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John Mayer playing guitar with some members of the Grateful Dead
Four months ago, the surviving members of the Grateful Dead said goodbye to their fans in a massively publicized, three-day mega concert dubbed the “Fare Thee Well” tour, which sold more than $40 million in tickets and packed Chicago’s Soldier Field to the tune of 71,000 people per night.
So it may sound strange to learn that at Target Center on Nov. 21, three of the remaining “core four” Grateful Dead members (guitarist Bob Weir and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann) will be playing in a band called Dead & Company—featuring, of all people, pop balladeer John Mayer on guitar.
For those who have paid attention to the Dead’s various evolutions and mutations over the years, there is no confusion. Dead & Company is just one more iteration of many in the ongoing musical improvisation that is/was the Grateful Dead since the death 20 years ago of the band’s lead guitarist and guiding light, Jerry Garcia. Various combinations of Dead survivors and guest artists have populated such bands as The Other Ones, The Dead, and Furthur. Each surviving member of the Dead also has his own side projects. Weir tours with Ratdog, bassist Phil Lesh has a revolving pick-up band called Phil Lesh & Friends, Hart presides over Planet Drum, and Kreutzmann has multiple side gigs, including a band he formed just last year, Billy and the Kidds.
Even in the Grateful Dead’s heyday, when the band performed more than 200 concerts per year, Jerry Garcia anchored storied side projects like The Jerry Garcia Band, Old and in the Way, and Legions of Mary. Garcia also teamed up with various musicians—most notably mandolinist David Grisman—to appease his appetite for musical exploration above and beyond the bluesy space rock of the Grateful Dead.
Yet even for Dead aficionados, the collaboration with John Mayer is an odd one. There isn’t much crossover between Mayer’s audience (primarily female, under 40) and the Dead’s audience (mostly male, over 40), and Mayer’s reputation as an egomaniacal rake has caused some of his fans to wonder if it’s even ethical to keep listening to him. Then again, Mayer’s guitar pyrotechnics in concert have burnished his reputation as a contemporary guitar hero, and he has collaborated with B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and many other guitar greats.
The biggest challenge for neo-Dead offshoots is finding people who can fill the lead-guitar slot in a way that honors Garcia’s legacy and pushes the band’s music in interesting directions without letting their own ego get in the way. In Chicago, Phish’s Trey Anastasio did an admirable job navigating that treacherous terrain. Now Mayer is taking his shot.
What Mayer has going for him is that his guitar wizardry is based on a deep, lifelong study of the blues, he knows his Dylan (whom the Dead frequently cover), and he likes to jam. Mayer started rehearsing with Dead & Company back in March, even while the rest of the band was rehearsing for its Fare Thee Well tour. He also played several shows with Phil Lesh & Friends over the summer, during which he demonstrated a surprisingly adept mastery of Garcia’s musical vocabulary, and laced his solos with all sorts of tasty flourishes that showed off his ability to improvise in the moment—a must for anyone who wants to fill Garcia’s shoes, however temporarily.
No one can replace Garcia, of course, but loyal Dead followers have come to appreciate what other artists can bring to the band’s music. In Chicago, many old-timers doubted the choice of Anastasio as Garcia’s stand-in, but after the shows, it was hard to deny that he had brought something special and original to the mix.
Mayer likely will do the same. And as long as he doesn’t insist on singing too many of his own songs, the Dead faithful will welcome him. In the Dead’s extended universe, after all, some experimentation is OK, but too much is just another band not playing the music they came to hear.