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Fall in love with SF all over again at The Sphere’s Dead & Company show

A large crowd is attending an outdoor concert at dusk with the city skyline and colorful sky in the distance, creating a vibrant and dynamic urban scene.
San Francisco, seen from The Las Vegas Sphere during a Dead & Company show on June 1. | Source: Joe Burn/The Standard

Once in a while, you get shown the light. In the strangest of places, if you look at it right. 

For me, that place was inside a multi-billion dollar glowing testicle, surrounded by tourists, in the tackiest, gaudiest city in all the world. Watching a band whose most important member has been dead for almost as long as I’ve been alive, I had an insanely profound experience that made me fall in love with San Francisco all over again from 400 miles away. 

I’m talking, of course, about the Dead & Company show at The Las Vegas Sphere, the technological marvel that dominates that city’s already Dali-esque skyline. Sure, John Mayer, as a singer more famous for the celebrities he dates than the songs he writes, is no Saint Jerry. And of course, I was surrounded by geriatrics in tie-dye and the occasional curious tourist who just wanted a peek inside the giant curved television. 

A night concert features a stage below the Pyramids and Sphinx, with projected images, a full moon, and a starry sky, viewed by an audience in the foreground.
John Mayer projected on a digital pyramid inside The Sphere on June 1. | Source: Joe Burn/The Standard

Sure, the cost of the outing—the tickets were $250-a-pop, as was the airfare, and four drinks at a nearby bar came to $162—somewhat diluted the counterculture vibes. Not to mention, we didn’t win a thing on the roulette tables after three nights of trying. 

But believe me when I say this: As giant scarlet begonias rained down on me from another dimension to the ethereal strains of “Sugar Magnolia,” I embraced a sweaty stranger and my own mortality, and I would do it again. You should do it too. 

‘The greatest show in America’

But the magic of any Sphere voyage begins the moment you see it. In our case, it was from the flight. 

What began as a boy’s trip to the Las Vegas Sphere for me and The Standard’s business editor Kevin Truong—booked on a whim after several beers—had quickly descended into a cliched Hunter S. Thompson excursion after just one night in town.

Tragically, by the time we were headed to the show, we were just two journalists wearing Ralph Steadman Grateful Dead tees, “Sphere and loathing in Las Vegas” emblazoned across the back. With our new shirts bought fresh from Shakedown Street (inside the Tuscany Hotel), we flagged down a top-hatted hippie with two giant dreads to transport us to The Sphere via bicycle rickshaw. There are other ways to pull up, but trust me, do this one.

Three men in vibrant attire are enjoying drinks on a street corner; one has long dreadlocks and a top hat. Behind them are cars and a large billboard.
Standard editors Kevin Truong, left, and Joe Burn, right, hitch a ride to The Sphere in Las Vegas for a Dead & Company show on June 1. | Source: Kevin Truong/The Standard

Entering The Sphere is more seamless than any mega-venue ever, probably. The only pause necessary is for the money-shot selfie outside it. There’s solid signage, an army of helpful staff who’ll point you on your way, and a ticket check-in process that TSA-trusted travelers would be envious of. 

The lines for its many bars are short and the service is quick and friendly. Worth the $25 per cocktail, which is actually reasonable considering you’re at the most expensive entertainment venue ever built in Vegas, baby. (It cost $2.3 billion, if you’re wondering). The food is even more reasonably priced.

There is nothing underwhelming about The Sphere. Even as you ride the escalator to grab your seats, you’re treated to a sliver of a shimmering example of the technology you are about to witness full bore: a Dead skull hologram seemingly floating and flickering in the middle of the lobby. Perhaps the only thing close to an underwhelming experience was the start of this particular Dead show, the graphics not yet fully displayed, just a cinematic, zoomed-in shot of the band and their opening riffs.

The image shows a large indoor event space with colorful lighting, circular hanging decorations, a crowd of people below, and a large illuminated sign that reads “Dead & Company, The Final Tour.”
Entering The Las Vegas Sphere, you're treated to a taste of its powers. | Source: Kevin Truong/The Standard

But then the screen rips open with a lightning bolt, its jagged edges slowly pull apart—and before you know it, you’re in San Francisco at the Dead’s house, at 710 Ashbury St., Salesforce Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge glimmering in the distance. Did I just feel a Bay breeze—or am I trippin?

“This is the greatest show in America,” I say to The Standard’s business editor after being consumed by a psychedelic wormhole as Mayer performs guitar wizardry that would see Eric Clapton gently weeping.

A closeup shot of Mayer’s hands floats in a box above the tiny stage as he shreds. Everywhere you look the walls are alive with light. Bob Weir is now in the box, his hair blown back as if he’d just sailed to Vegas on the Adventure Galley. Weir’s jaw opens: “Dear Prudence.” Your jaw is on the floor, your sightline arching from a crowd of twisting tie-dye to a light show the like of which has only existed for mere months. Then come those giant digital begonias, raining down from the abyss beyond the Sphere’s exterior, slapping down onto the display with a gentle force you only feel in your mind. 

A concert stage with a large, colorful, rainbow-like light display and outer space background features images of two musicians projected on either side.
I have no idea what was happening here but it was great. | Source: Joe Burn/The Standard

I won’t ruin it for you entirely, if you haven’t already done that for yourself on YouTube—but what unfolds next before your mind, body and soul is nothing short of life-changing. I wanted to text my mother and thank her for raising me in a fashion that got me to this point in my life. Or visit the nearest chapel and light a candle for my dad, a Steve Miller fan who would’ve understood whatever I was feeling. Even if the ambience was momentarily disturbed by a well-dressed tourist who dropped her lip gloss and had us all looking for it… (in 50 years, that has likely never happened at a Dead show.)

Instead, we’ll let Paul Schwering, a geoscientist from Carson City, do the talking.

“The sense of trying to find a word,” Paul said, when asked to describe what he’d just seen in the brief intermission between sets. “No, no, no, I couldn’t find a word. This is a truly mind blowing experience where my entire senses are alight. I can tell because, like all my hair has been standing up almost the entire show. And when your hair stands up, when you hear those notes and they keep taking you and they carry. That’s the journey. You know you’re in the right place at the right time.”

We embraced. 

Of course, Sphere-enhancing substances that may be deemed illegal in some locales were deftly passed around the lobby. Did my newfound love for Paul and the lip gloss lady have anything to do with those? My attorney has advised me I can neither confirm nor deny.

But who needs drugs anyway, when toward the end of the show you’re sucked into a swirling vortex of pink glowing fog and spat out somewhere above Earth. Feeling weightless for a moment, the gravitational pull of the blue planet begins to drag you back to reality. The show is ending, you’re plunging toward California and you know you’re a better person because of it. 

Before you know it, you’re right back in Haight Ashbury. Except you’re not. You’re still in Vegas. The reality of which hits you harder than the smell of post-show Deadheads dawdling toward The Strip once you begrudgingly quit The Sphere. 

The only solace for us, was that within about 15 hours, we really would be back in San Francisco.