One night on their debut tour last fall, the Grateful Dead-offshoot band Dead & Company were closing a show with "Brokedown Palace," a country-soul ballad from the 1970 LP American Beauty, when singer-guitarist John Mayer looked out at the crowd and spotted "the real thing," as he puts it – a veteran Deadhead with long white hair, matching beard and a tie-dye shirt.
"And he was in tears," Mayer recalls, his voice heavy with awe. "You could tell he wasn't alone – in spirit. He was there on behalf of his youth and the friends he'd lost. He was there on behalf of his life story and what these songs meant to him." The guitarist, who was born seven years after the Dead recorded that song, also remembers being struck by gratitude. "I thought, 'This is what I get to do – have this artistic freedom and give some freedom in return.' And I get to do it with the guys who were there."
On June 10th, Dead & Company – formed last year by Dead guitarist Bob Weir and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart with Mayer, former Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge and longtime Dead associate Jeff Chimenti on keyboards – open their second U.S. tour in Charlotte, North Carolina. The 24 dates include two-night stadium stands in New York; Boulder, Colorado; and Boston, a solid box-office measure of the new band's appeal after Weir, Kreutzmann, Hart and bassist Phil Lesh – the surviving members of the original band – played their last shows together at Fare Thee Well in Chicago last July.
"We put a bunch of work into it, in rehearsal and on tour," Weir says of Dead & Company, "and once you get that kind of deal up and running, it makes sense to break it out every now and then. We built a band that is fun to play in – and more." Last fall, the group had a rotating bounty of about 60 classic and deep-track Dead numbers in the set lists. Dead & Company expect to add at least 20 more for the summer swing including, Weir hopes, "Passenger" from 1977's Terrapin Station and "Weather Report Suite" from 1973's Wake of the Flood.
"We need to finish up where 'St. Stephen' goes – there are other sections we didn't have time to get to," Weir says. "We could do a monster version of 'Days Between'" – a Nineties tune the Dead never cut in the studio. "And I'd like to work up 'Box of Rain,'" the poignant, opening jewel of American Beauty, originally sung by Lesh. "The vocal register is right in John's wheelhouse. I think I've talked him into it."
"We built a band that is fun to play in – and more." –Bob Weir
"You couldn't turn your back on this music," Hart says of the decision to continue touring with the Dead repertoire after Fare Thee Well. "We said, 'This is the last time the four of us will be playing together.' We didn't say we were going to stop playing the music." The drummer admits that "dropping" Mayer – an established blues guitarist and pop star and, at 38, the youngest member of Dead & Company – "into the Grateful Dead superstructure was a crapshoot. But there was magic. And that trumps everything."
Mayer is a latecomer to the music and social phenomenon of the Dead. He had already made four multi-platinum solo albums when, about five years ago, he heard "Althea" from 1980's Go to Heaven on a Pandora playlist. After that, he says, it was "like threading beads on a necklace." Mayer was soon obsessed with songs like "Estimated Prophet" and "Playing in the Band" and "the artisanal ideas, created on the spot" by the the Dead's late, founding guitarist Jerry Garcia. In February 2015, Mayer and Weir met and played together for the first time. Mayer was a temporary host of The Late Late Show; Weir was booked as a musical guest. Their soundcheck ran so long that the crew "finally unplugged us," Weir cracks.
"It was eye-opening for me," Weir says of that encounter. At the time, he was also "kicking around the material" for Fare Thee Well with the Garcia surrogate for those shows, Phish's Trey Anastasio. "John is a classicist by nature. Trey is more of an iconoclast." But they are both, Weir notes, "explorers. Juxtaposing Trey's take on the material with the insights John brings got me looking at all of the songs afresh."
By September 2015, two months after Fare Thee Well, Dead & Company were practicing for the fall tour. "I knew pretty quickly that he would be great once he had some time on this," Kreutzmann says of Mayer. "He started playing 'China Cat Sunflower'" – the drummer hums the saucy, gliding guitar riff – "and [I] thought, 'OK, he's got that.' John has a solidness about him. But he can go 'out' when it's called for."
"I wanted to honorably introduce myself," Mayer says, reflecting on the challenge and reception at the 2015 shows. His plan for the summer shows: "proving I can belong in this outfit, to really evolve. We're going into rehearsal not to learn the songs again but to get that much more dialed in, so these concerts, as experiences and recordings, can live on some part of the Grateful Dead shelf."
The various members of Dead & Company have continuing, individual careers; Mayer expects to finish his next solo album after this tour, and Weir has his own solo project in the wings, a record of cowboy songs featuring members of the National. But Weir is looking at Dead & Company as a potential studio entity. "We need to put in another tour – or two," he says, then suggests an intriguing concept: a mixture of new material with Dead songs never fully addressed by that band in the studio like "The Other One" and "Dark Star." "That would be something of an adventure," Weir claims.
For now, Mayer is looking forward to being part of a great Dead tradition: the summer tour. "It's 2016, and a lot of things are gone," he says. "But these are the guys from the Dead. You get to hear the music and have the spirit come alive in the summer with your friends. I'm going into this knowing it is going to be an incredible memory."