Setlist Goes There: Sphere and Grooving in Las Vegas w/ Dead & Co

The desert dries you out. It signals its power to desiccate through various chaps and chafes, along with a lingering thirst you can’t seem to quench. Las Vegas can chap your psyche, too—a result of too-much-of-a-good-thing spectacle overload. Everywhere you go, inside and out, the bombardment of messaging is inescapable—the lights, signs, sounds, and signature fragrances hit you at every turn.
So it makes sense that this nonstop party action environment would eventually give rise to a towering ball (dome-plus, really) made almost entirely of high-powered, high-res LED displays. A great monument to overstimulation.
But Sphere is more than that, offering the promise of new, immersive ways of experiencing things like concerts. But could the bulbous high-tech behemoth deliver something lasting, something truly meaningful for audiences to cling to through life’s ongoing struggle?
From our first glimpse of the Stealie on the exosphere, the sensation was palpable: This was an exciting time to be alive, when tradition and innovation would once again combine to create something beautiful and previously unknown. A visit to the Dead Forever Exhibit at the Venetian, and Shakedown Street (Vegas-regulated edition) off the Strip elevated the optimism.
If you thought Dead & Company playing at Sphere sounded like a good idea, you’d be right. And if you wondered whether the combination would yield waves of delirious joy, the answer is a resounding yes.
The doubters and their doubts were real: “What if I don’t like it? That thing looks weird.” “What if it’s cheesy/too ‘Vegas’?” “What if I throw up?”
Thankfully, these fears were unfounded. At least the first two. The third has been a risk for some at every show since the dawn of… the Dead.
Entry achieved
The truth is, once safely inside Sphere, the overstimulation factor becomes benevolent, a source of wide-eyed beauty. In the show, no one's trying to sell you anything, because if you're there, you've already bought in, man—and as they say, buy the ticket, take the ride.
The glory of the previous U2 and Phish Sphere residencies is well documented, but to venture comparisons here would be folly. This situation is unique. Here is a community steeped in 60 years of lore, bringing all those loving expectations with them, but once again confronting change: A new experience in a new venue and the possibility this run may really be The Last One. “Dead Forever” has that kind of ring to it, but who knows?
The optimism was somehow edgy as the evening of the first show approached. The stakes felt peculiarly high.
Much has been made of the visuals at Sphere—and talk about the 160,000-square-foot LED elephant in the room we must. But it’s only right to talk about the music first; it’s what brought us to all these gatherings in the first place, after all.
What Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, John Mayer, Jeff Chimenti, Oteil Burbridge, and Jay Lane do together is astounding. The musical conversation among them seems to evolve and test new heights as they go, even as they keep the tradition and the vibes alive and well.
Mayer especially is a wonder, able to evoke Jerry without cloying, while blending enough of his blues mastery to let you know he’s still there. Lane, meanwhile, of RatDog and Further fame, continues to hold down the Bill Kreutzmann chair with energy and nuance.
Chimenti positively conjures with his keyboards, coloring with vivid chord subs and chromatic excursions that often lead to great interplay with Mayer. Burbridge finesses the groove, almost always with a wide grin on his face. OGs Bobby and Mickey just keep on truckin’—and in this Company, how could they not?
What we were blessed to experience on night one of Dead & Company’s 24-date slate was a band at the height of its powers, delivering two scintillating, crystalline sets that whispered, rocked, rambled, and rolled, providing sweet refreshment for the spirit and soothing balm for the 18,000-odd souls in attendance.
A word about sound at Sphere: 164,000 speakers may seem like a lot, but hearing is believing, and the believing was jaw-dropping. The amount of audible detail made the experience of listening to Dead & Company even more joyful, revealing subtleties in musical exchanges that we otherwise would have missed.
Even when the entire crowd was singing along, it sounded good, not overwhelming. Wonder how they managed that. Also right enjoyable was the spatial audio mixing, which gently emphasized the sound of players magnified on the Sphere screen.
Ah, that Sphere screen. It’s a thing of beauty, utilized beautifully by the Dead & Company video magicians.
Right at the top, before the band even took the stage, the merry visual pranksters had their way. The inside of Sphere looked like a warehouse or the backstage of a derelict theater, complete with work lights, scaffolding, and what appeared to be light leaks from the exosphere outside. “Interesting choice,” one might have thought. “They must be going for a roots thing.”
Before the show
Then, the band took the stage and started playing “Feel Like a Stranger,” with their magnified images projected (poorly) onto the scaffolding. One might have been forgiven for thinking, “This sucks,” but then “It’s a choice, I can get with it.” It was actually kind of beautiful.
But as they broke into “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,” the trompe l’oeil cracked open (briefly forming the D&C lightning bolt), and the high-res games were on. We started at Haight Ashbury, and to say we took a trip from there would be putting it mildly.
The reveal
Spacing out
Tony Orlando once said that if you could take all the laughs Bob Hope got and put them end to end, they would “stretch all the way to the universe, and fill up the black hole in space.” That’s what this felt like. We went to the universe and back, and it was grand.
And emotional. The interweaving of Weir and Mayer’s guitars in the closing jam of “Toodeloo” was so beautiful, both in notes and the meeting of intergenerational minds, as to cause a lump in the throat.
A spirited “Jack Straw,” beautiful “Bird Song” and stomping “Me and My Uncle” followed, eventually giving way to the rousing sing-along chorus of “Brown-Eyed Women.” Then… oh yes, then came “Cold Rain and Snow,” with an epic wraparound visual of a lush rainforest with luminescent raindrops gradually giving way to a rainbow and sunshine. Not so cold after all.

Rainforest vibes
After the rain
And that was set one. “That was kind of short,” one might have observed, but we can’t condone that kind of negativity. After a half hour break, set two was upon us, and it began with a fine and dandy “Uncle John’s Band” set to a sweet paint-by-numbers immersion.
Next it was Help-Slip-Frank, with the legendary Wall of Sound assembled before our eyes in what looked like a dry riverbed. As the suite progressed, the Wall stretched upward into a psychedelic highway through space, until we were jamming through the rings of Saturn.
[Spoiler alert: Spoilers are impossible here because words can do none of this justice. We also have some video embedded, but it too is but a weak representation of the experience. Go!]
The Wall
The emerging depth of set two now evident, we were still unprepared for the beautiful majesty of “He’s Gone,” which was like being at a wake. Tears flowed, spirits soared.
Drums and Space came next, and if you tend to take a powder during this phase of the evening, think again. Thanks once more to Sphere’s cutting-edge sound system, each rhythm and counter-rhythm was clearly discernible, and the graphics were of course out of control. More Mickeys have never been seen at one time!
And when it came to Space, Sphere’s seat haptics really had their moment. Mickey’s low drones and accents each came through both the speakers and our seats, combining vibration sensations in sync with stunning vibro-visuals.
Back in band mode, a relative rarity followed, arguably the only real surprise in the night-one setlist: “Standing on the Moon,” beautifully rendered. According to Setlist data, it’s the 45th most-played Dead & Company song, and the 124th most-played during the Grateful Dead’s career.
In bloom
A jamming St. Stephen came next, accompanied by old-school liquid light-show visuals, heightened by surrounding the audience in a way unimaginable—well, possibly imaginable, but not doable—back in the day. Dang, Sphere! Is there anything you can’t make better?
St. Stephen eventually gave way to “Hell in a Bucket,” a song that felt beyond appropriate for both Sin City and the world in 2024. But until the graphics kicked in, we didn’t know that this was indeed the climax of the show.
A bony hand reaches up. Grabs hold of something, pulls itself up. God damn, well I declare! It’s Cycle Sam, reborn for 2024 and reprising the “cartoon” opening of the 1977 Grateful Dead Movie, when Gary Gutierrez’s creation first strutted on the screen to “U.S. Blues.” After a fancy step or two, Sam finds his cycle, and we’re off on a trippy adventure that culminates with many Sams on many cycles in a virtual bucket. Yeah.
Cycle Sammin’
It's worth taking a moment to appreciate the persistence and evolution of Grateful Dead symbols and artwork like Cycle Sam. Purists may carp about the original being better, but hey, you know, if you’re not busy living, you’re busy dying, man.
A sweet, stately “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” came next, and with it, our gentle return to our home planet, and our point of origin, 710 Ashbury Street, San Francisco. We met the end of the trip with both sadness and satisfaction—it was a hell of a time, but we don’t want the music to ever stop, do we?
After a brief news-radio interlude explaining the appeal of a young hippie band to its growing audience of local hippies in San Francisco, we were served up one last treat: A visual smorgasbord of Grateful Dad memorabilia and photos onscreen while the band played “Not Fade Away.” A lingering look at a particularly good Jerry photo brought the point home.
By the end, the show felt like a wrap-up, a summation, possibly a final statement. But while "Dead Forever" celebrates what was and is now, perhaps it’s not closing the door on what may yet be. As someone on Shakedown Street told us, “Next year’s the 60th anniversary, so you never know.”
Dead Forever - opening night setlist
On the first night, there was no “Truckin’,” no “Scarlet Begonias,” no “U.S. Blues,” “Sugaree,” “Casey Jones,” “Stella Blue,” “Lovelight,” “Estimated Prophet,” or “Tennessee Jed.” The good news? The band played all of those and more in shows two and three, going the whole first weekend without a repeat. It remains to be seen when they will next enter and exit “Dark Star,” but odds are the moment will strike before mid-July.
The ride we took? We enjoyed the hell out of it. And as always, they left us wanting more.
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Last updated: 15 Jun 2024, 06:22 Etc/UTC