Sam Cooke’s joyous “Good Times,” which had Weir, Meyer, and Chimenti chipping in a verse, a fuzzy and warm feeling reverberated from the floor. Meyer and Chimenti tossed the ball back and forth as a spirited “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodelo” sprung forth and opened up the sky. The audience joined in on the chorus of “Across the Rio Grand-eo…Across the lazy river…” and the night was off to another winning start.

A take of The Band’s “The Weight” had everyone on the frontline piping in on a verse. Rick Danko would have been proud to see Weir dress up his part. Both “Lost Sailor” and “Saint of Circumstance” introduced an animated ship floating in a purple-glazed body of water, a Northern Lights sky hovering above. “Casey Jones” set the place ablaze with the big, bad wolf and his lightning bolts for eyes, a sprinkling of more colorful lightning bolts shooting up to the ceiling. Both Meyer and Weir sang the verses and joined in on the chorus. Meyer played a burning solo and stirred up the crowd. Instead of accelerating and picking up the pace as the Dead did, they returned to the chorus and wound it down easily.

During the second night’s intermission, I took closer notice of the song lyrics flashed on the wall. How about: “SUCH A LONG, LONG TIME TO BE GONE AND A SHORT TIME TO BE THERE.” That would be from “Box of Rain,” a song by Phil Lesh, somewhat waywardly conspicuous in his absence. Having the last bassist, an incredible presence and musician, from the Allman Brothers Band is about the only way you can justify Lesh’s choice to not be part of Dead & Company. He’s more intent on dissecting “Dark Star” in a more intimate setting.

“YOU MIGHT REALLY CONSIDER THE CIRCUS ‘ CAUSE IT JUST MIGHT BE YOUR KIND OF ZOO” from “Hell In A Bucket” is another one that popped up. Tonight, there wasn’t the circus of halftime at Grateful Dead shows, just anticipation for the next big production of Grateful Dead gold. The second set began with “Help On The Way” and “Slipknot!” A visual of the famous Wall of Sound grew in stature, and it was hard not to take a step back and go “Wow!” Instead of drifting into “Franklin’s Tower,” which they played the night before, they went into “Deal,” rather fitting given where we were all at.

Instead of sunflowers, roses began raining from the ceiling during “Scarlet Begonias.” Hearing it properly paired with “Fire On The Mountain” was even better; though Hart’s midstream rap was an unexpected curve ball. He wrote it, so he’s entitled to do whatever he wants with it. A flight over snow-covered mountains and more dancing bears, turtles, and skulls took us to a natural dropping off point for the “Drums/Space” sequence, which offered virtually the same wonderment and sensation as Thursday.

It was most pleasant to hear Bob Weir moan out the heavy words of “Standing On The Moon,” a classic Hunter-Garcia song. Video of the band in black and white appeared with a full moon overhead. It might have been the most dramatic moment so far. Weir’s delivery was deliberate and cautious. “A lovely view of heaven…But I’d rather be with you…” he mumbled mournfully. There couldn’t have been more than a dozen dry eyes in the house.

Mayer perked everyone up with a wind up and pitch of “Brown-Eyed Women,” which received the concert venue treatment, though the sequencing was altered somewhat. You can’t help but marvel how much the visuals bring to the table. Someone asked me if they detracted from the music. Used correctly, they most definitely enhance the music. Sure, I could watch the band without all the razzamatazz, but what’s the fun in that when Sphere is here to take it to another level.

“Eyes Of The World” swam in psychedelics before dissolving into space and the trip back down to earth. After the news report on the Grateful Dead, a flurry of memorabilia and photos lit up the room and “Touch Of Grey” brought the second night to a delightful close.

I remember that feeling the morning of the third night in a row whenever I saw the Grateful Dead. It was one of high anticipation coupled with sadness that it was all come to an end. By now, I knew I’d see a lot of the same visuals, but as long as it was with different songs, which it most certainly would be, that sustained my interest. That’s what’s always been exciting about The Grateful Dead, Dead & Company, Phish and other jam bands — that element of surprise that comes with playing two brand new set of songs each and every night. Even if they’ve been replicating everything on previous weekends, it wasn’t going to happen over three nights. I won’t even go back and check.

That being said, there were a handful of songs that they hadn’t yet played that I was hoping to hear. Safe to say, I wasn’t disappointed. Tonight, at precisely 7:30, the members of Dead & Company stepped right up and unveiled “Minglewood Blues” against the red, white and blue silhouettes of the Sphere’s framing. Weir applied some slide handiwork to the middle section to sweeten the turn out, and the sky once again parted as “Shakedown Street” percolated and set the beat. Meyer was especially hot on the “wah-wahs” of the guitar around the song’s corners.

“Bertha” basked in a tropical jungle with a running waterfall. It was like being in the middle of a Disney movie. Weir touted his vocal chops on Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” before dipping his wick into “Jack Straw.” The famous “Steal Your Face” logo hung above the stage, live video playing inside the skull. Meyer played a beautiful solo, brimming with mercy and heart. Uncle Sam, dancing skeletons, dancing bears, flying turtles, and the rest of the gang returned for “Sugar Magnolia” to end the first set. The slow, bluesy ending had Weir giving it his all.

You could feel the weekend coming to an end during the break. What was left? Lots, so it could go anyway. All I know is that they squeezed in two of my personal favorites before they even got to “Drums/Space.” The Tennessee landscape made one last appearance while “Uncle John’s Band” chugged along with Meyer and Chimenti chasing the Trane. Then it took a quick left into a staggering “St. Stephen,” which clearly lit a fire in the belly of anyone in Sphere over 65.

I got my wish with “Morning Dew.” I remember seeing the Grateful Dead perform the song in 1992, just a few miles from where I was standing now. It remains one of my most eloquent concert memories. Hearing it tonight aligned the planets in my mind and on the giant screen before me. Meyer rolled with the mood, then went long with the drama and measure of staccato. “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway…” faded into another wish — “Terrapin Station.” I was expecting images of turtles galore surrounding the Grateful Dead epic, but instead the dancing bears took over. It seemed to pass through quickly before the “Drums/Space” sequence.

A myriad of colorful fractals moved about as Hart brazed his blaster beam with a pipe, the strings vibrating and rattling out a haunting, almost unsettling ooze of sonic bewilderment. The night’s second Dylan cover of “All Along The Watchtower” allowed the band to really up the tempo and reignite the senses. “Stella Blue” and “Brokedown Palace” double downed on the jams as a spiral blew through and the rings of Saturn came into play. From there, we started to head back home, down to earth for a third and final descent into the homestretch.

In Haight-Ashbury, that old news broadcast around the Grateful Dead roundly cemented the band’s legacy. The determination of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” a traditional closer, had the whole floor rejoicing in the freedom of being around other likeminded Deadheads. The chorus continued while the band took their bows, exchanging hugs after a solid three weeks in Vegas.

After resting up, they’ll be back at it for another two weekends in July, then again in August. What happens after that is something only John Meyer and Bob Weir know. Hard to say if they’ll be able to come up with something to top the run at the Sphere. Keep in mind that after this, there’s a small contingent of the audience who don’t know if they can ever go to another concert again.

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