It was a fitting opening tune on that balmy evening of June 30, 2017, the first of a two-night stand at Chicago’s Wrigley Field — John Mayer’s jangly guitar; Bob Weir’s growling lonesome-cowboy vocals; the rest of the band chugging behind “The Music Never Stopped.”
For fans of the Grateful Dead, in its various incarnations and varying vibes over the decades, it never has. More than 20 years removed from the untimely passing in 1995 of Jerry Garcia, the band’s guiding force, not only is the Grateful Dead’s popularity still sky-high, but the latest iteration of the band remains a tight, muscular unit. Dead & Company, the most popular reincarnation of the Grateful Dead, now has a six-year history of massive stadium tours and Mexican beach retreat gigs to match.
Since Garcia’s death, the Dead has taken many forms. In truth, each of these outfits are interlopers, if not dutiful ones, each carrying on the Grateful Dead’s legacy in its own reimagined image. There’s been the Dead; Phil Lesh and Friends, the original bassist’s side project; Weir’s Ratdog. Back in 2015, there was even “Fare Thee Well,” a megawatt blowout billed as the final goodbye for the “core four” — Weir, Lesh and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart —- with Phish’s Trey Anastasio filling in on lead guitar and longtime Dead acquaintance Bruce Hornsby on keyboards.
For the most part, they’ve all been enormous cash cows. But nothing, at least to this point, has seemed as durable, or for that matter, lighthearted and overtly enjoyable for the musicians taking part in the festivities then Dead & Company. Perhaps it’s because lead guitarist Mayer brings a youthful exuberance to the proceedings (check out his epic solo on “Franklin’s Tower” near the end of the first Wrigley gig). He acknowledged feeling nervous at the outset of his tenure with Dead & Company; he was unsure whether he’d be accepted by the band’s notoriously dedicated fanbase given his previous mainstream pop career. But a few weeks before he took the stage at Wrigley, he told the Chicago Tribune he was finally settled into and comfortable with his role in the band.
“I’m not playing anymore like I’m trying to get the job,” Mayer said at the time. “What has blossomed behind that is that people have accepted this as a band that’s worth going out to see.”
The proof is in the performances. Where Garcia handled many of the lead vocals during his tenure in the Grateful Dead, Dead & Company succeeds by divvying up the duties between Weir and Mayer. At the initial Wrigley show, the former delivers an especially grizzled rendition of the John Phillips classic “Me and My Uncle”; earlier in the first set, Mayer puts a particularly serene and soulful spin on an extended rendition of Garcia’s genteel “Sugaree.” Their harmonies are top-notch as well. On June 30 at Wrigley, one of the standout moments comes at the end of the first set when Mayer and Weir lock into a vocal groove during a sprightly acoustic rendition of “Uncle John’s Band.”
Most importantly, Dead & Company — comprised of Weir, Mayer, Kreutzmann, Hart, former Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti — tweaks the sonic formula for the better. The presence of Lesh at “Fare Thee Well” found his fat bass grooves sensually slinking into the mix, but it also meant he was handling vocal duties on songs that Mayer is better equipped to execute.
Additionally, as evidenced during an especially funky “Shakedown Street” on the first night, Dead & Company gives the twin drummers of Kreutzmann and Hart a bit more room than in the past to feed off one another during lengthy jams.
Both Deadheads and casual fans alike have adopted Dead & Company as an official extension of their long strange trip.
Weir has said this unit is the tightest he’s experienced since the original band. And fans have followed suit in their reverence for the project: both Deadheads and casual fans alike have adopted Dead & Company as an official extension of their long strange trip.
“It’s a constant path of discovery for us,” Weir said before the Wrigley shows. “We’re constantly making breakthroughs.” And, he added of his bandmates, “It’s nice having guys on board who appreciate the songs down to their core and really get what the songs are.””
With the Dead, it all comes down to legacy. As he prepped for the Wrigley shows, that sense of history was on Mayer’s mind.
“There will be someone after me and someone after them but as long as I’m invited to participate in some extension of the Grateful Dead universe, I will always be a part of it,” he said. “I will be playing these songs as long as I live. This doesn’t go away. You don’t pack up and go home after this.”