The Grateful Dead may have ended their long, strange trip in July 2015 when the Core Four — surviving original members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart — played their three Fare Thee Well shows at Soldier Field in Chicago, but Deadheads weren’t left holding their breath long. By August, the John Mayer-fronted offshoot Dead & Company was announced and their first tour began that fall. The group, which lacks bassist Lesh and is filled out with longtime collaborator and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and former Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge, was welcomed at each stop with enormous demand and rave reviews. Sunday night, on the second stop of their summer tour, they headed to Manchester, TN to close out the 15th installment of the annual Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival.
Fans began filling the main stage field long before, but the group appeared shortly after 8 p.m. and over the next three and a half hours, minus a short break, they inspired 80,000-person sing-alongs (“Casey Jones,” “Playing In The Band,” “Fire On the Mountain,”), super sweaty dance parties (“Shakedown Street”), and even threw a little something in for their fellow psychedelic warriors when Kreutzmann, Hart, and Burbridge ripped through a bonkers performance of “Drums” and its traditional set-pair, “Space,” as trippy visuals beamed from the monitors.
Rumors that the group would be joined by special guests floated around the farm throughout the day, and while they only had one, the applause former Grateful Dead member Donna Jean Godchaux received when she walked to her mic before launching into “Bertha” was enough to flatter ten visitors. And while she joined in on a handful of tunes throughout the evening, she pled her best case for a permanent return invite howling on “Playin’ In The Band.”
But the real delight of the evening was Mayer’s freaky-good guitar picking. For hardcore fans, the 38-year-old was an eyebrow-raising choice to fill-in for legendary Jerry Garcia, originally. But last fall on the road the shock shifted, and fans were delighted to see how well he worked with Weir onstage. That chemistry has only grown in the months since. And Mayer, previously deferential to his new band, has loosened up, and isn’t afraid to shred.
“Touch of Grey” served as the only song in the encore. During the Dead’s heyday, and Garcia’s three-plus decade tenure as frontman, the group symbolized communalism, hippie-culture, and the potential unbridled synergy between band and audience. And as the sea of thousands, some followers for decades but many far too young to have any connection with the original outfit in live settings, sang together with delight and abandon, that ethos no longer felt nostalgic. “I will get by / I will survive,” the chorus echoed.
The band had been quiet hosts throughout the evening, but Weir manned his mic after “Grey” wrapped. “As we know, there was a massacre in Florida, not far from here,” he began. “I’d like to point out that last week, a distinguished representative from the State of Georgia went on the floor of the House of Representatives of our country and started quoting bible verses in which he basically promoted, or at least rationalized, death to gay people as a reward for the way they were born.” The crowd signaled their support with a hearty boos.
“This morning, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas said [in response to the violence] that, ‘Well, they’re reaping what they’ve sown,” Weir, palpably frustrated, continued. He echoed the speech he gave earlier in the day when accepting his Les Paul Spirit Award at a lunch on site. “Now, I wanna ask a question: how different are these peoples’ world views from the world views of the people with ISIS? It’s the same hatred. They pull those hatreds out of different books.”
Weir turned from the mic, the group took their bow, and just like that, another year of Bonnaroo had wrapped.