Dead and Company Return To Deer Creek: A 2023 Concert Review

Dead And Company At Deer Creek

Photo: Cameron B. Gunnoe

Dead and Company made their much anticipated return to the legendary Deer Creek venue in Noblesville, Indiana last week for their 2023 tour – a run of summer shows purported by the band itself to be part of “the final tour.” Known in an official capacity today as Ruolff Music Center, the venue still referred to as “Deer Creek” today by those in the know has been the site of several legendary summer stops in the history of the Grateful Dead and its various offshoots.

The history of the venue with the band is not exclusively positive, however. As those within the community are well aware, Deer Creek served as the site of the infamous 1995 gate crashing incident. The Grateful Dead played the venue 28 years ago today in a performance that saw ticketless individuals numbering in the thousands pushing themselves over and through the now iconic venue fencing to flood the site. This led to the cancellation of the following night’s show, rendering the night of the incident itself the final Deer Creek concert ever to be given by the original Grateful Dead.

The danger inherent that day would be compounded by an apparent murder threat called into the local police station against Jerry Garcia, prompting increased security at show time. But Garcia, characteristically unperturbed, would not acquiesce to requests for the cancellation of the performance.

Instead, the musician was found to be humorously dismissive of the entire situation. As recounted by original Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann in his autobiography, Garcia would make it a point to perform Workingman’s Dead cut “Dire Wolf” that night, cheekily reciting the prominently featured lines, “Don’t murder me. I beg of you, don’t murder me. Please, don’t murder me.”

But on this night, in the present day, the nervous energy surrounding the 1995 performance was nowhere to be found. Followers of the Grateful Dead, Dead and Company, and the general culture surrounding the band flocked to Noblesville from areas across the country to get a glimpse of Dead and Company in what many consider to be peak musical form for the ensemble.

The proceedings were a sight to behold, even well before showtime, with a sea of tie-dye clad attendees ranging in age from infants to senior citizens sprawled across the lawn area soaking in the magic of the scene itself. Guests could be overheard discussing the music, swapping and selling merch, and generally embracing one another both physically and metaphorically, lending resonant credence to the “Heart of Gold Band” concept to which Robert Hunter refers in the Grateful Dead’s timeless “Scarlet Begonias.”

The band themselves were anything but casual, however. These guys came to play, and play they did. The first set opened with the reliable kickstarter, “Bertha,” led vocally by Dead and Company’s surprise ace-in-the-hole, the one and only John Mayer. This was followed by the customary rendition of “Good Lovin,’” a non-original which Weir has more or less laid claim to as his own through countless performances over the past half-century or so.

But anyone walking into Deer Creek on this day expecting a sequence of events which could be characterized as “customary” were in for a surprise early on. Near what was anticipated to be the close of another cover – this time of Johnny Cash’s “Big River” – Bob Weir could be seen repeatedly waving his arm to the band, signaling them to continue repeating the “I’m gonna sit right here until I die,” refrain section of the song.

Upon witnessing this, astute observers could likely tell that the Dead and Company leader had something up his sleeve, as it were. But few could’ve anticipated the seamless intertwining of Cash’s tune with a verse from Robert Hunter’s “Dark Star,” which was enacted to the collective disbelief of those in attendance for what proved to be one of the most memorable moments of what was likewise one of the most memorable shows of the tour.

Dead And Company At Deer Creek

Photo: Cameron B. Gunnoe

Later in the opening set came a crackling take on Wake of the Flood’s “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” which, following the tune’s dreamy, half-time outro section, drifted effortlessly into a staggeringly dynamic “Bird Song,” the latter of which would clock in at over seventeen minutes. Mayer and Weir traded off on lead vocal duties throughout the song, the melodic instrumental interplay of which began to become increasingly – albeit subtly – more dissonant beginning at around the halfway mark.

From here the band ventured into legitimate modal jazz territory in a jam anchored by the impressive work of keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, who would prove himself to be the band’s secret weapon throughout the evening. Meanwhile, the percussive duo of Jay Lane and Mickey Hart were digging deep, keeping the time within the time with blistering Elvin Jones-style flourishes that would undoubtedly have brought a smile to the face of Kreutzmann had he been there to see them.

Here, one could reasonably have expected the band to continue transitioning until they eventually arrived at a new song altogether. However, Weir and the gang, in what was seemingly an act of defiance in the face of the very logic of the universe, managed to steer the train right back to the station. The band emerged from the overwhelming harmonic intensity of the jam as though casually escaping a mass explosion in the nick of time, dropping gracefully into the stunning three-part harmony of the song’s refrain section, nearly knocking many an observer right off their feet then and there.

Upon their return to stage later in the evening, the band opened set two with “Iko Iko,” garnering widespread crowd participation. But the momentum began to truly build with the Mayer-led “Sugaree,” during which the band’s masterful manipulation of harmonic tension and release in conjunction with a momentous solo from Mayer established an atmosphere in which it felt like the venue itself could lift off the ground at any given moment.

A groove-laden “China Cat Sunflower” followed, navigating the traditional transition into “I Know You Rider.” This moment was a pivotal one, as the audience found themselves fully engaged in the three-part harmony sections while Weir himself let loose on vocals.

The energy brought by Weir was clearly evident during the “the sun will shine” section of the song, along with the “I wish I was a headlight” section which would typically be sung by Garcia in the days of the original Dead. On this night, the emotion formerly brought by Garcia to these lines was conjured in the present day by Weir, along with a sea of audience members seeming to pay tribute the fallen icon in a moment during which the emotion was beyond palpable.

Mickey Hart was joined onstage by bassist Oteil Burbridge for the show’s “Drums” section, which saw the pair going all out on an array of percussion instruments while psychedelic, Skull & Roses-style graphics adorned the venue screens. The performance also utilized a bamboo instrument known as the idiophone.

“This musical instrument is made of bamboo tubes attached to a bamboo frame,” Hart said of the instrument via his website. “The tubes are carved to have a resonant pitch when struck and are tuned to octaves.”

Following the “Space” portion of the show, Weir led an exhilarating “Hell in a Bucket” featuring interwoven guitar-leads a-plenty. Notably, Weir tackled the tune’s falsetto outro section with an exuberance and facility which was nothing less than astonishing for a 75-year-old musician.

A resonant and deeply emotional “Wharf Rat” followed and saw Mayer leaving it all out on the field, as it were. In one of several highlights for the guitarist throughout the evening, this tune particular seemed to elicit a degree of engagement from the superstar guitarist which made it feel as though he were profoundly engaged in the moment itself, experiencing the cosmic ascendence in real-time along with everyone else present for the event.

“Touch of Grey” closed the show and found Bob Weir and John Mayer once more trading off lead vocal duties. The tune seemed especially befitting of the occasion given the complex history of the venue itself. But an expansive choir of fans echoing the chorus of “Touch” in unison felt representative of unbreakable unity and perseverance indicative of the spirit and music created by the Grateful Dead all those years ago. “We will get by,” indeed.

Dead And Company At Deer Creek

Photo: Cameron B. Gunnoe © 2023

Dead and Company Return To Deer Creek: A 2023 Concert Review article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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