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Dead & Company: “You Can Still Make It Home”

by Dean Budnick on May 26, 2017
Here’s more from our Dead & Company cover story in anticipation of the tour opener in Las Vegas on Saturday.

Photo by Bill Kelly

John Mayer first heard the music of the Grateful Dead anew while listening to Neil Young Pandora channel. Mayer’s fortuitous “Althea” encounter was by no means inevitable. When one is on a particular Pandora station, suggestions are generated not only through musical compatibility but also by a demographic component. In Mayer’s case, Neil Young is a generational peer of the Grateful Dead, which provides a nexus beyond the connective tissue of their song catalogs.

However, if one is listening to contemporary folk on the service, this will not necessarily lead to the complementary sounds of the genre’s iconic forbearers. Speaking from personal experience driving in the car with my teenage daughter’s Pandora app providing the soundtrack to our travels, we’ll often hear multiple songs by The Milk Carton Kids but nary a selection from Simon & Garfunkel. So too, Pandora steers us away from Workingman’s Dead or the all-acoustic Reckoning.

Mayer, who will turn 40 this fall, acknowledges, “Most of the time, it takes somebody to do something again for the new generation to find it. As an aging musician, you have to accept that there are better iterations of a design that still exist but that aren’t as popular as the current derivative version of it. But people want to participate in real-time with the artist. They want to know that the song they hear was written in the same air they breathe.”

To be clear, Mayer, is not referencing The Milk Carton Kids here, just the mechanism by which younger ears receive music.

“That’s just the way it is,” he continues, “and I have to imagine that, one day, when I have kids, my kid is going to run in the room and go, ‘Listen to this song.’ And I’m going to say, ‘You know that song is just like this other song but not as good. Let me play you this other song.’ And they’ll go, ‘No, not interested.’ There’s a certain modernity to it, where it doesn’t feel like it’s happening in their universe.”

When asked whether this perspective informs a certain missionary zeal that he brings to Dead & Company, Mayer responds, “Absolutely. That’s my nesting place in this. I think if I wasn’t looking at it that way, I’d be milling around inside this thing, trying to find a place to stand comfortably. The way that I have found to stand comfortably in this is I am helping to keep the portal open. I think that’s what people have responded to.”

“I get a lot of people’s feelings told to me about this music,” he adds. “They tell me how many times they saw the Dead and, then, they’ll talk about how this band makes them feel. And every time someone comes up to me and wants to talk about the Grateful Dead or Dead & Company, I just go into the most placid, satisfied, comfortable zone because it’s almost like somebody talking to me from a rotary club in some other state—‘Oh, we’re both in the rotary club.’

“But when they’re talking to me, they’re talking to one representative of this larger thing; they’re not talking to the guy who does it. My strengths as a musician are only coming into play as an assistant to the entire thing. For the first time in my life, it’s not about me doing the best this or the best that. I’m there as a brace that helps keep this thing open, so that people can get where they want to go. They’re not even really making eye contact with what I’m doing or with me. I’m there so that they can make eye contact with what they want to see that’s above all of us.

“They wish it was a different way,” Mayer adds. “We all wish it was a different way. We all wish it was the Grateful Dead, but what I think people have figured out is that, in many ways, you can still make it to that destination. You can still make it home.”

* * *
This Saturday, May 27, Dead & Company will begin their third round of “transportation work”: moving minds and elevating spirits. Their summer 2016 tour built on the momentum of their fall 2015 debut.

From Hart’s position on the drum riser, “I look out and the people are the same age. We’re getting older, and they’re still in their 20s and 30s. It flipped generations somehow; the music was passed on to another generation, and yet again, to another. A very unusual situation happened here where the music was vital, for many decades, and that’s because the brother passed it on to the sister, to the son and the daughter, and it became a good thing to do together as a family as well.That’s the power in being able to feel confident with your audience—that they’re really there for you.”

Weir has indicated a willingness to enter the studio with the group to record a mix of chestnuts and new originals, but there are no immediate plans. “I would like to do that with this band,” he affirms, “but right now, everybody has a bunch of commitments.”

Meanwhile, Burbridge explains that in his free time, “I like to check out as many different decades of the same song as I can for my own pleasure—just to see how Phil changed his approach, how the whole band in general changed their approach, how it all evolved over time. It’s amazing to see the different ways they approached the same song and I learn something from each one. So that’s really fun for me. It’s one of those things where you could look at it like it’s a lot of work, or you could just look at it like this enormous buffet where you have 10 different takes on bread pudding and 10 different takes on spaghetti and meat sauce, and you can’t do it all in one sitting. So the next day, you go back and try a different one.”

Mayer observes, “What Oteil brings is a sense of syncopation that really modernizes the band. He also brings the ability to respect the song but be himself. He and I being admitted latecomers gives us the perspective of having a lot of other influences by the time we got here, and the balancing act is: How do we represent our influences and how do we shape this music that’s been created over these many years? That’s an ongoing process. On the ‘15 tour, I was taking a bluesier approach to it and Oteil was taking a thunderous approach to the bass. Then, on the ‘16 tour, I remember having a discussion with Bob and Oteil, where he would bring the bass up to a bit more of the guitar register and I would bring the guitar a little further away from minor pentatonic blues into a more melodic thing. Bob and I have talked about this summer being the study of patience. When I listen to ‘77 Grateful Dead, and Jerry is playing this incredibly slow-thinking, mellow Zen guitar—it’s brilliant. It reaches this other level.”

“We’re still learning each other’s moves,” Weir suggests. “The music we play requires a lot of intense listening and a lot of experiencing it together. We’ve learned to play as a band and, the more we play, the better we get at. It is a work in progress, but we’re coming along.”

“When we first started with Dead & Company,” Mayer reveals, “I really wanted to get to a point where we could use the Stealie on a T-shirt. I thought it would be like being embraced if people could accept that the Stealie also meant Dead & Company. I have to reveal some total selfishness in that—‘Oh, my God, I want to be in this thing where we get to use the Stealie!’ But Bob, to his wisdom and credit, said, ‘Let’s earn that.’ Then, by the time we went out on the summer tour I looked at the Dead & Company logo, and because of the way that we had played and because of the experiences that we had, I went, ‘No, that’s us. We did that.’ I think it’s a great testament to what Bob and Billy and Mickey put together to keep this spirit alive that by the time I was finally asked, ‘Do you want to put a Stealie on a shirt?’ it didn’t matter to me anymore because I realized we’re Dead & Company now.”


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