Dead & Company came as something of a surprise to the music world, the legion of (Grateful) Deadheads out there — and to the band members themselves.
The group — which features Dead alumni Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann along with John Mayer, bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti — was revealed during the summer of 2015, shortly after the Grateful Dead played its five Fare Thee Well shows in Santa Clara, Calif., and Chicago. Since then Dead & Co. mounted four tours, including a current North American swing, filling arenas and even the occasional stadium, just as Dead did during its 50-year career.
“Yeah, we were surprised. We were taken aback,” percussionist Hart, 74, says by phone. “All of it came as pretty much of a shock to us, the popularity of Dead & Co. We wanted to play, but we didn’t know the demand was going to be so great, that’s for sure.
“There’s really hardly any words to describe it ’cause it’s so good now. We finally know how to do it, I think. After 50-some odd years, I think we finally figured it out. It’s real smooth.”
The group members, particularly those from the original Dead, are united in giving Mayer, who’s three decades or more their junior and a Grammy Award-winning pop hitmaker on his own, the lion’s share of credit for Dead & Co.’s success. Weir, 70, says “it’s a lot of fun for me to have a fire-breathing sidekick again” after spending the Dead’s 30 active years playing alongside the late, iconic Jerry Garcia. And Hart says Mayer’s combination of work ethic and reverence for the music has lit a fire under his senior bandmates.
“John was kind of key to this,” Hart acknowledges. “He was really sincere and he was totally in love with the (Dead) canon. He really got it. He can technically play anything, but he got this music on a spiritual level, and he was really ready to go out and stretch and drop the pop music handle for a while — not that he doesn’t do that really well, of course, but this isn’t that.
“He really, really, really studied it. To learn the Grateful Dead, it’s not just the notes. As a matter of fact, that’s the least of it. He was so dedicated and we thought, ‘Hey, this could really fly,’ and it has.”
Prior to Dead & Co.’s summer 2016 tour, Mayer — who’s also continuing his solo career alongside the band — noted: “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. 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. It couldn’t have been better for me.”
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With Dead & Co.’s live potency established, the question is whether the group will add new music to the Dead canon. The Dead’s last studio album was “Without A Net” in 1990, and Hart notes, “we were never a great studio band; all the fun for us is really live (performance).” Nevertheless, he says, Dead & Co. has “talked about” recording and has even “got some new songs” from lyricist Robert Hunter. “We’re considering it,” he says. “It’s just thinking about schedules and when we want to go in the studio and so forth and so on.”
But even if new music isn’t part of the equation, Hart is confident Dead & Co. has plenty of life just by playing live.
“We’re having a blast,” he says. “We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t have a good time at it. We have always thought that it’s a privilege to play and to be able to go out in front of people and experience that kind of magic and the coming together that only music brings.
“That’s what music is about. It’s about life and participating in life. That’s what the (Grateful) Dead was about, and that’s what we’re doing in (Dead & Co.), too.”
• If You Go: Dead & Company perform at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 24, in Little Caesars Arena, 2645 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $50-$150. Call 313-471-7000 or visit 313Presents.com.
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