Dead & Company Prove Las Vegas’ Sphere Isn’t Just for U2, but Them, Too, in Residency’s Astounding Opening Night: Concert Review

Dead & Company Prove Las Vegas’ Sphere Isn’t Just for U2, but Them, Too, in Residency’s Astounding Opening Night: Concert Review

Memo to anyone who “isn’t really into the Dead” but has been cajoled by a friend or loved one into attending an upcoming Dead & Company concert, as a plus-one: Your chances of enjoying the show just went up by approximately 10,000%.

Let’s not stop there, though. If you’re a faithful Deadhead with tickets for “Dead Forever — Live at Sphere,” the Las Vegas residency that is taking place off the Strip over the next eight weekends, you already enjoy insurmountable odds of being fully invested in any show. But expect your already preordained ecstasy level to go up by 50, 70… ah, sure, let’s say 100%.

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It’s easy to start sticking zeroes on the ends of things when we’re dealing with Sphere, the less-than-year-old venue that is famous for its 160,000-square-foot wraparound screen. (Less round numbers include a height of 336 feet and width of 516 feet inside the dome, which accommodates an arena’s worth of customers but feels a little more like a stadium tilted sideways.) It’s also easy to succumb to hyperbole after the opening night of the residency Thursday, in which it became abundantly clear that the space can work just as well for other artists — well, probably very select other artists — as it did for U2, who opened Sphere in September. Thursday’s show joins U2’s first night in a tie for the most visually spectacular gig I’ve seen in untold decades of concertgoing.

U2’s residency still holds an edge in terms of the degree of artistry employed for the big screen; the effects employed by Dead & Company are sometimes (emphasis on sometimes) a little cruder in the animation or less ambitious in the conceptualization. That doesn’t really matter. There are a couple of setpieces that feel like the dazzling equal of anything in U2’s show, and when other pieces go for something far simpler or goofier (like a giant rainbow with live images of Bob Weir, et al., underneath the arch), they’re still wholly effective.

All of this to say: If you were knocked out by what U2 accomplished in the fall and worried that some augmentation might be necessarily in order to effectively give Dead & Company’s setup a handicap… well, proceed with whatever microdosing you feel is warranted, but “Dear Forever” is a stone-cold-sober knockout.

Dead & Company's 'Dead Forever - Live At Sphere'
Dead & Company’s ‘Dead Forever – Live At Sphere’

It bears mentioning that when we talk about “the show,” as if it were mostly set in stone like most residencies, YMMV, since the Dead boys have promised to do different sets every night. Apart from the opening and closing, the visuals are said to be different for each song too, so it’s possible fans will be seeing a nearly completely different set of visual bells and whistles on Friday and Saturday of this weekend, and many nights thereafter. So don’t get too attached to any of the stills or descriptions you see here.

Still, a few moments in Thursday’s show felt so signature that it’s hard to believe they would not be repeated in some form every night in the engagement. One of these arrived with the second number Thursday, “Mississippi Half-Step,” and maybe the fact that the visuals of San Francisco accompanied a song that evokes the South bodes well for the filmic accompaniment to be used on different songs over the engagement. Fans first saw a shot of quaint SF row homes — helpfully subtitled “Haight Ashbury,” for any newbies in this world — which then panned out over the neighborhood, the city, the west coast and finally the earth, with convincing enough photorealism that you could probably talk either a kid or a stoner into believing that it was the world’s most technically advanced drone shot. That journey, from the seat of the 1960s counterculture into the reaches of outer-space culture, reversed itself during the penultimate number, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which started its trip aloft in the cosmos and ended up knocking on 710 Ashbury St.’s door.

Dead & Company's 'Dead Forever - Live At Sphere'
Dead & Company’s ‘Dead Forever – Live At Sphere’

Another piece that feels most integral to the show, as first seen, is an epic-length animation of the Grateful Dead’s Steal Your Face skeleton, rising from the grave, doing a little jig and grinningly mounting a motorcycle to go journeying through a psychedelic landscape. (The audience probably would have been happy to watch that dude all night.)

Dead & Company's 'Dead Forever - Live At Sphere'
Dead & Company’s ‘Dead Forever – Live At Sphere’

A highlight that will almost certainly be a nightly feature, however else the setlist may experience total turnover, is the visual sequence that accompanies Mickey Hart’s traditional mid-act-2 “Drums”/”Space” percussion quasi-solo (now augmented by Jay Lane as the second drummer in place of the apparently now-retired Bill Kreutzmann). This section, in which the rest of the band takes six, lasted 16 minutes during Thursday’s show, and not a second of that was wasted visually, starting with a phalanx of hundreds of animated percussion instruments that made rare use of Sphere’s “ceiling” as well as every other square foot. (Drummers of the world may want to sell off spare parts of their kits just to buy some secondary-market tickets to come out and see this extravagant celebration of everything that was ever built to be struck.) Eventually all those instruments gave way to visuals that were more abstract — along with a few random shots of downhill LSD skiing — before landing firmly in the Milky Way. Speaking as someone who has prayed for a lot of drum solos to be over, it actually felt slightly anticlimactic when the full band returned to the stage.

Dead & Company's 'Dead Forever - Live At Sphere' concert review
Dead & Company’s ‘Dead Forever – Live At Sphere’

Other backdrops — if you can call something that fills at least 180 degrees of everyone’s vision a “backing” — included a recreation of the Grateful Dead’s famous Wall of Sound being constructed in a desert landscape; a montage of Dead tour posters from over the years that finally filled the entirety of the LED expanse, and then went black-light on our asses; and a rainforest, brought to the screen ironically — maybe — for “Cold Rain and Snow.” This last colorful tropical setting was among the least of the visual pieces employed, not quite as photorealistic as some of the other backings, but neither as cartoonish as the bits that were meant to be cartoonish. But was it also a kick to gaze up to Sphere’s dome and see raindrops keep falling on your head? Of course.

Dead & Company's 'Dead Forever - Live At Sphere' residency concert review vegas
Dead & Company’s ‘Dead Forever – Live At Sphere’

If not much has been said yet about the band’s place in all this, that’s coming — first of all, through a mention of how ingeniously the big screen does (or quite often doesn’t) depict the players on stage. If you’re a truly veteran concertgoer, maybe you’ve experienced what feels like the tyranny of the overhead screens at major shows, where it feels like our attention is being forced away from the figures on stage to their LED avatars at every moment. “Dead Forever — Live at Sphere” achieves a healthy balance for this, similar to what went down at the U2 residency, but with just a lot more running time available for some operator to decide whether we should be looking at, say, John Mayer’s hands or face or none of the above at any given time or not. Each song’s design provided a different template for where to fit in shots of the musicians, of any, giving us just enough breaks from their grizzled faces that they became a welcome sight whenever they popped up as dexterous 50-foot giants again.

The designers and operators made smart use of split-screen effects, although there was never anything so basic as an actual, literal split screens, but other frameworks in which to place two opposing images. Sometimes the portrayals of the live band were really diffuse — like the moment during Hart’s epic “Drums” when hundreds of tiny images of his playing filled the vast expanse. On a very few occasions, the production just went with one huge widescreen image over the stage. This was particularly useful for catching and magnifying some of the interplay between band members, most of which took place between Mayer and fan-favorite keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, two guys who like to egg each other on with some mugging when their parts align. (OK, Mayer does most of the mugging, and Chimenti plays the beatific straight man… but it’s delightful when it’s captured as beautifully as it was Thursday.)

dead and company bob weir john mayer sphere vegas concert review residency
Dead & Company

The six-piece band, as it now stands, can fairly be said to be on fire… but not too flammable, because things have to be paced over four hours. The photography on the overhead screens is necessarily more static a lot of the time than it was for U2, because when a song lasts 10 minutes or more, the visual for that needs to be something you can relax into, not a Zoo TV-style assault. We didn’t catch the recent single weekend Phish did at Sphere, and jam-band heads will no doubt be weighing in on the relative pacing of the visuals assembled for these two bands. What we do know is that just about every choice made for Dead & Company felt just right — not doing anything to detract from the jazz interplay of the band members at their expansive best, but hardly lazy about giving periodic wakeup calls to an audience that came to Sphere not just to lounge, but to thrill-seek.

The best visuals in the show are the most conceptually surprising ones. But let it be said that it succeeds on a basic — let’s call it for what is is! — Laserium-on-steroids level. When the band is backdropped by cosmic cloud tunnels or videogame-style rainbow roads, it can feel a little “2001,” and a little corny, in that cosmic regard. And there’s not a moment of that I would cut, either. Sometimes in life you need a giant dancing skeleton, sometimes you need epic ferns and fauns, and sometimes you need to surf the rings of Jupiter while listening to a spacey variation on what is basically jazz and roots music — it’s all good.

And sometimes you need pure nostalgia and sentiment. The show’s end brought a montage of black-and-white photos of Dead band members and associated personalities, living or dead. And it was a sweet instance of using the highest tech humanly available to remind the audience that this is a gathering of family unlike virtually anything else in rock. There’s no mistaking that everyone on-stage and in the audience is getting on in years, and not taking any of this commingling for granted. Not a word was uttered from the stage during the four hours, so it’s not as if Bob Weir is going to step up and celebrate the occasion, when it’s understood by all anyway — this residency coming after what was billed as the close of the final Dead & Company tour last summer.

When a long, strange trip it’s been… and in the vast expanse of Sphere, now, what a long, tall and wide trip. If this has a chance of being a last stand, attending fans will go out happy, crying and overstimulated.

Dead & Company’s ‘Dead Forever – Live At Sphere’ 

Set list, opening night, May 17, 2024:

Set 1

Feel Like a Stranger

Mississippi Half-Step

Jack Straw

Bird Song

Me and My Uncle

Brown-Eyed Women

Cold Rain and Snow

Set 2

Uncle John’s Band

Help on the Way


Franklin’s Tower

He’s Gone



Standing on the Moon

St. Stephen

Hell in a Bucket

Knockin’ in Heaven ‘s Door

Not Fade Away

Dead & Company – Dead Forever – Live at Sphere” dates: 

Thursday, May 16; Friday, May 17; Saturday, May 18

Friday, May 24; Saturday, May 25; Sunday, May 26

Thursday, May 30; Friday, May 31; Saturday, June 1

Thursday, June 6; Friday, June 7; Saturday, June 8

Thursday, June 13; Friday, June 14; Saturday, June 15

Thursday, June 20; Friday, June 21; Saturday, June 22

Thursday, July 4; Friday, July 5; Saturday, July 6

Thursday, July 11; Friday, July 12; Saturday, July 13

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