It was as simple as this, according to Bob Weir: "We all liked the look in each other's eyes. What eventually rattled out was this band."
The Grateful Dead singer-guitarist was speaking on the eve of his second road trip – 24 dates in U.S. amphitheaters and stadiums, starting June 10th in Charlotte, North Carolina – with the latest iteration of his life's work in and beyond that 20th-century touring institution: Dead & Company, founded last year with Dead drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart; former Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge; keyboard player Jeff Chimenti; and, in the perilous spot left by the Dead's late, lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, singer-guitarist and pop star John Mayer.
In this expanded version of an interview for the next issue of Rolling Stone, before going into rehearsals for the summer shows, Weir talked with forthright enthusiasm of the new group, its performing mission and Mayer's invigorating presence as a student, loyalist and explorer. The Dead guitarist also bluntly addressed the contention that launching Dead & Company contradicted the reunion and closure, with surviving bassist Phil Lesh, of Fare Thee Well in Chicago last July. "I'm not entirely sure what would bring somebody to think that a guy like me can walk away from this body of music," Weir said with a hard-edged laugh. "C'mon."
Weir was less absolute when asked if Dead & Company really is a new band: Isn't it still the Grateful Dead – in another form, separate and yet inseparable? "You just encapsulated it," he conceded. "It's a question – and a fair question. Maybe no answer can come." The guitarist did say this, with certainty: "There is nothing rote happening there," Weir said of Dead & Company. "We're not playing out of habits. The songs are anew for us."
Was there a point in a show or set, during a song, on the tour last fall when you realized Dead & Company had gone from being a good idea to something with a future?
Yeah, there was. I had a little flash while we were playing one night. It was toward the end of the tour. I don't remember what city it was in. We were getting into the second set, setting up a tune. We were all playing, but the tune hadn't begun yet. We were all feeling out the groove, just playing with it.
Suddenly I was 20 feet behind my own head, looking at this and kind of happy with the way the song was shaping up. I started looking around, and it was 20 years later. John's hair had turned gray. Oteil's had turned white. I looked back at the drummers, and it was a couple of new guys. I looked back at myself, the back of my head, and it was a new guy. It changed my entire perception of what it is we're up to.
The thing about the Grateful Dead is that, all the way through, the combination of players kept changing – right up to Fare Thee Well last year with Trey Anastasio on guitar. The band, in all of its forms, withstands change yet embraces it.
Absolutely. That little flash changed the way I think about my whole approach to what we're doing with this band: decisions made in the moment; what note to play here, what note to play there, where to route our tour, how to present our show – all that stuff, from big to small. But particularly in terms of the music and how we put it together – my consideration is, "What are they going to be saying about this in 200, 300 years, in music schools?" It gives me some perspective to light the situation.
What is John bringing that is genuinely new to songs you know so well, that you have already played in various permutations?
First off, he gets what we're up to. And he loves the idea. It appeals to his sense of fun and adventure. Then he brings his musical personality – all of the stuff he's looked into. And he's deep. He's a monster musician, a studied musician. He knows the various ideas from which we draw. Or he's eager to study them if he's light in that area.
That's the way we've been operating all along. [Founding organist] Pigpen was heavy into blues. Jerry and I were good with the country stuff. Phil was good with modern classical music. On it goes.
But John is the first pop star you've had in the band.
That's part of the American musical heritage too [laughs]. We'd be idiots to look away from that.
You met and played with John for the first time, on The Late Late Show, at the same time you were meeting with Trey about potential songs and set lists for Fare Thee Well. You started moving forward with John at the same time as you were planning an event of anniversary and closure.
I was doing preliminary get-togethers with Trey, kicking around the material. Trey is also a monster musician. If I had to make a broad categorization, John is a classicist by nature. Trey is more of an iconoclast. They're both explorers, someone who's happy to break tradition. Juxtaposing Trey's take on the material with the insights John brings got me looking at all of the songs afresh.
"Juxtaposing Trey's take on the material with the insights John brings got me looking at all of the songs afresh."
I look forward to playing with Trey again, any old time. But I am really eager to get back out with John-boy and chase the music around, get to know each other. When that dream came to me, it was at about that point that I started to realize that I was feeling comfortable with knowing that John had moved, musically speaking – being able to intuit the songs. We were feeling each other out on a new level, several bars down the road.
Were there songs on the last tour where you could hear John transforming the music, putting his own voice into it? Bill mentioned "China Cat Sunflower" and Mickey brought up "Althea" as songs that John grasped and changed even in rehearsals. When did you hear it?
There was a moment in rehearsal last September. We were going into "Scarlet Begonias" [on 1974's From the Mars Hotel]. Nobody was stepping out. We had just started playing the song, feeling our way into the groove. And there was one thing John was playing. I don't know if he was doing it on purpose, or if he wasn't quite sure what song we were playing.
But he was listening to what we were doing, and the figure he was adding had a slight reggae tinge. Rather than hold fast and correct him, I immediately went to that, then backed off a little – I didn't want everybody to take it all the way into reggae. What we got was this rendition that had a seven-percent reggae tinge to it – just so sweet, just that amount of inflection. I hope we can remember that when we come back around this summer.
But that was the Grateful Dead's M.O. – if somebody was a little unsure of where we were or was hearing something differently, if you could hear that and jump on that, then the song would transform. It was magical. And that sort of stuff happens with Dead & Company. It happens enough that it keeps everybody's eyes wide open and everyone light on their feet.
Mickey told me you had 60 songs in rotation during the fall tour and expected to add at least 20 more for the summer. Among those he said he'd like to see go into the set lists were "Attics of My Life" [from 1970's American Beauty] and the Nineties ballad "Liberty." They are great choices; they are also not jamming tunes.
We're a jam band. We're famous for being a jam band. But there's more to it than that. Some of the songs require a proper presentation. At least that's what they're telling us now. When the tunes tell us differently, we'll be the first to let you know [laughs].
I'd like to work up "Passenger" [from 1977's Terrapin Station], for instance. I'd like to work up "Box of Rain" [on American Beauty, co-written and sung by Lesh]. The vocal register is right in John's wheelhouse. I think I've talked him into it.
There are other things we didn't get around to last time – "Throwing Stones" [on 1987's In the Dark]. Then I'd be big into doing "Days Between" [a Nineties concert staple that the Dead never recorded in the studio]. It takes a large ensemble to do that song as big as it can get – and as tiny as it can get.
I have been of the opinion, for the longest time, that it is not the playing that made the Dead famous. It's the songs. And that's where I'm coming from. That's where I live now.
Are Dead & Company ready to be a recording band – to go into the studio? And have you talked about it?
We kick it around. We need to put in another tour – or two. And then what direction do we pursue with recording? Do we start from scratch, do all new material? Or do we go back after some of the tunes that were never recorded [by the Dead] in the studio? Or a combination of both – which is kind of where I would want to do it. For instance, I would love to take a song like "The Other One" [which appeared as a live recording on 1968's Anthem of the Sun] into the studio – or "Dark Star."
Which was only three minutes long on the 1968 studio single, before you started taking it up to 20-25 minutes onstage.
Right. "Dark Star" had not grown a face at that point. I think this band could be better in the studio than the Dead's history with studio recording. Some of the guys in the Dead were more comfortable than others with playing at a volume that works in the studio. The deal is the louder you play in the studio, the smaller it sounds. You're going on something that a microphone cannot capture. Whereas the smaller you play in the studio, the bigger it sounds – to wit, the Eagles.
This is a band that can go there. It will take a little shoehorn work, but I think we can get to that point. Then we can make some records.
When Dead & Company's first tour was announced last year, some people thought you were backing off from the finality of Fare Thee Well – that the Chicago shows last July were not truly the end. Did you feel your intentions with those shows, then this band, were misunderstood?
That misapprehension was nothing I intended to promote. I'm going to come up with new music endlessly. But those songs are my children, and they keep growing. To cut them off and bury them prematurely doesn't seem like the kind of thing I want to be doing.
The songs carry the spirits of those who made them as well as those who continue to play them. It's an ongoing process.
I still hear Jerry in these tunes – more so now, perhaps, than in any instances on a bad night when he was playing with us.
What do you still hear?
Since Jerry checked out, he hasn't departed in the least. I can still hear him crackling away somewhere behind me, above and off to the left, if you will. I can hear the crackle of his harmonic content, where he would live in a song. And I relate to that like I always did: "I'm going to take it here, then I'm going to take it that way."
But that gets fed through what somebody else is doing now. And it's wonderful to see these songs reinvigorated – regenerated with new life.