For more than 50 years, Bob Weir has been a storyteller of sorts — with the Grateful Dead and all of its incarnations and in numerous solo projects. So while some fans mourned the end of the Grateful Dead with the death of Jerry Garcia and the final "Fare Thee Well" tour shows in 2015, many people had little doubt that Weir and the other Dead members would continue as storytellers of those songs — maybe just not all on the same stage.
Enter Dead & Co. It's Weir, along with Grateful Dead drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, guitarist John Mayer (yes, that John Mayer), bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti performing the Dead's material. The group hits PNC Music Pavilion on June 10 to kick off its summer tour.
While the Fare Thee Well shows ended the Grateful Dead under that name, Dead & Co. is a new collective presenting the material in a fresh way. Sure, the core members will likely stay true to their roots, but the addition of Mayer brings a new energy and musical knowledge.
It's as much about the crowd hearing the songs they love as it is about the band letting the songs discover themselves and find their way into the night. It's an artistic concept that's driven the Dead since its very beginnings. Weir and the other members have always aimed to let the songs stretch their wings — it's the essence of jam music.
It's no longer about "Shakedown Street" and the entire vibe of the night, although some of that will undoubtedly still exist. And it's not a "cover band" in the sense of these guys getting together and trying to recreate what the Dead did note for note. It's a new band with a new energy and a new presentation that will make the music the focus of the night just as it always has been.
When the songs are in the spotlight, there's no telling where the music might go on a given evening or which tune might be the star.
"I think it happens to all of us, really, on a nightly basis," Weir says. "We'll have a song pop up in the set and we just weren't expecting to have it have that much life on a given evening. We might have thought of it as interesting filler, and it becomes a centerpiece in the set. The individual songs will take on a new life within the context of a show. The evening reveals itself to us as it rolls along."
While people might see Mayer as an odd addition, anyone who's paid attention to his career in recent years can see how he's kind of the perfect fit. He's abandoned the pop sound he had for so long and focused more on the songwriting process with an honest authenticity that has expanded his fan base.
It was apparent during his last tour in Charlotte: this was someone who was no longer playing music simply in an effort to sell records and win over a crowd. This was an artist on stage playing music he loved and giving himself to the songs in an exposed way — a way that has transferred well to performing with a legendary jam band that has to let themselves be steered by the music itself.
He's also studied the Dead's music. While wrapping up his most recent album, he shelved it until later this year in order to focus on learning the Dead's catalogue while playing gigs with Dead & Co.
"To be this many years into a career and still be discovering how to play the guitar is, I think, the sign that I'm really on the right path in terms of being a musician," Mayer says. "I will do Dead & Co. as long fans want it and as long it still feels like there's something left on the table to try and play and get right and explore. So for me, I couldn't be happier as a musician and a career artist now."
Mayer feels the same driving force is behind the band at this point — and that's delivering what he calls a "historical performance." He hopes that Dead & Co. will find that zone within the ether of the evening where the songs hit all the right notes.
"It's less of a performance with these guys than it is sort of letting people into the research lab and watching you sort of try to create these things," Mayer says. "It's interactive art in a weird way. When you're old enough to really be able to control your instrument and control your influences, it becomes like flying."
There's more to it than that, though. Mayer is also a fan. He's gotten the dream gig and loving every minute of it. Instead of connecting memories to a song through speakers, he's connecting to songs on stage and via the audience.
"To play 'Brokedown Palace' at the end of the night and see what it does to people in the crowd," Mayer says. "I mean, what a trip, right. To be in your car, falling in love with this music and have your point of reference be your experience in the car and your experiences in life and the people you know. Then to go on tour and play this music for people and have these incredibly deep moments with people — you can see it in their eyes. They're watching a filmstrip of their life stack up as this music plays. To be able to listen to this music for the rest of my life and be able to have those memories... I'll always now listen to these songs and think about what they were like to play."