The Grateful Dead was always a multi-headed beast, and the same goes for legacy offshoots like Dead & Company, the on-brand torch carrier featuring three core members of the Dead. (A fourth surviving member, bassist Phil Lesh, has retired from touring.)
Though its musical adventures may seem to the newbie like a big free-for-all, the Dead’s aesthetic has always been about a dance between form and chaos. Even the deepest improvisational tour of the cosmos resolves into soft re-entry, with a reassuring coherence asserting itself throughout the wandering path of each two-set outing.
So it was again for Dead & Company’s Saturday night concert at Fenway Park, the first of two. As did the group’s corresponding show last summer, this one proved a forceful musical statement that revealed the ensemble performing somewhere near its peak.
Rhythm guitarist Bob Weir and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart give the affair its gravitas — a direct link to 50-plus years of shared musical history. But lead guitarist John Mayer’s particular skills are essential to the personality of Dead & Company, and he continues to mark out a space in this music for his blues-based touch.
Mayer embroidered opener “The Music Never Stopped” with thoughtful lead lines throughout and seldom paused for breath. There was a sense of Mayer being hamstrung early on by the very gentle tempi the group’s elder statesmen favor for most tunes, before he uncorked some double-time solos in a fiery, late-set “Sugaree.”
A generous, 100-minute second set unfolded with propulsive linearity, like a story that made way for digressions but ultimately curled toward resolution. After a stylish “Dancing in the Street” and a celebratory “Help On The Way,” the instrumental “Slipknot!” wobbled into a surprisingly free jam that might have been spurred by a missed cue. The group swung in open time for several minutes before a powerful return to “Slipknot!” and an unexpected drop into Weir’s hazy California anthem “Estimated Prophet.”
The group entered delightful stream-of-consciousness territory with an appropriately gorgeous “Eyes of the World” that resisted a push toward “Drums” and fell into a showcase for sticky- fingered bassist Oteil Burbridge, who kicked the groove back toward “Eyes” territory before the drummers again asserted themselves and led things into their nightly percussion showcase.
This “Drums” was not particularly coherent, but the ensuing “Space” segment was inspired and led, dream-like, into a partially formed reprise of “Eyes” that capped the set’s winding path into and out of open exploration.
But when extra-treat “Franklin’s Tower” was deconstructed before snapping back into form at full tempo for one last, joyous chorus, this elegantly sculpted show found its full shape. Happy accidents and purposeful gestures intermingled, each content to be mistaken for the other.
Dead & Company
At: Fenway Park, SaturdayJeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.