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Dead & Company: The Music Never Stopped

Dean Budnick | April 12, 2017
This excerpt originally appears in the April_May issue of Relix. To read the entire version, subscribe here.

John Mayer hasn't seen the new Grateful Dead documentary just yet, but he knows exactly when he intends to carve out the requisite four hours needed for a screening of Long Strange Trip.

“After I get off my tour in May, I’m going to reset and watch it as a primer to get into that space again,” he explains. “I would imagine that at the end of watching that movie, even if I wasn’t able to play with those guys, I’d go, ‘Oh God, I would love to be in that band.’ And that really is where it started for me.”

It was back in 2011 when serendipity and a playlist algorithm converged, leading the sweet sounds of “Althea” to reach Mayer’s ears through the Neil Young Pandora channel.

“When you’re listening to music on Pandora, there’s this inherent sense of ‘these are all songs you know but forgot that you wanted to hear.’ Then ‘Althea’ came on, and everything just seemed to stop. I went, ‘What is that?’ because, as a guitar player, I had managed to burrow pretty deep into all the things that can happen on a guitar neck. Guitar players get to a point where they’re deep enough into their instrument where they can visualize what someone’s playing. Especially if I’m falling asleep and listening to music, I can watch the fretboard and map it. But I listened to this, and it was like I had never played an instrument. It inspired this perfect jealousy in me. There’s a certain kind of jealousy an artist can have that’s all positive jealousy—‘I want to be responsible for creating something like that.’”

And, four years later, he would be.

In mid-January 2015, the core four surviving members of the Grateful Dead announced that they would reunite to celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary. Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir revealed that they would return to the stage together, along with Trey Anastasio, Jeff Chimenti and Bruce Hornsby for three Fare Thee Well shows at Chicago’s Soldier Field—the site where the Grateful Dead performed their final gig on July 9, 1995. (They added two Fare Thee Well dates in Santa Clara, Calif., after the initial announcement.)

While the four Grateful Dead musicians had played together in a number of incarnations since Jerry Garcia’s passing in 1995, they had not done so since their July 4, 2009 appearance at Michigan’s Rothbury Music Festival. Over the intervening years, Lesh and Weir toured with their Furthur project, while Hart and Kreutzmann appeared together in the Rhythm Devils, rendering many fans apprehensive as to whether their collective musical paths would ever converge again.

Around the time of this announcement, Mayer was at Capitol Studios working on an album. Don Was, who had coproduced Mayer’s two previous records and was aware of his status as a newly consecrated Deadhead, invited him to attend a meeting in Capitol Tower with Hart and Weir. It was there, during Mayer’s first direct encounter with the pair, that he pledged his fealty to their music.

A couple of weeks later, Mayer was given an opportunity to serve as a guest host on The Late Late Show, during the interregnum between Craig Ferguson and James Corden. He invited Weir to join him for a performance, in which they teamed up on versions of “Truckin’” and an altogether apt “Althea.”

Their first musical exchange took place during soundcheck. As Weir recalls, “We had decided, more or less, which tunes we were going to do. So we rehearsed them but, two hours later, we were still playing. We had run the tunes and were still going at it. They finally just told us we were done and unplugged us.”
The musical connection was undeniable, leaving Weir to conclude that “the whole thing seemed like too much fun to run away from.”

While Lesh was no longer willing to commit himself to a steady road regimen at this point in his life, Weir was game. Hart and Kreutzmann signed on as well, with Mayer’s overarching enthusiasm holding sway.

“We weren’t looking for John,” Hart explains. “John came to us so impassioned that we couldn’t turn him down. It would be stupid. So we tried it out, and it worked from the get-go. He is really, really good—he’s fast and he’s confident. He came into this band knowing that it would be a great challenge, but he felt good about being a part of us. And we felt good about turning this solo artist into a groupist. So now he’s a groupist, and he really loves it too. There’s something you have to give up when you become a groupist. He’s normally a bandleader himself but, in this band, there are a lot of leaders. He has our sensibilities and he doesn’t have any of the pop-music trappings, as it were. We felt really good about him being a part of us, it was a very natural place.”

So in March 2015, before entering full-on Fare Thee Well mode, Hart, Kreutzmann and Weir spent a few days at a Bay Area rehearsal space looking to complete their lineup. The keyboard slot soon fell to Jeff Chimenti, who first joined Weir in RatDog back in 1997 as a Dead neophyte in his own right and has since appeared with him in The Other Ones, The Dead, Furthur and Fare Thee Well. Phish’s Mike Gordon was an initial option on bass; however, as he told last year, he decided to step back “because what I want to be doing with my time at 50 is writing and recording, and the Dead tour didn’t leave enough time for it. I hope I get to play with all of those guys again—and I hope they aren’t mad at me—because I have so much respect for them.”

Weir affirms that there are no hard feelings. He’s quite content that they were able to land Oteil Burbridge, fresh off of his 17-year stint in the Allman Brothers Band, who had some limited exposure to the Dead catalog, through his work in the Bill Kretuzmann Trio.

“Mike gave it a shot and it worked out pretty well,” Weir offers, “but then he decided he had too much on his plate, so we kept looking and we ended up with Oteil. And I’m glad that happened because Oteil is just a different style of bass player, so we can take the songs places that they don’t particularly go when we have a lead instrumentalist on the bass. It showcases the songs a little more and showcases the playing a little less.”

The Dead & Company name came courtesy of Mayer. “There are only so many iterations of Dead,” he explains. “I brought it up and it seemed right because it lives just between new and of course.”

The name stuck, even following a freewheeling group chat in which Hart, Kreutzmann and Weir spitballed some alternatives. “There were some incredibly wild suggestions,” Mayer remembers. “I’m a big fan of wild brainstorm sessions, but this is something wilder than I’ve ever seen. It was hilarious. But whatever name we were going to choose would have to be validated by the music. We could have called ourselves anything and, if the music was right, then the phonetics of whatever words we selected was going to sound right.”

In August 2015, Dead & Company announced a fall tour. Following the revitalizing vibe and collective catharsis of the Fare Thee Well shows, Mayer’s involvement (which had been rumored ever since the spring) was met with both optimism and skepticism.

Mayer was aware that some fans were leery of his participation but, to his mind, on some level, this was nothing new.

“When I was 16 years old, I would play these open-mic blues nights,” he remembers. “My friend’s dad would drive me to these clubs because he was the bass player. I would show up and everybody would be like, ‘Who’s the kid?’ I always knew I could answer ‘Who’s the kid?’ by the time I got offstage when they’d heard me play the music as best and as deeply as I could. Then, when I was 20 years old in Atlanta [after leaving Berklee College of Music], I entered an open-mic night, where it was all those older people wondering, ‘What’s going on here?’ I’ve never entered a room and people went, ‘I can’t wait for this. Who are you, strange boy? You’re probably great.’ It’s always been this grumble.

“I’ve been so weaned on people cranking their necks back and going, ‘What’s this going to be?’ that I wasn’t disappointed by the skepticism. I thought it was a healthy response. It would be insulting to the fans of this music to assume that they were going to very easily plug this dichotomous thing together and immediately decide, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s going to be great.’”

What many Deadheads did not understand is that Mayer treasures the Grateful Dead in the same way that they do.

“I listen to this music every day,” he explains. “I listen to it in the car wherever I go. It’s playing like nature sounds, the way you would hear a babbling brook. Grateful Dead music has a whole extra dimension for me than listening to music. There’s books, movies, theater, music, art, comedy, Grateful Dead. It’s a completely different lobe of my brain than music. I listen to this music to clear my head of music.”

“I see this canon of music as a city,” he adds in characterizing the scope of the band’s catalog. “If you put every Grateful Dead song together, it’s probably 12-square miles large and fully animated. You have ‘BrownEyed Women’ happening in this bar and, in back of that bar, later on tonight is ‘It Must Have Been the Roses.’ ‘Truckin’’ is on the highway and ‘Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad’ is on that highway, but on Sunday. You can just keep going and laying it in.”

He shares a few additional signature traits with the Deadhead community beyond this: As a teenager growing up in Connecticut, he made the pilgrimage to New York’s Wetlands Preserve and other clubs in the mid-‘90s to record Charlie Hunter and Medeski Martin & Wood.

“They called it acid jazz, and I didn’t quite know what the acid part meant because I wasn’t quite indoctrinated into the other stuff,” Mayer says of his taper days. “I remember seeing Charlie Hunter at Wetlands—it must have been Charlie Hunter Quartet when Calder Spanier was still around, and he was the saxophone player. [Spanier died in a 1997 auto accident.] I saw Charlie Hunter at the Middle East in Cambridge and brought this guitar pedal that he uses and had him sign it.

“I also had a DAT recorder with the external battery pack and this little lunch cooler that I used as my taper rig. I saw Charlie Hunter at South Street Seaport and I had the DAT for years. I learned all this playing of this one concert, and I learned to play like him as much as I could from all these DAT tapes that I made. After I went to the Berklee College of Music, though, I didn’t keep it going.”

Nonetheless, Mayer’s formative musical experiences in the improvisational realm were much broader than many Deadheads associated with him before seeing him in action. Indeed, before his first show with Dead & Company, many assumed that the group would gravitate back to the blues palette of the band’s early days when Pigpen exerted his influence. However, while Mayer is adept at such tones and techniques, he wanted to go the whole nine yards—or, rather, the full 12 miles.

“When I started, I looked at it from a completely technical standpoint. ‘Could I make this music happen?’” Mayer reflects. “There’s no reason to assume that anybody would know that I could, and I never held it against them. I feel that the steadfastness with which they protect the gate is the same loyalty once you’re in. It’s like the movie where there’s a bunch of seemingly scary biker guys, and a scrawny business guy endears himself to them in some way and they give him a jacket. If you do the work, if you can fix the guy’s motorcycle, you can get his jacket. If you compare my music to the Grateful Dead and that’s personified, then I’m the scrawny business guy in there. But I’m relishing the opportunity to do the work.”