Many people assumed when the surviving members of the Grateful Dead – with Phish’s Trey Anastasio taking on the guitar/singer role of the late band leader Jerry Garcia – booked a pair of stadium runs last summer billed as the “Fare Thee Well” shows, it would mark the end of members of the legendary group playing together.
But guitarist Bob Weir says that was never the intention behind those massive shows. In fact, he knew as far back as winter 2015 there was a good chance he and the Grateful Dead drum tandem of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart might well play together in a new entity that would also feature guitarist/singer John Mayer called the Dead & Company. (Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh did not want to return to extensive touring.)
The unit began to take shape when Mayer, who was guest hosting CBS television’s “The Late Show,” invited Weir to perform with him on the program. What was to be a rehearsal of two songs turned into much more.
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“We did a sound check that lasted about an hour and a half and touched on those two songs briefly and then just went and kept going,” Weir recalled in a recent teleconference interview with reporters. “They finally had to unplug us.”
Mayer, too, sensed something magical was happening during that sound check.
“I had never experienced anything like that musically, where I floated in that particular place in the sound of the band,” said Mayer, who joined Weir for the teleconference interview. “And then when we got in the room together with Billy and Mickey, for me, the idea just took hold of me when I heard it. And it was as big and strong as any idea I’ve ever had in my life.“
Mayer came to the Dead & Company, which plays the Toyota Ampitheatre in Wheatland on Friday, July 29, not as a longtime Grateful Dead fan, but a fairly recent convert. After hearing a song by the group on Pandora radio in 2011, he quickly dove into the band’s extensive catalog of studio albums and live recordings after that. He was so intrigued with the opportunity to play with Weir, Kreutzman, Hart and the other two musicians in the Dead & Company – bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti – that he put his solo career (and an in-progress solo album) on hold.
That was no small deal considering the success Mayer has had as a solo artist. Mayer made a big commercial splash with the relaxed acoustic-leaning brand of pop rock on his first two albums, “Room for Squares” (2001) and “Heavier Things” (2003). Both were multiplatinum successes that included multiple hit singles, including the Grammy-winning “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and “Daughters.”
It was after that huge rush of success that Mayer first took a break from pop music, forming a blues-based trio with bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan, before returning to his solo career with the 2006 album “Continuum” – another hit album that won a Grammy for Best Pop Album. The albums that have followed – “Battle Studies” (2009), “Born & Raised” (2012) and “Paradise Valley” (2013) – haven’t been quite as popular, but Mayer remains a major figure on the music scene.
He was actually expecting to have a new solo album out by now, but then the Dead & Company intervened.
“I put the (solo) record aside last April (2015), I would say, and just started wanting to learn all this (Grateful Dead) music,” he said. “And (I) came back to the album in January, which was actually really good to take time to step away from it and listen back to it again, and decide what are the songs that have stood the test of time, or what could I do to this song to make it better. And so now, I’m back in the studio making the record. I’ll finish it by the end of the year.”
Making time for the Dead & Company in the future might not be limited to just doing tours for Mayer. He and Weir aren’t ruling out the possibility of making new music in this group. “I’m open to any of it,” Weir said.
Mayer seconded that notion and elaborated on what circumstances would need to exist for the Dead & Company to become a recording act.
“I’m open to anything that – how do I put this – that could really take strong root on a musical level, that can really validate itself on a musical level,” he said. “If it can state its case for the reason it needs to exist, then I would absolutely jump to doing it. It would have to sort of come out of earth. It can’t be planted from above the soil. ... I would actually be very interested to see what the band could do as composers and as improvisers.
“Composing through improvisation, I think, is really interesting,” he continued. “But I’m open to anything that this band could or wanted to do, as long as it had – as long as it answered sort of the constant question like, well, ‘Why?’ ”
Dead & Company
What: Band featuring former members of the Grateful Dead and others, including John Mayer
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 29
Where: Toyota Ampitheatre (2677 Forty Mile Road, Wheatland)