I went to see this concert with an old friend and fellow veteran of Grateful Dead shows. You know, the ones that occurred when Jerry Garcia was still alive. I had seen several of the post-Jerry lineups over the years and it always seemed more like a party featuring Grateful Dead music than an actual Grateful Dead show. So my expectations for this concert were tame, perhaps in part because it seemed a bit odd to pair John Mayer with the Grateful Dead.
These things can get very subjective, like when you think you’ve just seen an excellent Grateful Dead show and your friend standing right next to you the whole time deems it mediocre. But for me, personally, this was the best post-Jerry show I’ve seen.
John Mayer is a revelation. As a guy who’s best known for radio friendly pop rock, it was weird to see him immersed in Grateful Dead music. And when I say immersed I mean he hasn’t just drunk the Dead cool aid, he’s soaking in the damn vat. Welcome to the club, buddy. John Mayer is a total deadhead. Who knew? Visually, it was like the high school quarterback joined the hippies smoking in the parking lot. Here’s your hot new Grateful Dead guitar hero, but with better hair and pretty boy looks. The thing is, Mayer is so into it, he so “gets” the whole Grateful Dead thing, that it works. He injected a youthful energy that you could sense was picked up on by the rest of the band, especially Bob Weir.
As lead guitarist, Mayer had to perform the trick of filling in for Garcia when old school Grateful Dead fans might feel a bit protective of their Garcia memories and view any attempt to “out do” Garcia as sacrilege. How to give it your all in that role while respecting the original guy? The answer, for me, was the most surprising thing of all. It seemed, at times, like the band was tapping into the cosmic flow that you sometimes got at the best Grateful Dead shows. There were moments where the music seemed to take control away from the individual band members, like they’d all done the Vulcan mind meld and were playing as a single entity and channeling the music in from some transcendental parallel universe. Right out of the gate they played one of my favorite songs, The Music Never Stopped, and went into an extended deep space jam during the rhythm breakdown, then snapped back into the groove so quick you didn’t hear it coming.
Mayer also did a good job on vocals, especially sharing with Bob Weir on fan favorite Franklin’s Tower. John didn’t try to mimic Jerry on his vocal parts, and that is a good thing not only to avoid the sacrilege problem, but also because Mayer is a vocal stylist in his own right and actually added some nice fresh phrasing that honored the music while adding his own signature to it. Also, there was this interesting thing he started to do toward the end where he was scat singing a la Ella Fitzgerald. It complimented the music really well.
There was also quite a bit of humor in the second set on the outro to The Wheel, with Mayer leading the band into a gently mocking melodic parody of the song itself, until it morphed into something like the soundtrack to a gaggle of clowns hamming it up at a circus. And there was also quite a bit of what I call metamigorbickle improvisation, with the soundscapes becoming so abstract that they differentiate the Grateful Dead from all the other so-called jam bands; pure improvisation without any melodic or rhythmic underpinnings to fall back on.
The other guest musicians were bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, who also recently performed with the Grateful Dead at their supposed farewell shows. I’d seen Chimenti a few times in other configurations and he was in fine form, but I’d never seen Burbridge. He’s an incredible bass player and filled the void left by original Dead bassist Phil Lesh very well.
The show was so good that it made me wonder what will happen when the rest of the original members retire or pass away. Will this thing actually keep going? With Mayer in the drivers seat I think it’s a real possibility. The question would be whether people would still see the shows, but one interesting thing to consider is that many of the people I spoke with at the show or overheard had never seen the Grateful Dead while Garcia was alive. Think about that a moment. The show was sold out and many of the fans had never even seen Garcia live. The music is still there, coursing through the ether, waiting for someone like Mayer to tap in.