A couple years ago, John Mayer was recording a solo album, trying to channel the Grateful Dead's sound. "You should have seen me some of those days," he says. "I was going behind the drums trying to do a loping drum beat, and then trying to sing over it. It's impossible for any other five guys to do it, let alone one person. You can't multitrack the same vibe they get. I think my respect and admiration for that music sort of shifted from me trying to make something like it, to kind of giving up and accepting the fact that I am just me."
But now, Mayer has found a solution to the problem: joining the Dead. Beginning October 29th in Albany, New York, he will front Dead & Company, which includes guitarist Bob Weir, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, bassist Oteil Burbridge, and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti. The band is giving away 10,000 tickets to their November 7th show at Madison Square Garden through American Express, and the show will be broadcast online in a livestream directed by Brett Ratner.
The band started discussing the tour with Mayer in January but waited to book it until after the Grateful Dead's highly successful Fare Thee Well gigs with Phish's Trey Anastasio in Santa Clara, California, and Chicago. "I remember writing Bob afterward going, 'Hey, enjoy the afterglow,'" Mayer says from rehearsals at Weir's TRI Studios in San Rafael, California. "To be quite honest, those [Dead & Company] dates came out in groupings not because we were trying to stage this really high-energy, suspenseful plot of dates — we were putting them together as they were coming out."
Since the spring, Mayer has been practicing nonstop, attending what he calls "Grateful Dead University." "I was in isolation, learning these songs, and the first thing you have to do is have heard it long enough to be able to anticipate it in a certain way," Mayer says. "You have to understand that particular song's flow. And then I pick up the guitar and find out kind of where it lives on the fretboard, and then I sort of go a little deeper. Each song gets that layered thing, so that by the time I really know it, I know how the song goes, what the sort of guitar approach is, but then also what the sort of ethic of the song is."
"There's no better music to solo over." —John Mayer
Now that they're in rehearsals, Mayer is seeing the rewards of his hard work. "There's no better music to solo over, and I can tell you because I've been doing it a lot. Grateful Dead songs are so much fun to play. And some of them are as fun as they are hard to play. Part of the challenge is not disappearing into how much fun it is — [where] you forget that this is actually a highly complex composition."
Bob Weir, who is also on the line for the interview, approves: "John's enthusiasm for this is amazing — I couldn't believe it," he says. "He learned the songs, has great enthusiasm, and he's a great guitar player. So he fits in perfectly."
Mayer knows that the Grateful Dead community are a tough crowd. "I don't feel the pressure, but I would say I feel a responsibility. I'm too focused on the task at hand to consider the scenarios of it not working. I've heard it work, and I've heard it not work 30 seconds later. And it's up to me to get as close as I can making it work all the time."
"John," adds Weir. "That's 100 percent been our M.O. for decades."
"Then I must be on the right track!" says Mayer.
The Dead members are still on a high from their Fare Thee Well run. "We played good music because the crowd was amazing," says drummer Mickey Hart. "I never felt a crowd like that before. The spirit that they had, it was just, like, on steroids. It was an amazing, amazing feeling. We play to a lot of people, very exuberant people, but there was nothing like those nights — especially in Chicago, when it all kind of crystalized and all came together in kind of a magical, alchemical way. That's the only way I can describe it."
While Phil Lesh is the only member from those shows not joining Dead & Company on the road, Weir is not ruling out the possibility of Lesh appearing with the band onstage again. "I would expect if that's going to happen, it's going to be if we're in ... He has a place in New York, but more so, he lives out here [in California]," Weir tells Rolling Stone. "But he doesn't want to hit the road. He's 75 now. It's kind of not an option for him, the way he puts it. And so, you know, that's still where we are; that's still where we're going to live, at least I am. And so, if we're going to see him, we're going to see him around here or around someplace where he is."
It may seem like an obvious move for Lesh to participate, aside from the fact that the Fare Thee Well shows were billed as the last time the "Core Four" — Weir, Lesh, Kreutzmann and Hart — would ever perform together. Now, Weir admits he's not so sure the Fare Thee Well lineup is finished. "Well, you know, I'm going to just go ahead and say it: It feels like there is some unfinished business. As Billy pointed out yesterday, we didn't get to the East Coast this summer. And you know, it won't be the 50th anniversary, but I'm certainly open to it."
Pressed to clarify if the Fare Thee Well lineup will play together again, Weir pauses for a moment. "Right now, my notion of what that is or could amount to is still nebulous — I don't even want to poke it. But you know, like I said, I'm open."