When the Grateful Dead performed their five fiftieth anniversary “Fare Thee Well” concerts in 2015, the hype machine went into overdrive celebrating the legendary band’s history. Most mainstream media outlets treated “Fare Thee Well” as a one-time mega-event, roundly ignoring that the surviving members of the reuniting band had spent the twenty years following Jerry Garcia’s passing and the Grateful Dead’s demise performing together in some form or another more or less continuously in a number of guises and permutations. As recently as 2009, the four longest-tenured members of the historic psychedelic/Americana act (guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart) had all toured together as the Dead, followed by Weir and Lesh combining forces in the group Furthur. Following the culmination of the historic “Fare Thee Well” shows, Lesh returned to fronting his long-running, rotating Phil & Friends combo in a reduced touring mode, but Weir, Kreutzmann, and Hart wasted little time in regenerating the long-running musical conversation that is the Grateful Dead’s legacy and raison d’etre.
Forming yet another new continuation of the theme — Dead & Company, which comes to the Garden on November 12 and 14 — the three took to the road in fall of 2015 with the somewhat initially curious choice of John Mayer in the lead guitarist role — a chair that has been ably filled in previous mix-and-match combinations by capable pros including Steve Kimock, Mark Karan, Jimmy Herring, Warren Haynes, John Kadlecik, and Trey Anastasio . . . though always with some controversy and always with the ubiquitous and attendant moaning or applauding of various segments of the vocal Deadhead fan base. Mayer may have seemed a peculiar choice initially, his ability as a stellar blues-influenced guitarist being somewhat overshadowed by his celebrity reputation and pop-influenced solo musical output. He had developed an interest in the Grateful Dead’s music only in recent years, but after playing with Weir on a couple of occasions, Mayer threw himself into studying the group’s material as well as its ethos. Though debate continued to rage among Deadheads over the choice, each successive tour undertaken by the nascent Dead & Co. enterprise (from 2015 to the present) has seen Mayer acclimating more and more and gradually crafting his own unique spin on the band’s repertoire — a technique sounding individualistic but still reverent to both the memory of his beatified progenitor, Garcia, and to the overall gestalt of a group that has now been creating music for more than half a century.
With a celebrated multipart documentary (Long Strange Trip) appearing on Amazon in 2017, the Grateful Dead is nothing short of an American phenomenon in the minds of casual music fans and dedicated heads alike. The Dead & Company aggregation has taken to the road again this fall to continue exploring the band’s music, pushing sonic boundaries (including the improvisational Drums-and-Space segments that were a staple of GD shows), and as always performing a completely different setlist at every unique performance. The group’s summer tour proved highly lucrative, with the shows well attended and parking lots approximating the nostalgic circus atmosphere of the Dead’s heyday. And in keeping with tradition, the repertoire over this jaunt was indeed varied, with more than one hundred different songs being played over twenty shows. Even this, though, raised some murmuring among the devoted fan base, who noted the band’s current incarnation sticking to a less-catholic assortment of material, eschewing post-Garcia compositions written by the later iterations of the band and its members. Missing in action, for instance, were any of Weir’s latter-day songs with RatDog, music explored and developed by post-Jerry outfits the Other Ones and Furthur, or material off Weir’s lauded 2016 Blue Mountain album.
Beside long-standing historical figures Weir, Kreutzmann, and Hart and alongside now-devoted disciple Mayer, the Dead & Company lineup also includes the talented keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, a veteran of all the post-Garcia lineups, and Oteil Burbridge, longtime bassist for the Allman Brothers, who has become a crowd favorite with both his dextrous playing and emerging vocal responsibilities. On the most recent tour, Burbridge began lending his vox to the mix more prominently, spelling Weir and Mayer with the occasional heartfelt lead on such songs as “Stella Blue” and “Comes a Time.” Chimenti also sings but thus far has been relegated to harmony and ensemble duties. As with Mayer via Garcia, Burbridge does not try to approximate the exact style of his long-term predecessor, Lesh, but is able to mesh his substantial talents with the music being created onstage to a degree that the group’s distinctive overall vibe is present, even as it continues to develop in new directions.
Indeed, part of what keeps the old warhorse chugging along is the sense, from night to night, that the band could do anything, that surprises could always lay in store. A new arrangement for a classic such as “Jack Straw,” a long-neglected Dylan cover pulled out of mothballs, such chestnuts as “High Time” or “Viola Lee Blues” broken out or returned to the song rotation? And all along, the debate continues to rage among concertgoers: Is Dead & Company a Dead cover band? Or are they something familiar, yet new? Is a musical conversation that began before much of the audience was even born continuing in unexpected and interesting ways? Are Dead & Company little more than a cynical cash grab? Or are they a way of keeping classic Grateful Dead material circulating, treasured songs still being performed in a way both reverential yet fresh, to the delight of thousands of fans who love both the music and the concert experience? Are the performances dynamic and ever evolving? Do they evoke nostalgia while still being vital?
The discourse shall persist. ’Twas ever thus, actually, when it comes to the music, as well as the legacy of a band that was once described as being both sociologically and sonically similar to the old parable about four blind men encountering an elephant. The long, strange trip continues apace in its latest transformative mutation, and perhaps the only way to arrive at an opinion might be to clear the mind, open one’s ears, and decide for oneself at the Garden. Or, to take a page from the Dead’s own well-trodden lyrical playbook (courtesy of Robert Hunter): “If you get confused, listen to the music play.” What you hear may surprise you.
(Guest post by Pete Millerman)