My long, strange trip to see the Dead & Company began before I ever set foot inside Buffalo’s First Niagara Center.
Growing up, my understanding of just how influential the band was to multiple generations of Deadheads was trivialized by ice cream, marching bears, and mythological stories about unwashed masses whose sole purpose in life was to follow the band to the ends of the earth on a path to chemically-assisted enlightenment.
The effect of such myopic commodification was akin to college freshmen reducing the legacy of Bob Marley to dorm room window dressing, because I never got it. I was never privy to the inside information as to why the Dead were a band I should be paying attention to. I was never given a chance to appreciate the soul-shaking power and glory generated whenever Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann happened to be occupying the stage at the same time.
Until Wednesday night, that is.
Granted, only three of the aforementioned original members were present, but the impression their twin-set scorcher had on me is one that I won’t be shedding anytime soon.
Even the pre-show trek from the car to the arena was eventful given the legion of tailgaters and VW Buses I passed along the way. Think of it as strolling through a psychedelic Dante’s Inferno where you’re not sure if people are trying to hurt you or help you, because the cornucopia of personalities simultaneously presenting themselves to you can be dizzying.
When the band came on around 7:30 p.m., I was ready to finally see what all the fuss was about.
I wanted to see how newbie John Mayer would conduct himself under the Sisyphean pressure stemming from a fanbase still mourning the loss of Garcia more than 20 years later.
My relationship with Mayer’s music is the same relationship I’ve had with various churches through the years in that, no matter how many times I’ve drifted away for whatever reason, I’ve always held out hope that the stars would align for the opportunity to be reunited once again.
Well, the universe responded as soon as Mayer took the reins on “Bertha” and effectively silenced any critics he had left. His singing was impassioned, for sure, but it was his all-or-nothing approach to the guitar that had everyone pondering just how high he was going to soar. The improvisational give-and-take he and Weir were displaying was so seamless that it was as if they had been playing together from the beginning.
Remember the scene from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining where Jack Torrance encounters Delbert Grady in the bathroom and Grady tells him that he has always been the caretaker at the Overlook Hotel?
That’s how I felt watching Mayer interpret this music, because he’s plays it like he’s been doing it forever, and he’s proving himself to be worthy of the task night after night.
“Here Comes Sunshine” and “El Paso” followed suit, and the Dead & Company made it clear that elevating Mayer to the lead position was a much less riskier decision than anyone realized.
Although bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti weren’t getting much hype in the months prior, each were perfectly content to let their seismic talents do the talking. Burbridge committed to funking up the place early on and his energy appeared to propel the rest of the guys in a skyward direction.
The clavicle-shattering combo of “Althea” and “U.S. Blues” was when everything really started to come to fruition, because the band had hit its collective stride, and Hart and Kreutzmann’s facial expressions started to resemble those of the people who came to see them.
By then, we all knew something special was about to happen.
After a lengthy intermission, the band dove headfirst into “Viola Lee Blues” and a cover of Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle” that found Weir’s voice killing it every step of the way.
Of all the bands Weir has given life to since Garcia’s death, this current incarnation might be the most satisfying. Mayer is clearly his guy, just as an NFL head coach clings to a certain quarterback despite the constant yammering from outsiders telling him otherwise. He took a risk, and the glowing reviews emanating from these early shows has to produce a great feeling of pride in his consciousness.
Kanye West can marry a Kardashian, talk trash, and proclaim himself to be the second coming of all things as much as he wants.
Heck, he can even launch a 2016 presidential campaign for all I care.
But he’ll never be as cool as Bob Weir singing the line “Truckin’ up to Buffalo” while wearing sandals and playing a concert in the very city mentioned in the lyric. It’s not possible.
Other second set highlights included a rapturous version of “Dark Star” and fan favorite “Sugar Magnolia,” which had to please even the most casual Dead fans in attendance.
When it was all over, I had what alcoholics often refer to as a moment of clarity where everything in life suddenly becomes clear. I was able to separate myself from the folklore and actually grasp what makes The Dead such a masterful avenue for musical transcendence.
If this was indeed the last (and only) chance I’ll ever have to see them live, I guess there’s only one thing left to say.
Fare Thee Well, gentlemen. Fare Thee Well.