Monday, September 5, 2016

How Do We Feel About Dead & Company (Now)?

     Well the Summer Tour done come and gone, folks.  Dead & Company played all they’re going to play this summer, and they hit quite a few places across the country while they were at it.  The dust is still settling and it’s probably too early to come to any definitive positions about the band, but let’s talk about it anyway!  Later on in this I’m going to get into some comparisons, but for now let’s just look at the band itself from this most recent tour.  This is kind of a continuation of this post, so maybe you should read that first.

     John Mayer certainly wasn’t shy when playing these songs last Fall, but now he is visibly more confident playing them and playing with the way he plays them.  Oteil, as well, seems to have found his place in the band more than he had last year.  Last year he and John were clearly the new additions to a group that has played together many times, and while they played very well they really stood out at times as being the new ingredients.  On this tour everyone has totally gelled and the band has a coherent and uniquely identifiable sound.  The songs all have new vitality, sometimes because they have new arrangements, but more frequently because the band is so enthusiastic and has ideas about the new places they want to take the songs.

     I think John has gotten even better at listening to the rest of the band too.  Last tour it seemed to me like he stepped on Jeff’s leads somewhat frequently, which I think came from him getting used to the band dynamics and the band still coming into being.  Now it seems fairly obvious that he’s doing just as much listening as he is playing, and that has always been one of the most important things about the Grateful Dead.  My favorite shots of the Grateful Dead are not when Bobby’s jumping in the air or waving his hands about, but rather when the guitarists are huddled together and playing.  Maybe they’re looking at each other, maybe they’re staring at some unspecified point in space, but either way they’re definitely listening to what the others are playing and building off of that to create a musical masterpiece.  John has gone from just paying attention to Bobby to paying attention to the band as a whole.

     While John is the newest member in the band, and the easiest to talk about, let’s not forget anyone else!  Mickey and Billy are playing way better now than they were at Fare Thee Well or on the last tour, and I think that’s due to a couple of reasons.  First, this is the same band as it was last year, as opposed to being one put together for five shows with limited rehearsal, so the added rehearsal time and time on stage has really helped solidify their place in the band.  Second, I think they’re both feeling like they’re back in the saddle again, especially Mickey.  While they have played in a few bands of their own since the last version of The Dead with two drummers, they haven’t been nearly as prolific as Bobby and Phil, so being on tour again must have been a change they had to get used to.  At FTW they seemed a little tentative and not quite as locked together, but at this point all the cobwebs have been shaken off, the the Rhythm Devils are once again a coherent unit.

     Another great change the band has made is the expansion of singing roles.  This tour they swapped vocals on quite a few songs, and some shows would even have different people singing.  “Franklin’s Tower,” for example, was sung just by John in Boston, but in other shows he and Bobby would trade verses.  Also of note were Oteil and Jeff taking more prominent vocal duties, with Oteil even taking a verse in “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad.”  I knew that Oteil sang before he joined this band, but it’s great to see Jeff singing more and more!  While he hasn’t taken any lead vocals of his own (yet), his harmonies are crystal clear and very present in the mix, revealing the voice of an angel!  I think he did sing a little in Furthur, but with two backup singers and three lead singers his voice was always lost in the mix.

     And let us not forget the biggest surprise in the band’s vocal world: Donna!  Ms. Donna Jean Godchaux made several appearances on this tour, and while I think that makes her more of a guest star than a member of the band, I think she was a great addition.  As with all things Dead, a little more rehearsal wouldn’t have killed anyone, but she seemed so happy to be up there and sounded great with the band (when they were all on the same page).  She threw in a few tasteful and enthusiastic screams here and there, but didn’t have any of the off-key shrieking that typically sent people running for the hills back in the day.  I’d love to see her back for future tours, especially if she gets to sing some of her songs; I would kill to see them do “Sunrise!”

     A final note about the band on this tour is that they’ve shown they’re not afraid to alter the songs.  “The Wheel” is a great example of that, with them practically turning it into a mashup with “Stay,” and then turning it into a reggae jam!  “Jack Straw,” “Brown-Eyed Women,” and “Deal” all have new arrangements as well, with new jams and solos thrown in between verses.  They also debuted quite a few “new” songs this tour, including “Passenger” with Donna.  It even had a “new” verse thrown in that’s actually a reworking of an original lyric from when the Dead first wrote the song that got thrown out.

     Now it’s time for the hard part of this post: how does this band compare to Furthur?  Maybe we don’t really need to compare them, but the question has been in my head ever since my first Dead & Company show from last year and I think it’s worth asking.  These are the two most recent bands to really take up the Grateful Dead mantle full time, and they have done it in such different ways.  One way to frame the contrast between these bands is to compare it to pre- and post-hiatus versions of the Dead; there is a difference in drummers, but an overlap (though not as big) of musicians between the iterations, and they all play just about the same songs, with some new songs added and old songs put to rest.  It’s not quite as simple as that, but that’s a good way to get started.

     One thing that immediately stands out as a difference between these two bands is their leadership.  While Furthur was always billed as Phil and Bobby’s band, it was really Phil who was in charge.  For better or worse, Phil is a very dominating person, and I think most of the creative decisions made in Furthur were made because Phil wanted them.  The rest of the band surely had a say in what they did, and Bobby must have had more sway than, say, Joe or John, but Phil ultimately was the leader of the band.  In Dead & Company, however, Bobby is undoubtedly the leader.  Again, the rest of the musicians in the band must have a say, especially the drummers, but when you’re watching the band it’s just so clear that Bobby is the leader.

     One thing that Furthur has over Dead & Company is the variety of their setlists.  Now it’s not exactly fair to compare these two bands on this front yet, as Dead & Co is still new, but even at Furthur’s very first concert they showed they were not going to be conservative with the songs they played.  They opened with “Jam > The Other One,” played “Bird Song > Born Cross-Eyed > Let It Grow” in the first set, and did “St. Stephen > The Eleven > Terrapin Station” in the second set.  While Dead & Company has had some great setlists, they’re all pretty formulaic and there are not too many surprising combinations of songs.  Some of this I think must stem from doing “Drums > Space” every single night; I love that segment, but skipping it allowed Furthur to play even more songs and craft their setlists more uniquely.  Furthur also had a lot more cover songs in their repertoire than Dead & Co. (so far), as well as some original songs and Phil and Bobby songs from their respective solo bands.

     When looking at the vocal talents of the bands, it’s a lot harder to draw the line.  Furthur had Sunshine Garcia Becker (no relation) and Jeff Pehrson doing beautiful harmonies and backup vocals, as well as signing from Phil, Bobby, John, and occasionally Jeff Chimenti.  Dead & Company has no backup singers (except for when Donna shows up), but the main members of the band I think are all better vocalists.  I love Phil’s singing, but Oteil is objectively better at it, and Bobby is singing better with Dead & Co than he has in years.  I also really like Kadlecik’s singing, and some songs I think he might be better at, but overall Mayer is a way better singer.  He just so happens to be a professional pop musician, so his career kind of depended on him singing better and in a more accessible style than Garcia.  Like I said earlier in this, Jeff has also been singing a whole lot more with this band than he did with Furthur, so it’s easier to hear him and appreciate his voice.

     While I remember people complaining about some of Furthur’s tempos being too slow (“Truckin’,” “The Other One,” and “The Music Never Stopped” being some examples that come to mind), they played much faster than Dead & Co does.  Some songs like “Caution” and “The Eleven” were actually pretty fast, and “King Solomon’s Marbles” was both fast and complicated!  Dead & Company, while they have found a good sound and groove in their slowed down tempos, plays way too slow on most of their songs.  I don’t necessarily want the coked-up speeds of the 80’s, but I do want the music to get a little frantic now and again.  “Saint of Circumstance,” especially, loses a lot of its appeal and fun when it’s slowed down so much.  I understand that Bobby has a hard enough time remembering lyrics when the songs are at higher speeds, and slowing some of these songs down gives them room to evolve, but we want to dance!  At my first Furthur show, on the way into “Cosmic Charlie” out of “New Speedway Boogie,” I even remember Phil stepping to the mic and saying, “don’t slow down,” to the band.

     The Grateful Dead basically invented the jam band genre, and both Furthur and Dead & Company have carried on the tradition.  Dead & Company, however, has not yet gotten as good at jamming as Furthur.  Sure, they can jam on a particular song for a while without problem, but jamming between songs is always a little iffy with them.  More often they’ll just stop playing one song and start playing the next one, maybe with someone (Bobby) still playing a little in between.  Furthur, on the other hand, totally mastered the art of the transition jam.  Jeff, Joe, and John were so good at just taking off on a totally new jam at the drop of a hat, and Phil and Bobby were always right there with them.  Some of my most profound moments at Dead shows have been during those in between passages, and you just don’t get them from Dead & Company.

     Now it’s time to get a little more specific, and things could get a little personal here, so I just want to clear the air right off the bat and remind you that I love both of these bands and everyone involved in them, so there are no hard feelings.  To compare the bands here, imagine you’re in a version of Boston in another universe where Furthur and Dead & Company are somehow both playing at the same time.  Not only that, but both bands are playing in Boston tonight, Furthur at the Wang Theatre and Dead & Company at the Wilbur Theatre.  The Wang is maybe a little nicer, but let’s say they’re exactly the same quality on the inside, the only difference is the band that’s playing; which band do you see?

     Let’s start with the two carry-overs, Bobby and Jeff.  You’d think there wouldn’t be much to compare here, but Bobby really is playing very differently now.  His guitars sound way better with Dead & Company than they ever did with Furthur, where I always felt like his sound was too shrill, distorted, and piercing, compared to the more melodic and cleaner sounds he’s getting now.  He still makes some of the same sounds, but they still manage to sound better than they used to.  He also has a new guitar that just sounds beautiful, so that helps.  I think he’s singing better now too, and just seems healthier overall.  So for prime Bobby, I would definitely see Dead & Company.

     We’ve already mentioned Jeff’s singing, which is better and more prominent than it was with Furthur, but I think his playing in Furthur was better than what he puts out with Dead & Company.  He’s still the best keyboardist around, at least for Dead bands (sorry, Benevento and Barraco), and I don’t think he’s playing any worse; in fact, after seeing him with Golden Gate Wingmen, he’s probably better than ever.  But in Furthur he had a much more prominent role in the band.  While Dead & Company might be “more Grateful Dead” in that the lead guitar takes 90% of the solos (more on that in a bit), that means that Jeff doesn’t get as many leads or as much of the spotlight as he did in Furthur.  He and Joe Russo were arguably as fundamental to Furthur’s sound as Bobby and Phil were, and that psychic link hasn’t quite translated to Dead & Company.  With one drummer the music can change at the drop of a hat, but with two drummers you need to plan things out in advance a little more, and that just doesn’t leave room for the rhythmic deconstruction that Jeff and Joe would engage in.  So Jeff is still playing incredibly, but if you want more Chimenti for your buck, you would have to see Furthur.

     Since I already brought up the drummers, let’s compare the three of them.  This is where is starts getting tricky, and the most like the ‘74-’76 comparisons between the bands.  Nothing compares to the Rhythm Devils when they’re hitting their stride, but the thing is, and this is no secret, they aren’t always in that sweet spot.  I think in Dead & Company they typically do play very well with only some minor rough spots, but the old comparison to two shoes in a dryer is sometimes still applicable, and there have been a few trainwrecks in both tours.  The fact is they’re just a bit older, and drumming takes more out of you than playing guitar, so it only makes sense that sometimes they would lose their groove a little more.  Mickey is also more of an auxiliary percussionist than a regular drummer at this point, which can be good, but means the drums don’t quite explode the way they used to.  Joe Russo, however, explodes at a constant rate, and is possibly the best drummer there is.  He’s not very showy, and he doesn’t take twenty minute drum excursions (unfortunately), but he is the most driving, precise, and expansive drummer I know of.  He can switch between time signatures without hesitation, and can turn on a musical dime whenever the music demands it.  And this isn’t to say Furthur never screwed up or had miscommunications, but I think they never had a true trainwreck.  Whenever a mistake would happen or a transition got flubbed, they could just jam out of it and try again, which i something you just can’t do as easily with two drummers.

     Like comparing pre- and post-hiatus versions of the band, it’s weird comparing the drumming of one drummer to that of two.  There are things that the two drummers can build up to that one drummer just can’t compare to, and songs like “Tennessee Jed” and “Ramble On Rose” are probably performed better by Dead & Company because of that.  With one drummer, though, the music becomes a lot more streamlined, and it frees the band up to play with more dynamics.  Something like “Dark Star,” “The Other One,” or “Eyes of the World” becomes a lot more elastic, as there are fewer musicians to agree or disagree on the tempo and time signature.  While it’s true that the Dead’s flirtations with time signatures in the first place came mostly from the addition of Mickey to the band as the second drummer, that was fifty years ago and the drummers are a lot more conservative about the songs they play and the tempos they’re played at.  Furthur really dove back into the older catalogue, and played fast, tricky songs like “The Eleven” and “King Solomon’s Marbles” like they wrote them, thanks in no small part to Joe’s incredible drumming.  As close of a call as it is, I would have to go see Joe with Furthur over Billy and Mickey with Dead & Company.

     This one isn’t as close, and it’s nothing personal, but I can say without hesitation that I would rather see Phil then Oteil.  I’ve sung Oteil’s praises ever since I saw him perform with Hot Tuna for Jorma’s 70th birthday celebration, and I was thrilled when they announced him as the bass player for Dead & Company.  Not only that, but once I actually saw him with the band I realized he was playing even better than I had expected him to, and is a perfect match for the band.  He sings well, he plays a very different kind of bass than Phil that still manages to fit the Dead sound, and he is a constant picture of a happy musician.  That all having been said, Phil Lesh is still Phil Lesh.  He’s the Phillest.  Phil-er-up.  Only love can Phil.  If you really need more justification for why Phil lesh is the best possible bass player for the Grateful Dead, then I don’t understand you, please explain yourself in the comments below.

     Now we get to the part of this comparison that I feel most conflicted about: John vs John.  In some ways this isn’t quite fair, because Kadlecik has been playing the Dead’s music for at least twenty years now (according to his Wikipedia page), whereas Mayer just got on the bus in the last few years.  Now for some, his history in Dead cover bands, especially as a founding member of Dark Star Orchestra, is actually a strike against Kadlecik.  He’s what people think of when they think of Fake Jerry’s.  In reality, though, his playing style is very much his own.  I think he’s one of the best guitarists in the Dead world because he has such an intuitive understanding of the music, and he knows when he needs to play the Jerry line to pull the song together, but really adds his own unique sound.  Of course Mayer absolutely adds his own sound to the music as well, and because he comes from such a different musical world than Kadlecik that perhaps has a more profound effect on the music.  Mayer also can play the Jerry line when it’s appropriate, but to me it sometimes seems a little forced when he does it, like he’s intentionally playing a riff over the song, instead of the that riff coming from the song naturally.  I felt that way about some of Trey’s playing at Fare Thee Well too, that sometimes it felt more like a rehearsed trick than an organic part of the music.

     So Kadlecik definitely feels more like a natural fit to the music in some ways, but in others Mayer seems more like a Grateful Dead guitarist.  Kadlecik just doesn’t have the same dominating stage presence that Jerry had (allegedly, obviously I wasn’t there), but Mayer sure does.  It’s not that he’s flashy or flamboyant, but that everyone on stage and in the crowd has their eyes and ears on him at all times.  When he goes in for a solo, everyone stands back and gives him all the room he needs, and he always comes up with great results; he’s more of a soloist than a jammer.  That’s why you got more Jeff solos in Furthur and fewer in Dead & Company, which is a lot more like classic Grateful Dead: Mayer is just going to solo over everything.  That approach works great for songs like “Loser,” Brown-Eyed Women,” and “Eyes of the World,” but when it comes to something like “Bird Song” or “Dark Star,” it feels again like Mayer is struggling to fit the pieces of the puzzle together instead of playing the music as a whole.

     When it comes to singing, though, there’s no contest.  I do really like Kadlecik’s voice, and there are some Dead songs he might sing better than Mayer from a stylistic perspective, but Mayer’s voice is liquid gold.  I thought it was a little too poppy at first, but I think he’s made it fit with these beautiful songs so well.  He’s great on everything from Jerry ballads to rockers, from Pig Pen blues to the majesty of Terrapin.  And when he’s singing, it’s harder for him to make those silly faces, so it’s a double win!

     But get down to brass tacks, which John is the better guitar player?  We could equivocate all day about the different factors, differences in taste, and backgrounds, but forget all that.  Which one would get me to go to their hypothetical show in Boston?  I think that John Mayer is the better guitar player from a technical standpoint; he’s a virtuoso.  But I would rather see Furthur with John Kadlecik.  I love the ways that he plays Grateful Dead songs, and the musical blesh that he had with that band.  I acknowledge all the bias that I have because it’s the first Dead band I saw and fell in love with, but that’s just how it is.  If this last tour was any indication, Dead & Company is only getting better, so maybe my answer will change as time goes on, but I think Furthur was a better band than Dead & Company currently is.  They were a tighter musical unit, they were more adventurous, and I think they were better at connecting to the Old Powers that these bands all draw from.

     Like I said earlier, it’s kind of like comparing the band before and after ‘75, and that’s because it’s hard to say which band is “more” Grateful Dead.  I think Mayer brings a big presence to the band that has been missing since Jerry died, but Furthur captures the spirit of a younger Grateful Dead.  Dead & Company sometimes feels to me like what would have happened if the Grateful Dead had never stopped touring, but that’s not entirely a good thing.  Part of what killed Jerry and created divisions in the band was the constant burden of touring, and playing the same formulaic sets every night.  Furthur, on the other hand, felt like a return to the early days of the band, when they were still exploring the new territory they had created for themselves, before they really knew what a Grateful Dead concert was or would become.

     So there it all is, folks.  There is of course so much more that could be talked about, and I encourage you all to do so in the comments below.  I started this as just a short review of the Dead & Company tour, but it ended up turning into a great catharsis for the conflict I’ve been feeling between these bands, and I hope it was elucidating for the rest of you in some way.  Of course, there is no real right or wrong here (maaannnn); both bands are great for different reasons, and really we’re all lucky to live in a time with so much incredible music in the Grateful Dead world.  If you want to stay updated on when more posts are coming out, you can follow me on Facebook and Twitter @21stCenturyDead, or just keep checking back here!


  1. [Blogger made me split this up into multiple comments.]

    Very good blog, thanks! I think that's a great analysis of Dead & Company at this point in their career, and I admire the clarity in the comparison to Furthur, a difficult task. Here are a few opinions of my own:

    I've followed both D&C tours closely and have loved them. As you say, please don’t let my comments make you think I don’t! But I'm amazed at the lack of insightful criticism of their concerts. With Furthur (not to mention earlier bands, and the Dead themselves of course), critics did not hesitate to call a spade a spade and to point out the un-inspired aspects of their performances as well as the strong parts. I haven't read a critical word about D&C yet and I'm puzzled about this. Yeah they're really good, but even Beethoven had some off nights, and there have been dead spots (!) with them. I'd like to hear something more analytical than, "Wow!!" from the music press.

    One critical comment on Furthur that stands out ... because I agree with it ... was made in the Boston Globe after their appearance at the Wang in 2012 ( The reviewer, while gushing about several things he heard, says that Furthur has "moved away from the musical cliff the Dead once danced along" and concludes by saying, "the band could afford to make it a little stranger." And this criticism applies amazingly more to D&C IMO. Look at their setlists! There has not been a lot of variety and by the end of the tour I was saying, "Oh Gee, Estimated into Eyes, wonder if they're going to do Deal next?" It got to the point where everyone wet themselves over a change like "Next Time You See Me" making an appearance. A good Dead band needs more edge and more eagerness to take risks.

    I agree that breaking down the comparison of D&C to Furthur into its component parts is crucial, but when I think of standing there in the Theater District, debating the Wang vs. Wilbur question you pose, it's the big picture that would make up my mind. For instance, I appreciate what you say about the vocal abilities of D&C, but I'd eagerly walk into the Wang to hear Sunshine and JeffP make Bobby and Phil sound better than they ever have (maybe this is partly nostalgia). And the interplay between Joe and Phil can be so exciting; anticipating that interplay was almost equal to my anticipation of seeing Garcia one more time. You mention King Solomon's Marbles ... play that tape from the Boston show mentioned earlier!

    And while on the subject of drumming, I like your contrast of the drummer consortium vs. the drummer entrepreneur, who can successfully change pace with more precision. A couple of times when explaining Furthur and Joe Russo to people, I've almost said that he's a better drummer than the original Dead drummers, but I haven't because I don't want to get struck by lightning.

    Frankly, I'm puzzled by your very high praise of Mayer's singing ("liquid gold"). You call him "accessible," but this is not "good" IMO when you're speaking of the deep emotions that need to come out from a Black Muddy River (ok, he did a great job on that) or a TLEO or a Jack Straw. Yeah, he's got the breadth and depth in his voice that a JK or a Garcia didn’t have, but the latter two sound better to me on these songs.

    [continued in next comment]

  2. [continuation]

    But as your comparison implies by its structure, perhaps the real bottom line (or last paragraph) is the lead guitar seat. We are talking rock and roll after all, and this is what it comes down to. As with many people, I was blown away by Mayer's playing with Weir as soon as I heard it. And his performance in the first set of the 2015 Worcester show left my jaw on the floor. JK is one of the best though, and I agree with your detailed comparison of the two. In my mind, the jury's still out. Will Mayer still be blowing me away on the next tour, or the one after that?

    And questions of longevity and level of productivity are important to me here. Mayer has admirably and perhaps convincingly talked about how he'll be playing this music for the rest of his life. But he has other irons in the fire; is he on board for more than a couple of great tours? More than one a year? And what about the old guys? They have other projects themselves, and will they be back in Fenway Park, SPAC, and Citi Field (or hopefully a theater setting) next year?

    One more word: thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you to Jeff Chimenti (ok, 13 words). I can't imagine either band being anywhere near as good without Jeff's contributions, bringing the best of Keith, of Brent, of TC, and most of all of Jeff Chimenti to our ears!

    Oh, and I thoroughly agree with you about the slow, slower, and even slower pace at which D&C approach these songs. Mellow can be good, but at times it's, "Can you hurry it up guys, I've got a train to drive!"

    Thanks again for the long and very thought-provoking blog.

  3. You think that's bad? I once had to decide between the Dead at Schaefer Stadium, Furthur at Great Woods, and Dead & Company at Harbor Lights. I can't remember which one I went to but it was awesome!