In a pretty sweet bit of cosmic humor, the first day of the Cite and Release program in Dallas for marijuana possession coincided with Friday night's Dead and Company concert at American Airlines Center. As ready-made as the scenario is for catchy headlines, there wasn't an abnormal glut of police officers roaming around the arena's perimeter collecting easy, extra revenue.
What could be seen in the parking lots and security lines, however, was perhaps the thing that's made the Grateful Dead's legend so powerful for many decades: It was a multi-generational group where white-collar types — the Deadhead driving a Cadillac as Don Henley famously sings about in "Boys of Summer" — casually mingled with road-weary, under-bathed itinerants with ease and understanding.
Starting at 7:15 p.m., John Mayer, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti launched into "Shakedown Street," a classic cut from 1978 that was welcomed by an explosion of high-fives, hugs and appreciative cheers throughout the packed arena.
As the first of set rolled on, one instantly recognizable tune after another was introduced. It was as if the group decided that since it had been almost 30 years since a Dallas audience had seen the Dead, they would bust out the big guns early and often.
"Brown-Eyed Woman," "Deep Elem Blues," a folk-inflected, down-tempo take on "Friend of the Devil" and a cover of the Marty Robbins 1959 country classic "El Paso" (a tune the band has regularly covered for decades), turned the first show's first hour into a Grateful Dead campfire singalong.
Weir and Mayer worked well together, communicating through eye contact and knowing nods while the drumming tandem of Hart and Kreutzmann made even well-oiled machines look rusty by comparison. Weir and Mayer handled the lion's share of vocal duties, often switching midsong. The effortless look the band gave to improvisation made each song a revelation — and represents what keeps people coming back for more.
Unlike in bands that replace an iconic leader who has died or otherwise departed, with a younger singer meant to only mimic the former leader's every past move, Mayer stepped into a spot in 2015 where he can, in many respects, be his own man. Sure, he sings many of Jerry Garcia's words and fulfills the same guitar parts, but thanks to the Dead's improvisational prowess, he's never been charged with developing some sort of Jerry Garcia 2.0.
The addition of Mayer, as surprising and polarizing as it was for many, was another way for the surviving Dead players to control the future by not being imprisoned by the past.
Absent from Mayer's performance Friday night was the bad-boy pop-star persona he's carefully nurtured for many years. For two sets totaling three hours, Mayer didn't so much as whisper to the crowd, letting his impressive, contortionist-quality range of so-called guitar faces speak almost as loudly as his stellar playing did throughout the evening. It can be easy to forget he's a certified guru on the guitar, but that's not something anyone present last night will forget again.
The second set featured more jamming and classic tunes, including "Fire on the Mountain" and a tender, resplendent cover of the Beatles' "Dear Prudence." The spaced-out, free-form guitar noodling and percussion demonstration tempered the pleasing pace of the night, but an incendiary, raucous version of "Casey Jones" was nothing short of a jubilant triumph.
Bringing the night of righteous vibes to a serene close was a ethereal version of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," where Weir and Mayer traded delicate vocals and equally delicate licks while dreamlike images of Garcia beamed down from the colorfully screen above the stage.
Such a closing was fitting: The band members are older, and many of their closest friends and contemporaries have died in recent years. But Friday night's concert made it clear that the vibrancy and life each song possessed signifies that not everyone's dead yet, and neither is the Grateful Dead.