Bringing new blood into an established band is a tricky proposition. Look at any number of heritage acts — from Def Leppard to Van Halen, Kiss to the Allman Brothers — and their mutating lineups, some accepted more willingly by fans than others.
For the Grateful Dead, who lost founding member, frontman and guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1995, the music never stopped, with band members touring the catalog for the last two decades in various incarnations — Ratdog and Phil & Friends, among them — upholding the sanctity of the songs, while leaving the microphone at center stage for musician friends and family to take over occasionally, but rarely as anything more than an extended “special guest.”
That was until summer of 2015, when a jamband fantasy came to life and Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio joined Dead guitarist-vocalist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman (along with Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti on keys) for the five-off Fare Thee Well, celebrating the band’s 50th anniversary. The reception from longtime Deadheads: welcoming, encouraging and appreciative. A guitar virtuoso in his own right, Anastasio treated the canon — and his role in interpreting it — respectfully, and the crowd approved.
Filling stadiums for those five Fare Thee Well shows, which took place in Santa Clara, Calif. and Chicago in June and July, were thousands who, due to their age, never got to experience the Dead with Garcia, but had gravitated towards the music as naturally and enthusiastically as their hippie brethren from previous generations. Among them: one John Mayer who discovered the band for himself in 2011, and embraced it wholeheartedly soon after. For the Grammy-winning artist, Fare Thee Well was more than his first Dead show, it served as a checklist for his own participation in the 50th anniversary celebration by way of Dead & Company, a touring outfit consisting of Mayer, Weir, Hart, Kreutzmann and Chimenti, with Oteil Burbridge on bass.
Speaking to Billboard in August, the 38-year-old described his role as “finding an authentic space between how I play the guitar and what my instincts are and what these songs are at their core,” while Dead members Weir and Kreutzmann touted Mayer’s love of the blues. Onstage at Madison Square Garden for the second show of a 20-date tour, he did exactly that — performing with passion, precision and, yes, fandom.
Indeed, Mayer proved his mastery of the music right off the bat, taking on lead vocals for show opener “Jack Straw,” one of dozens of classics in the Dead arsenal, many of which they would play on what turned out to be a stellar best-of set list. “New Speedway Boogie” followed with Weir at the microphone, then it was back to Mayer for “Brown Eyed Women” as the band got into its groove.
An audience’s assessment of a good versus great Dead show comes down to vibe, not necessarily a command of the music. If one were to look back at Anastasio’s opening notes on Fare Thee Well, there was a sense that the Phish star was approaching the songs with care but perhaps too reverently — it took a minute for him to lock into the unit, as it were. With Mayer, there was no such delay. The band was so well-rehearsed — they had been practicing for three weeks straight, says a source — and the guitarist had such conviction that any Deadhead fears were allayed and mostly gone by the end of the first set.
Of course, it helped to have moments, like the one in “Ramble On Rose,” when New York City got a shout-out, and even the Mets got a nod during set-break when the baseball team’s logo was projected in the skull of a steal your face, but sweeteners notwithstanding, it was Mayer — and a non-showy but impressive Burbridge — who proved to be the thread to acceptance. Riding high on the fretboard, Mayer’s deliberate and expert playing, along with the nonverbal communication that happens organically with jam partners, gave the sense that the guitarist was relating with Weir a little more so than Anastasio did at Fare Thee Well.
There’s a reason for that: with Anastasio, Fare Thee Well felt like a Dead show and Phish concert conjoined. Anastasio’s guitar stuck to the tone he established in his own band, and his solos ramped up the way they would have on any number of Phish songs. With Dead & Co., Mayer adapted his style almost for the sake of continuity. He was a conduit for Garcia, whom he’s never seen live, as opposed to Anastasio, who spent his teenage years at Dead shows. That’s an important distinction: age. Mayer came at the Dead with the freshness of a high school freshman circa 1980, the sort who would grouse that he was too young then to catch, say, Cornell 1977.
That’s not to say Mayer was emulating Garcia, but he did get closer to the sound that ultimately hypnotized millions of devotees for five decades. To wit: his lead on “Althea” and then “Cassidy,” during which Mayer and Weir harmonized expertly with their guitars in sync.
Set break allowed the 18,000-strong peanut gallery to trade notes but the resounding sentiment — genuine and generous — went a little something like this: “John Mayer is one talented man,” said one Deadhead in the 100s section. “A brilliant career move for Mayer,” offered another.
Ultimately, the collaboration came down to lanes: Mayer was in his wheelhouse playing in a band whose early output was often blues based, while Burbridge, who had logged many hours with such bands as The Allman Brothers Band and Col. Bruce Hampton’s Aquarium Rescue Unit, played firmly in the pocket. The combination worked and the result was, at times, magical, especially when you factor in the now sober Weir’s exceptionally strong vocals.
One of those moments came early in the second set during “Truckin’,” when Mayer’s six-string strut complemented Weir’s breakneck vocals with a natural bounce. This was a groove he could play in his sleep and it segued into the bluesy “Wang Dang Doodle,” a perennial of Dead shows, but a surprise inclusion on the set list that night, an insider tells Billboard. While it may not have been rehearsed, Mayer pulled it off gracefully, gradually upping the tempo for what turned out to be a monstrous set two.
“Estimated Prophet” let Burbridge stretch out as they transitioned into “Eyes of the World,” a Dead anthem if ever there was one, and a song that fell a little flat during “Fare Thee Well.” It was redeemed, thanks in large part to Mayer and Burbridge, who demonstrated their own emotional connections, and certainly an appreciation, for the song’s importance in the annals of the Dead.
But while the new blood reinvigorated a number of classics, in a way, Dead & Company was business as usual for the iconic group. After all, it’s the songs that carry, one reason why individual members like Weir and Lesh (who, incidentally, was playing his own Oct. 31 show at the Capitol Theatre in nearby Port Chester) have been able to tour independently via various side-projects. This was just one more Saturday night, which is not to say it lacked in excitement or gusto, but rather that after a while, you weren’t distracted by Mayer’s and Burbridge’s presence in place of old heroes. The pressure was off in a way that Anastasio probably didn’t get to enjoy. Halfway into set two, it was just another Dead show — and a stellar one at that.
That’s not to say there weren’t minor stumbles. During “Terrapin Station” a misplaced transition tripped up the complicated mini-rock opera between Act I and Act II. It was barely noticed and made the fan favorite no less epic — Deadheads are always happy to hear it, and chant along. For the rest of the song, Mayer was exacting, again showing an understanding for how truly trippy some of these compositions are. As Mayer told Billboard, “The most futuristic thing you can do in 2015 is play ‘Ramble On Rose’ in the sprit in which it was conceived.”
Set two intensified post-“drums,” the Dead’s traditional rhythmic break during which Hart and Kreutzmann get to show their wares, when Weir and Co. returned for “China Cat Sunflower” into a rousing “I Know You Rider.” Vocals, warmed up from some 150 minutes of playing, in additional to a rehearsal earlier in the day, guided the harmonies, opening the door to the same loving treatment on the moving “Morning Dew.”
By the time “One More Saturday Night” came around to cap off the evening, it felt more special than that, but at the same time, so familiar. Perhaps that’s why the band decided to revive another chestnut of Jerry-era Dead, a cover of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,” for the encore. Halloween-theme aside, the song signaled continuity with subtlety. Of course, the Deadheads — Mayer among them — got it.
New Speedway Boogie
Brown Eyed Women
Ramble On Rose
Wang Dang Doodle
Eyes of the World
Lady With a Fan / Terrapin Station
China Cat Sunflower
I Know You Rider
One More Saturday Night
Werewolves of London
Photography by Theo Wargo/Getty Images