Pop-rocker John Mayer fronting a band featuring three of the four surviving members of the Grateful Dead may sound like an odd, even off-putting, endeavor. But 50 years after the Dead started playing LSD-soaked improvisational electric blues at pizza shops in what’s now Facebook and Apple territory south of San Francisco, hundreds of thousands of people—including about 6,000 last night at 1stBank Center in Broomfield—are still answering the question “Shall we go / you and I / while we can?” with an enthusiastic “yes.”
Dead & Company comprises Mayer with singer-guitarist Bob Weir, drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbridge and longtime Weir keyboardist Jeff Chimenti. Rumors of Mayer’s collaboration with the Dead, sans original bassist Phil Lesh, circulated in the lead-up to the Dead’s 50th anniversary “Fare Thee Well” shows this past summer. This was made more awkward by the outcry from some fans who thought Phish frontman Trey Anastasio was a bad pick to fill late Grateful Dead singer-guitarist Jerry Garcia’s humongous shoes in Santa Clara and Chicago.
Rolling through Colorado this week on a cross-country arena tour, Dead & Company—which took a marijuana tour while in the Denver area—unveiled its blues-rock sound to the jam band audience a crowd that not only filled the 1stBank Center but made the Broomfield Park-n-Ride into a fragrant tent city of miscellaneous vendors and shenanigans. “A trained, polished musician playing with a bunch of freaks” was how one concertgoer described Dead & Company before the first set had started. However, the group mostly succeeded—with a dark, bluesy eight-song first set featuring just one selection (“Lost Sailor > Saint of Circumstance”) the Dead started playing after 1970—in transporting Grateful Dead music back to its grittiest era.
Mayer didn't seem to have filling Garcia's shoes in mind at all. Instead he seemed to enjoy the chance to tastefully bring his own personality to a vast catalog of music he only recently fell in love with. Mayer's guitar style—a clean, suburban take on Albert King—and self-assured vocal style fold remarkably well into the Dead’s most down-home music, which dates back to when the late Ron “Pigpen” McKernan served as the polarizing band’s third frontman. Tunes like “New Speedway Boogie” and “Candyman,” which have so often been trudged through too loosely by Dead-related ensembles, were played refreshingly close to their original versions, which can be found on the Americana classics Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, the two albums non-Deadheads generally can get into.
Mayer broke into pop stardom with songs about running through high-school halls and making love “in a deep sea of blankets”; he might be the first guitarist to play with the Dead who makes “I’m having sex right now” faces while soloing. He certainly has the biggest hair of anyone to play with the Dead. All kidding aside, Mayer—who got carried away Marty McFly-style a few times while shredding through vamps in tunes like “Bertha”—brought a much-welcomed tightness to the Dead’s notoriously hit-or-miss act. After every song that actually had an ending, Mayer turned around and stared into the drummers’ eyes, clapping out the tempo he wanted until it was serviceable for the following tune. That takes balls, considering they’ve been playing Grateful Dead music for 50 years and Mayer just a few months. Yet it was a brilliant move, as the aforementioned Anastasio—at the huge “Fare Thee Well” concerts played at NFL stadiums over the summer—may have been too respectful and tentative at times, allowing the surviving members (the youngest of whom is 68) to outright ruin many songs with disastrously slow tempos.
We’re at the point where twenty-year-old Deadheads weren’t even born when the band broke up in the wake up Garcia’s 1995 death due to the effects of substance abuse. Sometimes classic rockers need a kick in the ass and—just as much, in the case of the Dead—a shot of energy from someone whose wheelhouse is totally outside their genre.
The second set, customarily the jammy set in Garcia’s days, got weird fast with a deep, dark version of “Help On the Way > Slipknot! > Franklin’s Tower” that went off the rails—for better or worse—when Mayer got so lost in his “Slipknot!” solo that Kreutzmann repeatedly urged Weir to get his attention so they could move the song along. But the high points—a powerful bridge in “Estimated Prophet,” a meandering “Dark Star” that somehow worked, and “Black Peter,” another soulful take on a bluesy 1970 stalwart—made the set, and the night, a success.
The only real drawback to having a blues guitarist such as Mayer play with the Dead—that the music generally stays in safe, “with a net” territory—was mostly a boon. Mayer’s confidence and enthusiasm, and the lyrical liberties he brazenly took with his guitar and voice during songs many Deadheads see as sacred, served as an energetic boost all night. Sure, it was strange to see a handsome pop star young enough to be Bob Weir’s son standing next to him belting out some of Jerry Garcia’s most beloved vocal parts, but Mayer—who says he trained for this tour “like a boxer,” learning over a hundred songs—succeeded where few, if any, have: He brought actual grooves and harmonies back to Grateful Dead music.
Random Detail: Weir, who has perhaps carried the ’60s torch more fittingly and consistently in the five decades since than anyone else, of course showed up on a freezing late-November Colorado night in a t-shirt and sandals. He dropped out of high school to join the Dead 50 years ago and isn’t fazed by anything, even the guy in a robe meditating at 1stBank Center during the show.
By The Way: The nearly hour-long break between sets last night felt unbearably long, but it made for my favorite interaction of the night: “Dude, did you see the Dead back in the day, with Jerry Garcia?” “I don’t remember.” “Then it must have been amazing!”
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Cold Rain and Snow
New Speedway Boogie >
Smokestack Lightnin' >
New Speedway Boogie
Me and My Uncle
Lost Sailor >
Saint of Circumstance
Help On the Way >
Slipknot ! >
Estimated Prophet >
Dark Star >
Encore: Touch of Grey