Many people assumed that when the surviving members of the Grateful Dead (with Phish’s Trey Anastasio taking on the guitarist/singer role of late band leader Jerry Garcia) booked a pair of stadium runs last summer billed as the “Fare Thee Well” shows, it would be the last time the members of the legendary group would play together.
But guitarist Bob Weir says that was never the intention behind those massive shows. In fact, he knew as far back as the winter of 2015 there was a good chance that he and the Grateful Dead drum tandem of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart might play together in a new entity called Dead & Company that would also feature guitarist/singer John Mayer. (Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh did not want to return to extensive touring.)
The unit began to take shape when Mayer, who was guest-hosting CBS’ The Late Late Show early last year, invited Weir to perform with him on the program; what was to be a rehearsal of two songs turned into much more.
“We did a soundcheck that lasted about an hour and a half and touched on those two songs briefly, and then just went and kept going,” Weir recalls during a recent teleconference interview with reporters. “They finally had to unplug us.”
Mayer, too, sensed something magical was happening during that soundcheck.
“I had never experienced anything like that musically, where I floated in that particular place in the sound of the band,” Mayer says. “And then when we got in the room together with Billy and Mickey … the idea just took hold of me when I heard it. And it was as big and strong as any idea I’ve ever had in my life.“
Weir says there was no talk in public about Dead & Company until after the Fare Thee Well shows simply because not everything had been solidified.
“By the time we hit the Fare Thee Well concerts, we had already auditioned some bass players and had a pretty solid notion of what we were up to,” he says. “But we were loath to talk about it at the time, because there was still way too much undecided about it, and it really hadn’t much taken shape.”
Mayer came to Dead & Company as a fairly recent Grateful Dead convert. He first heard the group’s music on Pandora radio in 2011, which quickly led to him exploring the band’s extensive catalog. He says it took some intensive study and practice for him to feel ready to tour with the former Dead members.
“There were songs I knew. There were songs I didn’t know,” Mayer says. “And so I kind of built this assembly line in my head of learning the songs that I knew, in terms of having a guitar in my lap, and really listening hardcore to the songs that I didn’t. It was a lot of learning of songs, and then it was a lot of really trying to get the combination right. What is the music, and what was, in some ways, Jerry Garcia? In what ways was it the time? In what ways would I be doing the music and myself a disservice by trying to emulate? And so that was almost harder than learning the songs — figuring out what to reproduce and what not to sort of gene-splice into the way that I wanted to go about playing the music.”
Mayer was so intrigued by the opportunity to play with Weir, Kreutzmann, Hart and the other two musicians in Dead & Company — bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti — that he put his solo career (and an in-progress solo album) on hold. That was no small deal considering the success Mayer has had as a solo artist. Signed to the Columbia-affiliated Aware Records after a 2001 appearance at South By Southwest, Mayer made a big commercial splash with a relaxed, acoustic-leaning brand of Pop Rock on his first two albums. Both were multi-platinum successes that included multiple hit singles, including the Grammy-winning “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and “Daughters.”
It was after that huge rush of success that Mayer first took a break from Pop music, forming a Blues-based trio with bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan before returning to his solo career with the 2006 album Continuum — another hit album that won a Grammy for Best Pop Album. The albums that have followed haven’t been quite as popular, but Mayer remains a major figure on the music scene.
Mayer says he was actually expecting to have a new solo album out by now, but Dead & Company intervened.
“I put the (solo) record aside last April, I would say, and just started wanting to learn all this (Grateful Dead) music,” he says. “And (I) came back to the album in January, which was actually really good, to take time to step away from it and listen back to it again and decide what are the songs that have stood the test of time, or what could I do to this song to make it better. And so now I’m back in the studio making the record. I’ll finish it by the end of the year. Next year will be a solo artist sort of a year. But I will never close the door on Dead & Company, ever. And I think as long as there’s a desire to do it, I know how to carve time out. I think it’s always going to be worth doing. “
Making time for Dead & Company might not be limited to just touring. Weir and Mayer aren’t ruling out the possibility of making new music in this group.
“I’m open to any of it,” Weir says.
Mayer seconds that notion, but does have certain caveats.
“I’m open to anything that could really take strong root on a musical level, that can really validate itself on a musical level,” Mayer says. “If it can state its case for the reason it needs to exist, then I would absolutely jump to doing it. It would have to sort of come out of earth. It can’t be planted from above the soil. … I would actually be very interested to see what the band could do as composers and as improvisers. Composing through improvisation, I think, is really interesting. But I’m open to anything that this band could or wanted to do, as long as it … answered sort of the constant question, like, well, ‘Why?’ And if it has a strong answer, I would love to do it.”
DEAD & COMPANY performs Thursday, June 16 at Riverbend Music Center. Tickets/more info: riverbend.org.