What Was the Same, What Was Different : Dead & Company at Sphere, Night 2

About 18,000 more faces were stolen Friday night at Sphere in Las Vegas, as Dead & Company played the second of 24 shows scheduled for the technologically ground-breaking venue

Published Time: 19.05.2024 - 04:31:25 Modified Time: 19.05.2024 - 04:31:25

About 18,000 more faces were stolen Friday night at Sphere in Las Vegas, as Dead & Company played the second of 24 shows scheduled for the technologically ground-breaking venue. As is customary with any outfit associated with the Grateful Dead, it’s assumed that no two shows will be the same, and many fans have naturally purchased tickets for multiple nights of the residency. So night 2 was destined to provide at least a partial answer to the question: What will be standardized from night-to-night now through the close of the eight-weekend run, and what will be variable?

Variety already reviewed the opening night of the Dead & Company run — read that here — and was in the house again Friday to make comparisons, and also to check if any of the bits of brain matter we left behind the previous night had been turned into the lost-and-found.

In a nutshell… Visual content: roughly 85% the same. Musical content: 0% the same.

Or 10% the same, as far as the setlist technically goes. Two of the “songs” performed each night, “Drums” and “Space,” were (and presumably always will be) holdovers. But most fans probably don’t even count that as repeated content, since those two titles represent an opportunity for veteran Dead drummer Mickey Hart and assorted members to do their thing with an all-percussion instrumental, followed by a bit of jamming to segue back into the more intellectually comprehensible part of the show. Trust us, the “Drums” set outlier might be the part of each concert that would win in a ballot for what needs to be repeated; more on that later.

The fact that the setlist was otherwise completely different from night 1 was predictable in its unpredictability, actually. (Scroll down to see the full rundown of songs.) When Dead & Company officially closed out their touring career last summer at Oracle Park in San Francisco (with the proviso that one-offs or residencies like this one might still happen in the future), there were no repeats over those three nights. So it’s completely in character for the group to get through a three-day weekend at Sphere without repeating themselves, even with shows that are coming in close to four hours (and actual playing time of almost three and a half, if you don’t include the intermission).

But as for the vaunted visuals… We speculated while assessing the opening night that at least some of these setpieces would surely be repeated, if not all of them, and we were right about that. While there might have been a bit of disappointment among some repeat customers who thought they might come back and have their minds blown in a wholly different way, it’s doubtful that many or any returnees were sorry they got a second look at the already-classic A/V spectacle that has the camera zooming out from Haight-Ashbury into a position hovering over the earth during the second number. Or experiencing a second ride with the trademark Grateful Dead skeleton through a cheerful psychedelic landscape during the second set.

A few bits were new to night 2, like a piece near the end of the show that had what looked like giant, glitter-covered tires spinning their way through outer space. It’s not clear whether these are elements that could rotate in and out of the production, or whether, perhaps, they just weren’t quite finished in time for night 1 — stranger things have happened.

There was only one really major setpiece that was fresh to night 2, and it was a wonderful one: a sequence that visited several of the most iconic venues the Grateful Dead played over the years. It began outside the Winterland Ballroom (with the promise on the faux marquee of a New Year’s Eve show). It proceeded to Red Rocks in Colorado, where images of the live band members were embedded within the mountainous structures jutting out of the earth on the extreme left and right sides of the Sphere screen. The montage ended back in San Francisco, naturally, outside the legendary Fillmore.

But the most visually arresting minute or two during this sequence came when the Sphere screen took the entire audience inside a hall with a barnlike structure at Cornell University, site of a memorable-to-fans 1970s show. You wouldn’t expect this animated recreation of a humble college performing hall to outdo Red Rocks in visual splendor, yet the effect was utterly astonishing. With the Sphere’s wrap-around screen put to its full use, it really felt like being transported to a physically different performing space — one with a traditional ceiling and walls and corners as part of its perspective. That would seem impossible in a completely curved space like Sphere, but the illusion was complete. Whoever executed this particular tiny moment of the show deserves some sort of award for a breakthrough in physics.

One other minor difference from night 1: The segment that sees the entir -

e screen filled with historical Dead poster art, backstage passes and ticket stubs remains intact… but it was absent the moment from Thursday’s show in which a switch was flipped and everything was suddenly seen as if under a massive black light. Hardly a big deal in the overall scheme of things, but that delightful visual twist was slightly missed.

Does it matter that it’s now established that the visuals weren’t conceived as strictly song-specific, as they were during U2’s and Phish’s previous Sphere engagements? Probably not much. Repeat attendees will surely have opinions — and render them — on whether, say, “Shakedown Street” on the second night was a better choice to accompany the Haight-Ashbury-into-outer-space sequence than “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Tuodeloo” had been on the first night, or whether there might be even better selections in that particular spot in the 22 shows yet to come. (It seemed like kind of a draw, in our eyes.) For the return trip from space to SF, which reverses the whole process during the penultimate number, was it better to have “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” as the soundtrack on opening night, or “Morning Dew” on night 2? Both worked pretty effectively.

We can say that, on Friday night, “U.S. Blues” seemed like the superior choice for the number that has the Dead skeleton taking flight on a chopper, if only because the lyrics’ mention of Uncle Sam seemed to have some connection, intentionally or inadvertently, to the animated Dead guy’s red, white and blue duster and hat. Also, Johnny Cash’s “Big River” was an especially good choice to play during the nightly segment in which sepia footage of Monument Valley and other desert scenes is shown and some Cinemascope-era-style credits introduce “Bob Weir as ‘Ace’.” On the opening night. the group’s cover of the Crickets’ “Not Fade Away” seemed like the perfect underscore for a closing montage of living and dead Grateful Dead family members… but who would complain about getting Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn on Your Love Light” in that spunkily sentimental spot, instead? Well, someone, probably, but not us.

A couple of random notes prompted by night 2:

John Mayer is, by now, highly esteemed in cool and uncool circles alike as a guitar great, but it seems possible he may never be rated highly enough. We need to talk more about John Mayer’s guitar playing.

And, a pro tip: Sit down during Hart’s “Drums” extravaganza — this is a command. We’ll explain why. On opening night, much of the audience stood; on night 2, nearly everyone sat, and it’s not clear whether that because that’s what one does during a “drum solo” — take a load off — or whether everyone had already been hepped to the secret. And the secret is: There are speakers embedded in every seat in Sphere. (Sorry, GA floor ticketholders; this does not apply to you.) And they are apparently going mostly unused during rock shows at the venue, having been designed more to augment cinematic presentations like “Postcard From Earth.” But these seat speakers are turned on, and eventually turned up, during “Drums.” Looking up at the CGI montage of percussion instruments spinning around the top of the Sphere dome while your rear end is rattled by some truly intimate bottom-end…. well, sexual connotations should probably best be avoided here. Suffice it to say that if you choose this sequence to leave and pull your wallet out for an expensive cocktail, it will be the worst possible use of your butt.

There’s no guarantee that “Drums” will be as transcendent every night as it was Friday. Hart always gets some help during the lengthy instrumental segment from second drummer Jay Lane, and from bassist Oteil Burbridge, who proves that his rhythm-section mastery is not limited to one instrument. On Friday, though, they got some extra assistance from Karl Perazzo, who normally performs with Santana over at the House of Blues, but had the night off. Pictured grinning on the big screens, Perazzo looked to be in hog heaven. We knew the feeling.

Dead and Company setlist, Sphere in Las Vegas, May 17, 2024:

Set 1Samson and DelilahShakedown StreetBerthaCrazy FingersBig RiverGood Lovin’Deal

Set 2China Cat SunflowerI Know You RiderEstimated ProphetCumberland BluesThe Other OneDrumsSpaceBlack PeterAltheaU.S. BluesMorning DewTurn on Your Love Light

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