When Dead and Company confirmed a few days after their mysterious post that they would, in fact, be playing a concert at Cornell this spring, the question hung in the air for students, alumni and deadheads alike: Will the 2023 concert be able to compare to the 1977 performance at Barton Hall, widely agreed to be one of the Grateful Dead’s best performances? I answer with reverence for the Grateful Dead’s musical legacy, yes.
Last night, Dead and Company performed at Barton Hall, exactly 46 years after the Grateful Dead’s legendary performance in the same location as part of Dead and Company’s farewell tour. Anyone lucky enough to secure a ticket witnessed not only Cornell history, but musical history too.
Barton Hall buzzed with excitement as the music began quietly around 7:30 p.m. Daylight was still coming in through the skylights, so the energy in the room felt casual, and the audience was more laid-back as conversations overlapped with the opening music. Rather than putting on a big production of an introduction, Dead and Company opened their first set with the relaxed and slow-rolling instrumentals of “New Minglewood Blues,” the same song the Grateful Dead used to open their 1977 show.
While some fans speculated that Dead and Co might perform the exact same set from Cornell ’77, the group played a new setlist, leaning into their improvisational nature. As always, Dead and Co played with spaciousness in their sound and reverence for the group’s history. It is music to make friends and love life to. The view from the audience didn’t matter when the music was best experienced, at moments, by closing your eyes and feeling.
The range of audience members — from my entire FWS roster to barefoot grandparents — characterized the unique cross-generational reach of the event. A student in front of me was complaining that the songs didn’t have any words, while older deadheads were freely dancing and soaking in the band’s wandering instrumentals.
Throughout the first set, John Mayer electrified the audience, rocking his strained and iconic guitar face, while bassist Oteil Burbige was oozing with expertise. Mayer’s guitar solos were an energetic highlight of the show, and his finesse with the guitar entranced the audience so much that a girl a few rows ahead of me had her Instagram DMs open to Mayer’s account.
At some points, the show felt more like a John Mayer concert than a Dead and Co concert. Mayer’s guitar and vocals brought a level of youth and energy to the performance, in contrast to Bob Weir’s white hair and shorter stature. However, Weir — one of the members of the original band along with drummer Mickey Hart — undeniably brought the heart to the show. His voice lit up the audience, as older couples and frat guys wearing tie-dye sang along to the recognizable choruses of “Eyes of the World” and “Althea.” Weir’s singing brought Barton Hall back in time to 1977, transforming a John Mayer guitar show into a monumental Dead and Company concert.
Another highlight of the night was Mayer’s solo to “Deal,” as the song featured the band’s recognizable climbing and descending of scales. One song streamed into the next as the group improvised off one another, reminding the audience that Dead and Company is the ultimate jam band.
The group shifted into a drum set at 10:30 p.m., nearly three hours after the band began playing, to give Mayer and Weir a break from the guitar. The drums morphed into an epic synth-sounding performance that filled the room, and although audience members were beginning to lose energy at this point, dedicated fans still nodded their heads and swayed with the sound. Couples leaned against one another; an older woman wandered around looking for her shoes. Mayer and Weir slowly rejoined on the guitar before finishing the night and reviving the crowd with fan-favorites like “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain.”
Last night’s Dead and Company performance may never reach as widespread of a legacy as the Grateful Dead’s legendary 1977 show. However, last night was not just about going to a standalone concert, but being a part of a historical event, as generations of Cornellians and Deadheads came together with flowers in their hair to enjoy an epic four hours. Cornell is lucky to have hosted one of Dead and Company’s final performances, and Barton Hall provided as intimate of a concert setting as it did in 1977 to groove out with friends and strangers to genre-defying music. It seems only fitting that Dead and Company should bid goodbye to Cornell at the end of the group’s journey together, in the same place that they touched thousands of lives in Barton Hall and beyond in 1977.
Kiki Plowe is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].