By Mike Finkelstein
Improbable as it may seem, twenty years after Jerry Garcia’s death, 2015 was a very eventful year in the Grateful Dead community. In July, it seemed that the final Fare Thee Well show in Chicago, with Phish’s Trey Anastacio on lead guitar, would be it for the resurrected Grateful Dead. But, as Bob Weir came offstage he was asked on the national stream, if this was really their very last show. He replied that “there’ll be more stuff,” to come. Sure enough, towards the end of August, the Dead and Co tour was announced to begin on Halloween and end on New Year’s eve, with John Mayer on lead guitar. Phil Lesh declined to be part of this tour and was replaced by Oteil Burbridge, from the Allman Brothers Band, on bass. As interest in the tour grew, it was quickly expanded from 10 dates to 20 dates in the same amount of time.
Dead and Co rolled into LA for the final two dates, Wednesday and Thursday at the Forum, once the home of the Lakers and Kings, but now primarily a live music venue with hugely improved acoustics. Both shows sold out and the energy of both the crowd and the band was impressive. LA finally had a New Year’s run of Dead shows.
The biggest sense of anticipation stemmed from how Mayer would sound playing Jerry’s parts and singing the Dead material. He has a remarkable ability to capture and authentically incorporate the tones of players he draws from. And he clearly made the effort to get several crucial hues of the Jerry Garcia sound down pat. This was a labor of love for JM. He was in the audience as a fan at the Fare Thee Well shows, taking notes as he watched Trey Anastacio fill Garcia’s shoes. And now it was his turn to tour with the remaining core of the Grateful Dead. You just knew he was going to shine.
Mayer caught the Grateful Dead bug via the comprehensive 36 volume Dick’s Picks series of live shows. And in February of this year he played “Althea” and “Truckin’”with Weir on The Late Show. A quick but meticulous study and a guy who sniffs out and incorporates a lot of great music, Mayer learned about 80 Dead tunes, and practiced them every day during the tour. He immersed himself in the music. The practicing was as much about discovery as it was about muscle memory. He sounded so damn good soloing over the grand set of changes in tunes like “Ramble on Rose” and “China Cat Sunflower.” It was the way his solos brought out the contours of these beautiful sets of chords that won the entire building over. At times he would spring up on his toes, lost in the moment. It was great to see him raise the bar to that high level on pretty much all the tunes.
This is how he describes playing GD music:
“There’s no better music to solo over … 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.”
On Wednesday night, the set list was balanced tastily and divided into two sets. The first tune was “Here Comes Sunshine,” one of those great Dead songs that does not often show up live. So, it was to be savored. Mayer sang it soulfully, and played it like a champion. He had the Garcia tone dialed in, and stretched out in his own very fluid style, at times with blazing speed, at others slow and rich. Similarly, he owned the vocal and guitar parts of “Bertha,” and the vintage psychedelic “Viola Lee Blues.” He nailed the tone and the vibe of everything they played. That was the key to it…that and his own dynamic array of chops.
The Deadheads were impressed – how could they not have been? The whole band sounded fresh and invigorated as they ripped through “Playin’ in the Band,” “Wharf Rat” and “Bird Song.” And, in keeping with the Grateful Dead tradition, Mayer made sure that all of his musicianship only elevated the song and upstaged nobody. Of course, Bob Weir led the band through the changes with an assortment of hand and arm motions like a concerned father teaching the kids how to drive his favorite sports car. But they were certainly in overdrive both nights.
It was simply wonderful to see Mayer and Burbridge take the jams into the ozone and back to land on their feet. They did Bobby proud. On Thursday night, New Years Eve, they went with three sets to insure that they would be onstage at midnight. And what a delightful three sets they were. The band seemed to pull out all the stops and gave us killer selections all night long. From “They Love Each Other” to “Sugaree” to “Ramble On Rose” to “Loose Lucy,” “Sugar Magnolia,” Scarlet Begonias,” “St Stephen” and “Terrapin Station,” the hits kept coming. They even played the trippy workout and onetime maltese falcon of Dead songs, “Dark Star.” Again, Mayer and Burbridge didn’t just get off, they soared through all of this on guitar and bass.
At midnight, a blizzard of confetti and balloons arrived from the rafters and a gigantic New Year’s doobie cruised from the ceiling to the stage to everyone’s amusement. Bill Walton showed up in a beard, with a garland of roses, and a light saber as Father Time. After a beautiful rendition of “Brokedown Palace,” the evening ended with a group hug onstage and then Mayer broke a Dead tradition and actually addressed the audience. He thanked everyone for having him, “in (their) house,” and perhaps rocked a boat, “known or unknown,” in hoping to see us all again next year. It was an experience that he said, “changed his life.”
To be sure, Mayer became an important member of the GD family with this tour. He didn’t just get up and play along with Grateful Dead songs, he owned his parts, nailed the tone, internalized the tunes, and just dove into the music … he transcended the task. Job well done!
All in all, 2015, the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary year, was an amazingly eventful, fruitful, and musically impressive stretch of time.
If you follow the band, all of this bodes well for the future. We’re all hoping for more good “stuff” in the near future of Dead and Co.