“Shakedown Street” kicked off the gig a little after 7:30 local time with Bobby taking the vocals, which he would do in whole or in part on no less than six traditionally “Jerry songs” this night. On paper this opener may look deceptively good – a fifteen minute “Shakedown” is usually cause for great excitement. The reality was something less than that headline grabber would indicate, as the song suffered from deficits of pace, direction and energy that made it a fan favorite in the Dead’s heyday. “Shakedown” wasn’t a total trainwreck, but it never found a long enough straight-away to gather momentum.
Garcia/Hunter’s 90’s-era optimistic anthemic “Liberty” was the first of several nods to the 4th of July holiday, again with Bobby at the vocal helm. Trey took his only solo lead vocal of the set with “Standing on the Moon.” This was a brilliant call for its placement in the first set, removing it from the shadow of the late-second set tear-jerking centerpiece role where Jerry wrote substantial chapters of his legacy. Trey acquitted himself well with a tender, convincing and respectful offering of the song, acknowledged with a hug from Phil at its conclusion.
The balance of the set settled into a familiar song-oriented approach of Bobby-driven cowboy and blues tunes typical of Grateful Dead first sets, with improvisation relegated to a supporting role. “Me & My Uncle,” “Tennessee Jed” (a rotation of Bobby, Bruce and Trey vocals), “Cumberland Blues” and “Little Red Rooster” filled out this Bobby-centric segment. Phil stepped up to the mic for “Friend of the Devil” that was notable for a Trey and Bruce tag team trade-off of solos that neither seemed to want to end. The 80-minute set was capped off by a ripping “Deal” (Trey and Bruce on vocals) that was the set's highlight, recapturing some of the spark that was more consistently evidenced in Friday’s show.
“Bird Song” kicked off the second set with Phil taking vocals, and in short order it was clear that the second set would – in keeping with the Grateful Dead’s legacy that we’ve gathered to celebrate – be an entirely different beast from the first. The “Bird Song” jam returned to a formula that found so much success in the first Chicago show, with the band paving an improvisational runway for Trey’s lead to soar. Bruce and Trey again shared lead vocals for “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion),” a song that has found a home in the Phil Lesh & Friends repertoire but precious few fans had ever seen the Grateful Dead perform live – or were even alive when it was performed – as it was only saw stage time during a brief stretch in 1967. Bobby Cheese led the “Golden Road” through a vocal breakdown, then Trey pulled the band through an awesome concluding jam that was decidedly Phish-y in nature.
Bobby’s “Lost Sailor” > “Saint of Circumstance” combo got off to a humorous start when Mickey Hart – who has been a non-factor in the music outside of the “Drums” segments, casually gum-smacking through the proceedings with brush-stroked irrelevance – donned a sailor hat. Cute, Mickey. “Lost Sailor” was beautifully rendered overall with brilliant lead fills by Trey near the song’s conclusion and in the transition to (and jam within) “Saint of Circumstance.” Bruce offered an innovative vocal take on “West L.A. Fadeaway.” “West L.A” was an unexpected setlist call in this spot given its traditional first set role with Grateful Dead proper, but it worked surprisingly well, in no small part because it fits Trey’s low-down funky style to a T$.
In a spot that would suggest time for “Drums,” instead we were treated to “Foolish Heart” with Trey on vocals, his second take of the evening on a beloved Jerry tune from Built to Last. These were the moments – Trey in the lead with clutch emotional trigger songs – that inspired both great hopes and figgity concern leading up to these gigs. But only the most crusty and closed-minded could fail to stand and cheer this performance that balanced powerful leads, delicate finesse and sweet vocals for a major second set highlight.
“Drums” and a more involved “Space” than Friday set the stage for a “Stella Blue” that was well-received but never truly soared, with Bobby taking another questionable turn at the microphone and a jam that never quite found its footing. “One More Saturday Night” brought the set home, in this case for one last Saturday night, at least with this lineup. The holiday-appropriate “U.S. Blues” encore featured an innovative remote red-white-and-blue tie-dyed light show from the Empire State Building projected on the venue’s screens and to the home viewing audience (a “Tower Jam” reprise!). The celebration continued with a tremendous fireworks display set to John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
This show had a lot of win, but in much smaller packages spread throughout the night. The first set outside of “Standing On the Moon” and “Deal” was mostly a slog, a fitting celebration of fifty years of Grateful Dead music that often featured mostly uneventful first sets. The show got much better starting with “Deal” and through to the “Drums” portion of the second set, which has real replay value. But overall this was a performance that regressed to mean expectations of what many observers felt was this lineup’s ceiling – fun, mostly competent, but lacking in the excitement of improvisational excursions that had sparked such high hopes on Friday. On the plus side, this was still a great deal better than Santa Clara, and we have one more night to go. That’s right, Saturday Night!
Never miss a Sunday show… we’ll be back with more coverage tomorrow.
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