The Dead

Sun. April 12

Greensboro Coliseum

Jerry Garcia left behind big shoes. In the 14 years since his death, the various reincarnations amongst the Grateful Dead’s surviving members have been enjoyable, but perhaps lacking in a unified spirit, as if a void remained on stage.

From the appearance and sound of their kickoff show for their first tour in five years, the Dead are looking ahead. Lesh, Hart, Weir, and Kreutzmann are now joined by Warren Haynes on guitar and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, both of whom shined in their lofty new roles.

Haynes knows a thing or two about filling shoes, having served for two decades as the Allman Brothers provider of blazing rocket fuel. From the beauty of his lead vocals on “Shakedown Street” and the dirty/smooth guitar licks he laid into on “All Along the Watchtower,” Haynes appears to be the fresh jolt to keep the band exploring. Fresh improvisations and epic sequences like the show-closing “Help on the Way/Slipknot!/Franklin’s Tower” quelled any concerns in that regard.

The Dead’s lyrics gain new flavors and poignancy with age, and the band seemed to take that into account with their setlist. Opener “The Music Never Stopped” was obvious in its placement. The same man was on everyone’s mind during the relaxed, staggered harmonies of “nothing’s gonna bring him back” on “He’s Gone,” which was followed nicely with the “I will get by” sing-along refrain from “Touch of Grey.”

Set one was largely a straightforward presentation of old favorites, including “Jack Straw,” “Estimated Prophet,” and a concise “Truckin’.” They returned to the stage with “Shakedown’s” booming chords. Over 20 minutes of drums and space followed. On “Caution,” the Dead rediscovered their comfort zones in free-form improvisation, highlighted by Lesh’s spooky walking bass line.

For any band to aimlessly deviate from song structure for the length of a television sitcom while a sold-out crowd of 18,000 listens in wide-eyed amazement is impressive. The Dead practically invented “space,” and they still use it well. Leaving the lengthy mind-trip with the classic “Cosmic Charlie” had the crowd moving again, and the “Samson and Delilah” encore rang as a perfect cap to an Easter night.