Dead & Company guitarist John Mayer didn't seem to miss his appendix. At the Smoothie King Center on Saturday, he didn't dwell on or even mention its absence, or how it was the reason the band's performance was pushed back from Dec. 5.
That morning, Mayer was rushed to a local hospital for an emergency appendectomy. Alas, "I Left My Appendix in New Orleans" doesn't have quite the same poetic ring as "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."
The postponement moved the concert -- the first New Orleans appearance by either the Grateful Dead or one of its descendant bands in 30 years -- from a Tuesday night to a far more favorable Saturday night. Around 8,000 tickets had been sold for the original show. Days before the rescheduled concert, the total had already surpassed 11,000. The box office was still doing a brisk business at show time on Saturday, serving Deadheads old and young, clean-cut professionals and scruffy travelers.
Throughout his own headlining concert at the Smoothie King Center in August, Mayer functioned as an emcee, cracking jokes and providing context. With Dead & Company, he was content to be a silent ensemble musician who spoke only through his solos.
There were many solos. All were interesting; some, as in "Cold Rain and Snow," were sublime. The country and blues hues that naturally color his playing are the correct shade for the Dead, as evidenced by his understated approach to "Friend of the Devil"; the late Jerry Garcia was also big on such Americana influences. For the over-achieving Mayer, he likely thrived on the challenge of mastering an entirely new catalog and finding his place alongside the rhythmic wanderings of veteran Dead guitarist Bob Weir.
The breathy tone of Mayer's voice is also well-suited for the material. Remarkably, the pin-up who once sang the pop hit "Your Body is a Wonderland" is arguably a great choice to extend the Dead's legacy. In medical terms, he is like a new titanium knee inserted into an aging body to give it more mobility and strength.
So, too, bassist Oteil Burbridge, the effortlessly dexterous Allman Brothers Band alumnus who stepped in for original Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. Lesh's bass helped define the Dead. But at this point, the versatile, technically astute Burbridge is likely able to play circles around him.
Burbridge got an extended rest during Saturday's first set when bassist George Porter Jr. of the Meters took over for Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning." Porter's closet is well-stocked with tie-dye apparel, so finding an appropriate outfit for Saturday wasn't a problem. Neither was stepping into the lead vocal/bass role with Dead & Company. Porter collaborated with Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann in the 7 Walkers project, so he was already well acquainted with at least half of the rhythm section.
Mayer frequently meandered over to square off with Porter during "Bertha." For "Sugaree," a standard of his own sets, Porter hammed it up, shaking and singing in an especially craggy voice. He earned a huge ovation as the band closed out the first set.
Following a 45-minute intermission -- a time for fans to commune and arenas to sell concessions -- the band returned with Burbridge for a nimble "Scarlet Begonias." Kreutzmann and co-drummer Mickey Hart interlocked to form the base of "Fire on the Mountain," another nostalgic Grateful Dead favorite.
"Truckin'" was a highlight, and not just because of the local references derived from the song's inspiration, a 1970 drug bust in the French Quarter that soured the Grateful Dead on New Orleans for years. This was no rote rendition; the band dug in, giving the well-traveled song swing and feel. Not surprisingly, the "Houston, too close to New Orleans" and "busted down on Bourbon Street" lyrics went over huge.
The "Truckin'" momentum flagged during a sleepy "Ship of Fools" sung by Burbridge, and evaporated even more with a flaccid "Uncle John's Band." The latter's long instrumental passages never achieved any sort of liftoff.
But they were positively electric compared to the 15 lost minutes of "Drums/Space." A staple of every Dead show and sacred cow to true believers, the percussion interlude ("Drums") followed by an extended period of noise ("Space") is the sort of indulgence that inspires such jokes as, "What did the Deadhead say when he ran out of pot? Whoa, this music sucks!"
They gradually got back on track with the ballad "Stella Blue." There was a poignancy in the way a grizzled Weir sang it, cocking his head to the side on the chorus. Mayer chimed in with an intimate solo as keyboardist Jeff Chimenti colored in the backdrop on organ.
They roared fully to life again with "One More Saturday Night." Weir went for it, singing each successive chorus harder and harder; exclamation point followed exclamation point.
An encore of "Werewolves of London" was anticlimactic by comparison, lacking the steady propulsion of Warren Zevon's original. Weir didn't sing his parts particularly well, and Mayer didn't seem to know how to end the song.
That said, the final bow was well-deserved, the final ovation well-earned. Short one appendix, Dead & Company still delivered on their make-up date.
1. Feel Like a Stranger
2. The Music Never Stopped
3. Cold Rain and Snow
5. Friend of the Devil
6. Smokestack Lightning (with George Porter Jr.)
7. Bertha (with Porter)
8. Sugaree (with Porter)
9. Scarlet Begonias
10. Fire on the Mountain
11. Eternity Jam
13. Ship of Fools
14. Uncle John's Band
17. Stella Blue
18. One More Saturday Night
19. Werewolves of London
Dead & Company performed at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans on Saturday – the first New Orleans appearance by either the Grateful …