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Dead & Co. continue the long, strange trip
The Grateful Dead bid a fond farewell to its fans last summer.
But the long, strange trip has not ended.
Dead & Company rose from the ashes shortly after the Dead played its five Fare The Well 50th anniversary shows, wrapping up last July 5 in Chicago. The new band -- which features Dead veterans Bob Weir and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann along with seven-time Grammy Award-winner John Mayer, former Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge and longtime Dead cohort Jeff Chimenti on keyboards -- began touring during the fall of 2015 and is back for a summer trek, keeping the Dead's music alive from amphitheaters to big festivals such as Bonnaroo.
The Deadheads are loving it, of course. And so are the boys who are, as the songs says, playing in the band.
"We're enjoying it like mad," Hart, 72, says by phone from his home in Marin County, Calif., near the San Francisco Bay Area where the Dead came together as the Warlocks during 1965. "I mean, we're having the time of our lives. It's really great. No tension. Good music. Nice people. The band is very inspired.
"It's like chemistry; You can take a bunch of good guys and put them together and they don't add up. This band adds up. We're having a great time."
Weir, 68, adds by hone that Dead & Company "is kind of what I expected, really, no huge surprises. We're just more seasoned musicians than we were decades ago, and practice makes perfect. @e're better at it now. And I think you can hear that when we play."
Dead & Company was in motion even before the Fare Thee Well shows were announced, brokered somewhat by Don Was, an Oak Park native and president of Blue Note Records. During a visit, Was told Weir and Hart that Mayer, who's released six solo albums, was working in a studio in the building. Hart had read an article in which Mayer professed his connection with the Dead song "Althea," so they met and Mayer asked Weir to join him for a studio performance on CBS's "The Late Late Show."
The performance went well, and it gave Weir an idea.
"I played with John and it became apparent to us that this was a rabbit we wanted to chase," Weir recalls. "@e brought Mickey and Bill into the conversation." But not bassist Phil Lesh, who's battled health issues over the years and who Weir noted "is getting older and has less than limited interest in hitting the road anymore. So we knew we were looking in a different direction here."
Dead & Company was a sea change for Mayer as well. He was actually working on his next solo album at the time, but after growing up in Connecticut appreciating but never immersed in the Dead, the allure of joining the band was too good to pass up.
"When I was in high school I didn't really understand it," Mayer, 38, acknowledges by phone. "As time went on and I learned more about music myself I would listen and hear more and really grow to appreciate it. It revealed so much to me about music and America and people and a spirit I don't think has really changed.
"So now I understand it and I'm helping deliver it. It's kind of like a full circle moment for me on stage every night."
Mayer, in turn, has infused a new energy into his older bandmates and their presentation of a repertoire that dates back as far as 50 years. "It's a lot of fun for me to have a fire-breathing sidekick again," notes Weir, who spent the Dead's 30 active years playing alongside the late, iconic Jerry Garcia. "Obviously John's pretty accomplished at what he does. He's put a lot of energy into becoming the musician he's become, and when he turns that around and puts it out on stage, he's a forced to be reckoned with, and that's a lot of fun."
Hart, too, has nothing but praise for Mayer's work ethic.
"John has just put his nose to the grindstone every day," Hart said. "It's a lot of learning. Grateful Dead music is not as easy as it sounds. But (Mayer) really knows the inside language now. It was an amazing effort on his part. I salute him." The learning isn't over, either; Hart said that Mayer has about 50 of the Dead's songs down pat right now, but the group hopes to bring that total up to 80 tracks it can weave in and out of its famously improvised performances.
"Musically it's exactly what I thought it would be, and in terms of the way it was received it was absolutely what I was hoping it would be," says Mayer, who plans to return to the solo album later this year. "I knew that in the nucleus there was a lot of authenticity but there was also a validity to putting a band together and making music people would want to listen to live and hopefully record and listen back to for awhile. It it couldn't have been better for me."
The question lingers, however, about whether Dead & Company will exist solely to play the Dead's material or if it will add to that repertoire as well. The Dead itself released its final studio album in 1989, while the individual members have recorded sporadically with other projects. But all hands sound ready to take the group into the studio as well as the stage, albeit with no firm plan at the moment.
"I'm open to any of it," Weir says. "I think it's fertile ground. I think only just now have we sort of gotten up to speed. It's a left foot/right foot kind of deal; We have a lot of ground to cover before we get to that place, but I think we're getting there. I know it's in the back of everybody's head."
Mayer, meanwhile, says his criteria is that new music happens organically rather than forcing the band into a recording studio.
"If it can state its case for the reason it needs to exist, then I would absolutely be up to doing it," he explains. "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. I'm open to anything this band could or wanted to do, as long as it answered that constant question, 'Well, why?'
"And if it has a strong answer, I'd love to do it."
Whether that comes to pass or not, however, Hart is confident Dead & Company can always lean on the Dead's catalog and the Deadheads' devotion as a reason to exit.
"These things are continuums; It's how you build on the past," Hart says. "It plays well out there. People love it, and they want it. If they didn't like it or want it, we wouldn't be doing it. But they want it, and they're really vocal about it. And we want to play it, so it's working out fine.
"I mean, we all look forward to sound checks, believe it or not. That's the mark of a great band -- they look forward to sound check."
Dead & Company
7 p.m. Thursday, July 7.
DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75, Independence Townsip.
Tickets are $40-$149.50 pavilion, $40 lawn.
Call 248-377-0100 or visit palacenet.com.
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