The Immersive Experience of Dead & Company at The Sphere

Will Hagle experiences Dead & Company perform at The Sphere in Las Vegas – the perfect band for this type of venue, who's a nostalgia act that transcends generations while lending themselves to...
By    June 4, 2024

Image via Chloe Weir

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After a three-hour animated fractal trip through the cosmos, Dead & Company’s Vegas Sphere show ends where the band began: in 1960s San Francisco, on a quiet Haight-Ashbury street. In 16K resolution, a massive, hyperrealistic Victorian house curves up behind the band. An old-timey radio voice beams in straight from 1966, announcing the news: a ragtag group of musicians has moved into 710 Ashbury street, and their passionate hippie fanbase follows them to all of their “sprawling, improvisational performances.”

“To the faithful followers of this vibrant young band, there’s no such thing as too many Grateful Dead shows.” the announcer says, “It’s safe to say that if they had it their way, these free-spirited showgoers would prefer the music never stops.”

The seats rattle from unrelenting bass. Text booms onto the massive screen: “DEAD FOREVER.” The crowd goes wild. Thousands of overweight and bearded boomers in $60 tie-dye t-shirts have a simultaneous acid flashback. They love it and they want more. They’ve been standing and dancing for over three hours, and it’s still not enough. The band launches into “Not Fade Away.” 76-year-old Bob Weir and 80-year-old Mickey Hart jam for another ten minutes or so, like they have for almost 60 years, and could for eternity.

Dead & Company is the latest band to take residency at The Sphere, a $2.3 billion, 20,000-person capacity venue owned by MGM. Like everything in Vegas, The Sphere is, at its core, a gimmick. LED panels on the orb’s exterior light up the Strip with rotating images, like a smiley face emoji or the Dead’s iconic red-white-and-blue skull and lightning bolt logo. Inside, the venue has another wraparound, planetarium-esque screen. Seeing a show there is more like spending three hours on Disneyland’s Soarin’ Over the World ride than attending anything resembling even the most lavish arena concert.

As much as anyone wants to see U2 or Phish or John Mayer’s guitar faces, a valid reason to attend the Sphere is to witness the spectacle of the venue itself. Whoever happens to be performing is integral for – but secondary to – the show taking place on the screen. Even with a restricted view, I’m transfixed. My brother and I aren’t Deadheads but we’re at the show to celebrate our dad’s 70th birthday. “When I saw the Dead in the 70s,” my dad tells me, shaking his head in amazement. “They didn’t need any of these screens.”

In a frighteningly increasing manner, screens seem to be all humans want. Now that we’re addicted, screens are what we need. Communal gatherings are no longer opportunities to experience reality with like-minded others. Live events are expensive places to watch TV in public. So-Fi Stadium spent $40M on its 70,000 square-foot Infinity Screen. Go to a Rams game and try to concentrate on the field. Your eyes will drift upwards. That is what they do. We’re moths flying toward the light.

The Sphere is the logical culmination of our undeniable screen-triggered de-evolution. The rounded screen is so big, so all-encompassing, so engrossing. It sucks you all the way in and makes you think the pixelated world is the only thing that’s real.

It absolutely lives up to the hype. Unlike anything else in live music, The Sphere is an immersive experience. It’s worth walking miles through alternating climate extremes, from the scorching nuclear wasteland desert to the smoky air-conditioned casino mazes. The stench of booze-infused sweat and desperation is everywhere, but once you’re finally herded into the dome, you can relax, breathe in the geriatric pot exhales and let the screen engulf you.

Dead & Company is the perfect band for this type of venue. They’re a nostalgia act that transcends generations, luring in Middle America’s most excited cargo-short wearing dads and their children (who are only slightly embarrassed to be wearing matching t-shirts.) Their music obviously lends itself to psychedelic imagery. They don’t move around much onstage. The music might’ve been all anyone in the 70s needed, but the Sphere’s screen works better than any drug.

We all watch Bob Weir sternly recite lyrics in a soft but powerful voice while floating through the stars. What better to accompany “Fire on the Mountain” than a paint-by-numbers nature scene filled in with bright rainbow colors, and animated turtles spinning around while playing banjo? Psychedelics are proven to increase neuroplasticity, allowing the brain to process sensory input in novel manners, the way babies do. If Vegas is Disney for adults, The Sphere is the quickest non-ingestible route to unlocking childlike wonder and amazement. I’m sober—or high only from the rush of hitting $50 on black in roulette and incorrectly believing my bet that Anthony Edwards would get a double-double paid off despite my phone loading a stat error—but I feel like a baby again.

Dead & Company is a completely different band from what my dad and others of his generation saw without screens. The Grateful Dead technically haven’t been a band since 1995. Bob Weir is the last original founding member of that group. Bassist Phil Lesh has never played with Dead & Company, performing instead on rare occasions with his own Phil Lesh & Friends. But Weir’s new outfit still uses “Dead” in the name, and the Sphere set is full of nostalgic images and iconography. Jerry Garcia died along with the original band, but numerous stretched photos of him flash around the Sphere throughout the performance. The group plays songs that Grateful Dead popularized.

Weir certain;y isn’t the stereotypical lone band member touring under his previous group’s act as a desperate cash grab. There’s deep Dead lineage throughout the new ensemble. Percussionist Mickey Hart has been around since 1967. Weir has been performing with Bill Kreutzmann’s replacement, second percussionist Jay Lane, since the mid-90s. Keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, like Lane, also played in post-Dead bands RatDog and Furthur. And this point, bassist Oteil Bridges and guitarist/singer John Mayer have been in Dead & Company for all nine years.

For those who came of age when “No Such Thing” was popping, it’s still hardest to reconcile with John Mayer’s jarring presence. Mayer was the epitome of Bush-era basic male whiteness. He was easy to hate then, but it feels like he’s spent at least two decades atoning for all the bland poppiness. From the Chappelle’s Show sketch to pranking his fans while wearing a bear suit for VH1 to praising his blues guitar forebears to taking an onstage backseat to legends like Weir, he has proven that he’s self-aware enough. Any old man in Vegas these days will tell you that Mayer’s got undeniable chops. No one seems to care or remember about that controversial Playboy interview. Mayer’s voice sounds jarring in contrast to Weir’s singing Dead songs because it’s so smooth. But, like a refreshing Coca-Cola, it’s okay to occasionally enjoy. The main downside is that his guitar is cranked louder than Weir’s in the live mix, and he overtakes his legendary counterpart with flashy solos high on the fretboard while Weir’s aging hands take a more rhythmic backing role.

True Deadheads know what they’re getting from attending a Dead & Company show. It’s going to be a lot of John Mayer, but the core elements of loose improvisation within a sturdy structure have remained intact for half a decade. There’s still a thirty-minute “Rhythm Devils” percussion solo, with Mickey Hart leading a seat-shaking drum circle in front of an animated DMT trip while the keys and string section rests backstage. A sleep-inducing thirty-minute “Space” section of jangling guitars follows. The beauty of The Dead is that you know what to expect, but the setlist and the riffs will never be exactly the same. You have to show up every night if you don’t want to miss anything.

Those who saw The Dead in the 70s realize that they’re in from a similar, yet different, ride. Everyone else at the Sphere understands that Dead & Company’s show will be as close as they’ll get to seeing the Grateful Dead in 2024. As AI continues to extend the lives of artists in lifeless ways, it begs the question: do we really want The Dead, FOREVER?

We’ve reached a point where that question is valid and it could be answered either way (The John Mayer subreddit, it should be noted, is an overwhelming yes). The music no longer dies with the artist. It lives on, in altered form, for as long as someone can profit. In the broader context of human history, this is a relatively new concept.

Sound recordings weren’t even covered under federal copyright law until 1972, seven years after the Grateful Dead formed. Because so many artists had covered each other or songbook standards without concern, this presented a new bevy of legal headaches. Jimi Hendrix, for instance, owned the sound recording copyright to “All Along the Watchtower.” Bob Dylan owned the musical works copyright. Dead & Company played it live when I saw them at the Sphere, as Grateful Dead had been doing since 1987.

Grateful Dead were, at their inception, somewhat of a reactionary return to the roots of Americana. Like many of their contemporaries, they performed and riffed on folk songs. When I saw them at the Sphere, they opened with “Samson and Delilah,” which is noted on their 1977 album Terrapin Station as a “(Traditional)” song. There’s a version of that song associated with them, but it’s not theirs, and they’ll never play it the same way twice. Grateful Dead has many albums, but their draw has never been studio recordings. People like them because of their live performances. Bootleg recordings shared amongst fans spread the legend.


After the show, I told my dad it was interesting how young people were still listening to music from fifty years ago. I asked if he listened to music from the 1910s when he was growing up. In typical Deadhead fashion, he responded: “We didn’t know anything about older music. We just liked rock ‘n roll.”

His generation, of course, didn’t have nearly the same access to older music scenes and histories that mine did. Because of advancements in recording technology and the endless archive of the internet, we only became able to document music in such a specified manner around the time the Grateful Dead started. As a result, the Deadhead subculture is one of the first that society has been able to witness play out in continued form over the course of a half-century.

Corporate America has long since squashed out the hippie idealism of the 1960s, but that uniquely American phenomenon has continued to exist and influence subsequent generations. Weir, Hart, Kreutzmann, and Lesh aren’t dead yet, and neither are many of their foundational fans. The once-twenty-year-old flower children are now wilting, but the movement they created remains pervasive in popular culture. Their legend has been passed down, along with their recordings, allowing the next wave of humanity—from John Mayer to the 16-year-old sitting near me—to ensure the music never stops.

At the Vegas airport the day after the show, our screens light up with a tragic announcement: Bill Walton is dead. The night before, my brother had wondered if the esteemed NBA player and commentator would be in the crowd for Dead & Company like he so often was. Nope. He’s gone. At the Sphere the weekend after I attend, the screen lights up with a tribute to their newly fallen fan.

As the long, strange trip marches on, more and more people who were associated with Grateful Dead or fans of the original band will also depart this realm. That’s as objective of a human reality as our penchant for staring at screens. Dead & Company claimed that the $115 million-generating 2023 arena tour would be the end of it all. Then they announced the Sphere residency. They’ve since announced that they’ll return for more dates at The Sphere in August. They’re likely making millions again. We can’t fault Weir and Hart. No musician seems truly capable of retiring. They don’t need the money. The drive comes from elsewhere. And that’s okay.

The scariest test will be what happens when the human artists are dead, but the fans and the people who can profit off them want the music to keep going. The Dead will live forever, in one form or another. We have yet to figure out what that looks like, and what it means.

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