Like many bands of its generation, the Grateful Dead has said goodbye more than once. There was the official disbandment of the group after Jerry Garcia’s 1995 death, as well as the Fare Thee Well concerts in 2015 that marked the remaining four members’ final time performing all together. And throughout those happenings, the members kept regrouping in various combinations like a restless spirit with unfinished business. Those multiple rounds of death and rebirth brought guitarist Bob Weir and drummer Mickey Hart — but not drummer Bill Kreutzmann, replaced by Jay Lane several times in recent weeks for ostensible health reasons — to Gillette Stadium on Saturday with their combination offshoot and tribute band Dead & Company.
With the speaker rig still unhoisted and a storm threatening, the band began at 7:10 with the low, midtempo simmers of “Cumberland Blues” and “Bertha” before the downpour arrived to clear the stadium. When they returned for their second set an hour later, a supple, extended cover of the Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin’” promised more of the same, but the formula began to vary afterwards. “Crazy Fingers” was slower and more elegant, with guitars that had a little more psychedelic curl to them, while at a mere five minutes long, the Little Feat-style blues funk of “Mr. Charlie” was practically a pop song. And the suite of “St. Stephen,” “William Tell Bridge,” and “The Eleven” seemed to build up a head of steam instead of simply exploring in stasis.
The latter is the sort of thing that can be catnip to Deadheads and deadly to everyone else, and it was naturally the group’s default setting. In the context of his solo career, John Mayer can be a showboating hotshot guitarist, but his leads with Dead & Company were mixed to be part of the patchwork of the arrangement, rather than stand out and above it. The flip side was that the songs lacked levels, with everyone lying at a single pace and not budging, sometimes for 20 minutes. An extended three-drummer spotlight coalesced into a space-rock jam not altogether different from “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” except that Pink Floyd’s song actually went somewhere.
But if the highlights differed only minutely from the rest, they did exist, from a groove-oriented “Dear Mr. Fantasy” that ended in an audience singalong of “Hey Jude” to the easygoing way the band made the lopsided 11/8 time signature of “The Eleven” as smooth as butter. And “Morning Dew” was a spacious, dynamic comedown, slow and plangent as Weir’s soft oaken voice brought the set to an end. Even then, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and the smoothed-over New Orleans roll of “One More Saturday Night” were still to come, because the Dead’s work was not done.
Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @spacecitymarc
DEAD & COMPANY
At: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Saturday