John Mayer, Dead & Company Rekindle Grateful Dead Flame at Tight MSG Show

Group's latest incarnation honors tradition, leaves room for surprise

On Halloween, John Mayer helped former Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann reinvigorate their Seventies repertoire. Credit: Matthew Eisman

In the years immediately following Jerry Garcia's death, the sight of a singer-guitarist onstage with the surviving members of the Dead, attempting to fill in for their newly departed leader, was never less than jarring. But now that 20 years have flown by since Garcia's passing, the Garcia stand-in slot is the new normal. Whether it's Furthur, Phil Lesh & Friends or some other variation with whichever members of the band, the shows are about musicianship and the durability of the songs, and it's no longer a shock to hear Lesh, Bob Weir or more than capable players like Warren Haynes, John Kadlecik or Jackie Greene singing the songs Garcia once sang, and for the guitarists to be recreating his parts. 

Even before the "Core Four" members of the band had played the first of their five Fare Thee Well 50th-anniversary reunion shows this summer, rumors began circulating that Weir and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart would return to touring in the fall with, of all people, John Mayer. Even in the new-world, post-Garcia scenario, the thought of Mayer in that slot was genuinely baffling. Of all the guitarists who've tried to step into those shoes, Mayer and his style would seem the least compatible. His playing is clean, fluid and precise — it's easy to imagine him in a fusion band in the Seventies — but could it summon up jam-band soul, and could he loosen up in that Dead kind of way?

The new lineup, dubbed Dead & Company, merges the three Dead members with Mayer, longtime post-Garcia-lineup keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and later-period Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbridge. The band debuted in Albany on October 29th, and on Halloween, the band played the first of three nights at New York's Madison Square Garden. In light of Mayer's presence — and the elephant-in-the-room absence of Lesh, who was playing with his own band the same night at the Capitol Theatre in nearby Port Chester — Dead and Company had something to prove at the Garden, and they succeeded: Playing with a tight, locked-in power and authority from the start, the band made the case for life after not only Garcia but after Lesh and Fare Thee Well. 

The band heard in New York wasn't the same shaggy, loosey-goosey ensemble on display at the Santa Clara and Chicago reunions. Burbridge has a more fluid and less aggressive style than Lesh, and Mayer is a far different frontman than Anastasio was in Chicago. Anastasio radiates a jovial, beatific vibe; by comparison, Mayer, who looked assured and confident the entire evening, was all business. (He's also a less distinctive singer than his predecessors.) From the start, with a truncated opening jam that led into "Jack Straw," Mayer neither strutted nor showboated; keeping his guitar-face moves to a minimum, he was determined to show that he was both a respectful student and a Garcia-worthy wailer, and he stayed the course the entire night. He effortlessly recalled Garcia when he played notes that spiraled up and hit a piercing sweet spot. During his extended solos in "Deal" and others, the crowd welcomed him with loud roars.

The set list, at least at this show, played it largely safe. Recalling the first Fare Thee Well evening in Chicago, it was dominated by the Dead's Seventies repertoire. Weir and Mayer alternated lead vocals, with Mayer stepping up on "Brown-Eyed Women," "Deal" and 1980's "Althea." Certain rules of Dead show rules remained intact. Over the course of the four-hour show, which included a roughly 45-minute intermission, only Weir addressed the crowd, and even then only in a brief greeting and set-break announcement. Just like the old days too, "China Cat Sunflower" led into "I Know You Rider," and Weir and Mayer traded verses on "Jack Straw" as Weir and Garcia had done so many times before. As with a few Halloween shows during the Garcia era, they broke out Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London." And during the second set, out came the inevitable "Drums" and "Space." 

Yet Mayer's determination seemed to fuel the rest of the band, which seemed more rehearsed than the one heard at Fare Thee Well. Mayer dug into the riff of "New Speedway Boogie," and Willie Dixon's "Wang Dang Doodle," another part of the Dead's Garcia-era repertoire, had a funky playful stomp to it. Mayer's singing and occasional power chords guided the band through an impressive take on one of its trickiest pieces, the multi-part "Terrapin Station." Hart and Kreutzmann's "Drums"/"Space" segment was particularly tribal and mesmerizing, and Weir seemed dialed-in and focused in ways he hasn't always been in the past few years.

The pivotal moment arrived two songs before the end of the show, with the opening notes of "Morning Dew." The nuclear-fallout song wasn't merely a regular part of the Dead's set but also a showcase for Garcia. Tonight, Weir sang Garcia's part, but it was Mayer who pushed it over the top, soloing in a way that not only egged on the band but made the song sound fresh again. Life after Garcia will never be the same, but moments like this lived up to at least one legacy of the Dead: the joy of the unexpected, left-field surprise.

Set List:

"Jack Straw"
"New Speedway Boogie"
"Brown-Eyed Women"
"Ramble on Rose"
"Althea"
"Cassidy"
"Deal"

[Intermission]

"Truckin'"
"Wang Dang Doodle"
"Estimated Prophet"
"Eyes of the World"
"Terrapin Station"
"Drums"/"Space"
"China Cat Sunflower"
"I Know You Rider"
"Morning Dew"
"One More Saturday Night"

Encore:

"Werewolves of London"