Since I took my hiatus from blogging, there have been many changes in the world of the Grateful Dead: Furthur disbanded, Phil officially stopped touring, The Fare Thee Well 50th Anniversary Celebrations took place, and, most recently, Dead & Company was born. I’ll have to talk about Fare Thee Well another time, but for now I want to talk about Dead & Company and the ways its formation, as with most things, divided Dead Head opinion. Criticism mainly stemmed from two issues: the claim that Fare Thee Well would be the last time all of the members of the band would play together, and the choice of John Mayer as lead guitarist. During Fare Thee Well, there was a lot of talk about money-grabbing, especially focused around Pete Shapiro, owner of the Capitol Theater and other venues. Pete was the one who made the claim that the Core Four would never again play together (and the band echoed his sentiments), and when Dead & Company emerged, it brought back the ire that people felt when they were shelling out thousands of dollars for Fare Thee Well; what the hell did they pay for if the band was going on tour again?! As for Mayer, he was best known, to me at least, as a pop musician with an affinity for the blues who spent a lot of time in the tabloids for his involvement with various affairs and scandals. Being the guy that I am, I never read any of these articles or paid much attention, but his association with that world kept me from paying him any attention before this. And as for the first criticism mentioned above, Phil isn’t playing with these guys, so, I for one, don’t think they lied to us. And, how can anyone complain about a new Dead band?! I think the real source of the outrage is that Fare Thee Well felt like the end of a chapter in history, and for a lot of people it’s where they thought they would get off the bus. But at no point did anyone in charge of the events say “there will be no more Grateful Dead music ever again, get it while it’s hot,” people just drew that conclusion themselves, and as a result felt a little bitter about the whole thing.
The band was conceived when Bobby and the drummers realized how much fun they were having playing together during Fare Thee Well and decided they needed to ride this wave while it lasted. As I mentioned above, Phil is totally done touring (though he still plays a few residencies a year), and the Core Four aren’t planning on getting together again, so they had to find a bass player. There were rumors they tried out Mike Gordon from Phish, which in the wake of bringing Trey Anastasio along for Fare Thee Well seemed like a huge problem for the anti-Phish Dead Heads out there. Personally, I’m not wild about Phish, but I certainly don’t hate them like some folks do. I’m glad that they ditched this idea and went instead with Oteil Burbridge, who most recently was the bass player for the Allman Brothers Band and plays with just about every musician there is. He has a very jazzy style of playing bass and does a lot more tapping and slapping than Phil ever did, in a Jaco Pastorius kind of way (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-YzAQOreJSc). He’s no lightweight though, his bass can sound like the horns of the Gods when he really lets loose. I think he is a perfect fit for this band -- he plays the songs in his own way, but is familiar enough with the music that he always knows what needs to be played.
On keyboards they went with the obvious and correct choice, our old friend Jeff Chimenti! Besides playing with Furthur, Phil and Friends, and previous iterations of the Dead, he also held down the organ and synth role for the Fare Thee Well shows while Bruce Hornsby played the grand piano. Now Jeff’s back as the sole keyboardist and is as unbelievable as ever. I do wish they would give him more solos like he had in Furthur, but I really can’t complain. The ones he does get are mind-blowing and always so inventive. His background playing provides so many textures and he always seems to know exactly which one is perfect at any given moment. He’s also singing more now, and that’s pretty cool!
Billy and Mickey are of course the drummers, and I think they’ve only been getting better since this band formed. When I saw them for Fare Thee Well I was a little iffy about how they were playing, and looking back I think some of that feeling lies with Trey’s performance. I think he was great and had many brilliant moments at those shows, but the problem is that he seemed reluctant to really take the lead and express himself within the music. It seemed to me that he was trying not to step on anyone’s toes and was constantly looking to the other players so he would change keys or songs when they wanted to, but they really wanted him to just make the decision himself and they would follow. Because of this the drummers had to keep track of where they were, where the rest of the band was, and where Trey was, which is a lot to keep track of if they’re not all on the same page from the beginning. With Dead & Company I think there was still a little bit of that going on in their first/only tour so far, but they were still a hundred times tighter than Fare Thee Well. It’s really something to see those two drumming together, they have such an awesome power at their fingertips, and the “Drums > Space” segments are like watching kids play on a jungle gym: there are so many toys and only so much time to play with them! Mickey especially has worked his Beam up into a super instrument that seems to be able to make any possible sound.
My only criticism of having a dedicated “Drums > Space” segment each night is that it’s fairly predictable at this point. The Dead started including a “Drums” break at every show in 1978, and while “Drums” and “Space” are by their natures some of the most free-form and improvisational parts of a show, you always know that they’re coming in the second set, and that leaves the setlist format relatively fixed. During the second set I find myself thinking, “Ok, they’ve done three songs since the set started, they probably have one more before going into ‘Drums,’ and then they’ll have to come out of ‘Space’ into something psychedelic, then do a ballad, and then a rocker or two to close the set.” I think it would do a lot for the novelty of the shows if they did it a little more like they would in ‘70 or ‘76, when they would sprinkle in several smaller “Drums” segments throughout, and occasionally have a 15-20 minute interlude. Maybe their reasoning is that they have two drummers and what looks like several tons of drum equipment, so for it to all pay off they have to do a big “Drums” segment each night, which makes sense to me. I just think that after almost 40 years of the same formula, maybe they should change things up a little to keep us on our toes!
Bob Weir was a bit reclusive after the end of Furthur, mostly because of some health issues he was having at the time. He even cancelled his Ratdog tour to our chagrin (we had tickets!) a couple years back, so we were a little worried about him going into 2015. As he showed us, however, he was in fine form for Fare Thee Well and was looking and playing even better by the time Dead & Company rolled around. He’s singing better than he has in the last few years and his playing is sounding much better too. He still makes some questionable noises with his guitar sometimes, but overall I like the tones he’s playing with better than the ones he had in Furthur. He also looks like he’s having a great time -- in fact the whole band is constantly beaming when they’re onstage! He’s taken to having a stool on the stage that he can lean on when he gets tired. What surprises me is that he doesn’t use it very often, but just having it on stage seems to give him more freedom to be energetic when he needs to, and during the quieter or more contemplative parts of shows he can conserve his energy and return to the stool.
Mayer and Bobby really seem to have a special connection musically, and Mayer always seems to have one eye on Bobby to see where he’s going. Bobby used to talk about how he could see where Jerry was going with a lead, and would always try to get there ahead of him so he could have a surprise waiting that Jerry would sometimes love and sometimes hate (paraphrasing), and he seems to be able to do that for Mayer as well. The difference is that he hasn’t played with Mayer for 30 years, so there are surprises waiting for Bobby too.
Finally we come to the newest addition to the world of the Dead, John Mayer. The way the story goes as he tells it is that he was sitting in his pool, being a rockstar, when the Pandora station he was listening to started playing “Althea,” and his world changed forever. He rushed out of the pool and ran to his phone to see what was playing, and got on the bus from there. What I like about this is that his own awakening to the Dead happened right around the same time I got into them (2011 for him, 2010 for me), so he’s in the same generation of Dead Heads as I am from a certain perspective. He went through a crash course of listening to the Dead and becoming familiar with their history, and eventually played with Bob Weir last year when Mayer took his turn hosting “The Late Late Show.” I don’t know why they went for Trey for Fare Thee Well when communication had already been established with Mayer, but I know nothing about any of the decisions they made, so that’s nothing new. Maybe they figured Trey was already more well known in Dead circles, and they had probably already been rehearsing with him at this point. Either way, Mayer went to Fare Thee Well not as a participant but as part of the audience, and from what he’s said seemed to be very supportive of Trey. It wasn’t long after Fare Thee Well, however, that Dead & Company came to light as the next iteration of a constant Dead band, with Mayer in the Jerry slot.
I think that Mayer is absolutely the right choice, and I hope this lineup stays the way it is; the only alteration I would accept willingly would be replacing Oteil with Phil, but even that I have reservations about. This really feels like Bob’s band to me, of course with contributions from the other members of the band, and I think that nowadays Phil is very particular about what he wants to play, which doesn’t always mesh with what the rest of the Core Four want. So it’s maybe for the best that Phil stay with his Friends, and these guys keep touring -- I wouldn’t mind a couple collaborations when they’re in the same area though! One of the best things about Mayer is that he clearly has opinions about how he wants to play these songs that he’s fallen in love with, and he takes such a dominant role as the lead guitarist, something I think Trey struggled with for Fare Thee Well as I mentioned earlier. Besides bringing his own sound and tone to the table, he also has some very Garcia-like tendencies, and even got a new guitar specifically to sound a little more Jerry-ish. Now this is controversial in-and-of itself in that many people (including Billy) have said in the past that they don’t want a Jerry clone, they want someone unique who can still play the necessary hooks and riffs. I think that Mayer has found a perfect balance of these elements: he’s still very much himself and plays like no other guitarist I’ve seen in that role, but is also very aware of when he needs to play the Jerry card. His vocals are unmistakably pop-oriented, which isn’t always a great fit, but on songs like “Cold Rain & Snow,” “Althea,” and “Row Jimmy” it was a great twist on tunes we’re all so familiar with.
My dad and I saw Dead & Company with our friend Scott in Worcester (pronounced “wuh-ster” for you non-Bostonians out there) on 11/10/2015, and had a great time. I won’t go into a whole song-by-song review of the show, but here’s the setlist, and I’ll go into some highlights:
First Set: Cassidy, Row Jimmy, Ramble on Rose, Big River, Peggy-O, Sugaree, The Music Never Stopped
Second Set: Deal > Uncle John’s Band > Estimated Prophet > Terrapin Station > Drums > Space > Dear Prudence > Get Out My Life, Woman > Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad
Here’s an audience recording, more available on the archive:
We were shocked to get “Cassidy” as the opener, but I was thrilled because that was one of the main songs I hadn’t gotten before that I was hoping to get from Bobby at this show. The first three songs were arguably the best part of the show, they absolutely killed each of them. Mayer’s solos in “Row Jimmy” were unbelievable, and the leads he and Chimenti were trading on “Ramble on Rose” just kept building higher and higher. The two songs at the end of the first set were also fantastic and featured some heavy bass bombs from Oteil. There were some rough spots in “Peggy-O” and “Deal,” but even these were excellent versions of the songs; Bobby kept switching up the amount of measures in each verse of Peggy-O, that Prankster! The post-drums segment was a little lacking, but Dear Prudence was beautiful, especially the way it solidified out of “Space.” Allen Toussaint passed away earlier that same day, and “Get Out My life, Woman” was a song he popularized, so we really appreciated their effort to honor his memory, even if the song was obviously unrehearsed. I also think that “Terrapin” isn’t anywhere as good as it was when Furthur did it, but I think that’s mainly a result of Kadlecik being totally immersed in the Dead’s repertoire and Mayer still just getting into it, and this is a very complex song. They didn’t have a single wrong note, I just felt that Mayer wasn’t comfortable enough with the song to really step away from the basic format. “Uncle John’s > Estimated > Terrapin” was such a great sequence though, and the whole band was really showcasing their newfound powers. At this point “Ripple” is a bit of a clichéd encore, but it’s still such a soul-warming song, and Mayer switched it up by playing some of the mandolin parts from the album on his acoustic guitar!
That was our only live encounter with the band, but they also put on a free concert at Madison Square Garden and streamed it live. It’s still available for free, with the sets separated, at the links below.
This show is really fantastic, and while they seemed a little shaky during parts of “Shakedown” and “I Need a Miracle” (the first two songs) the whole rest of the show is stellar. There is a little hiccup going into “Franklin’s”, but the whole “Help > Slip! > Frank” triumvirate is absolutely incredible, with Mayer really getting into “Slipknot!” “He’s Gone” and “Tennessee Jed” also come to mind as real stand-out performances.
So what’s my final verdict on the band? I love them! I think they really carry on the tradition of the Grateful Dead in an authentic way, meaning they play the songs we love but still push the boundaries of where music can go. For now they don’t quite measure up to the combined power and control that Furthur had, but for a band that’s done one small tour they are way ahead of the curve. Mayer is fitting in with the Dead world beautifully, and it’s a joy to watch this band come together and find their groove. The onstage chemistry is palpable, whether Mayer is watching Chimenti solo with his jaw hanging open, or Oteil is joining the drummers for the “Drums”! I hope that Mayer continues to take a dominant role as the lead guitarist and grow in his confidence. The more they play these songs and increase the size of their repertoire, the stronger the band will become. I think this upcoming tour of theirs is really going to give them a chance to spread their wings and see exactly what they’re capable of. We’re scheduled to see three of their upcoming shows, one in Hartford, CT (06/28/2016) and two at Fenway Park(07/15 & 07/16/2016), and hopefully they’ll announce more tours and live streams to come! I wish they would release official soundboard recordings of their shows, but the word on the street is that Mayer’s recording contract won’t allow for that. They’re allowing audience members to tape the shows, so at least there’s that; but still, let us hear the soundboards!
What do you guys think of this band? Let me know in the comments below, or if you have any questions/objections about what I wrote. Also let me know if any of you have suggestions or requests for future posts and I’ll take them into consideration! You can follow the blog on Facebook and Twitter at the links below if you'd like.