Until a few weeks before Sunday’s Dead & Company show at Ak-Chin Pavilion, I probably knew more about the band’s guitarist John Mayer than I did about the Grateful Dead, whose music the singer/songwriter was here to play, along with founding Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann.
I held no ill will toward the Dead or their massive fanbase, but I didn't have an older sibling or a cool parent to share their love of the band with me. Like many fans in my age group, I had discovered the band through another form of media, such as the final episode of the television show Freaks and Geeks or, in my case, the soundtrack to a bad Gwyneth Paltrow movie from the '90s.
I barely remember the movie or the other songs on the soundtrack, but I could not shake the calming folk harmonies of “Uncle John’s Band.” Hearing it filled me with a weird sadness that maybe I had discovered the Dead too late. Jerry Garcia had passed away, so I would never see the group perform with their iconic guitarist and songwriter. The live experience seemed to be a prerequisite to becoming a Deadhead, so I didn’t pursue their music any further.
According to Billboard, Mayer’s obsession with the Grateful Dead didn’t come through a movie or television show. Instead, it began when he listened to “Althea” on Pandora. He was drawn to the expressiveness of the band’s music, and through producer Don Was, Mayer met with Weir and Hart to profess his love for the band.
A few years later, they joined Kreutzmann and bassist Phil Lesh for Fare Thee Well (Mayer was there, but he didn't perform with them), a celebration of the Dead’s music that took place at Chicago’s Soldier Field and in Santa Clara, California. (Phish’s Trey Anastasio, Bruce Hornsby, and RatDog keyboardist Jeff Chimenti were part of those profitable, record-breaking concerts.) The shows were well-received and planted the seeds for Dead & Company. The new band didn't include Lesh, Anastasio, or Hornsby, but it added Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge.
In the weeks leading up to the show, I made up for lost time and immersed myself in the Grateful Dead’s catalog and attended a screening of the upcoming documentary Long Strange Trip (it begins streaming on Amazon on June 2), but not even a four-hour film can contain the entire history of the band. I loved that the driving force seemed to be a group of artists who wanted to have fun. The brilliant yet reluctant leader Garcia loomed large throughout the film.
Anyone who has listened to “Truckin’” or bought a pint of Ben and Jerry’s has an awareness of how essential the iconic guitarist is to the Dead’s legacy. Without Garcia’s iconic presence, I became concerned that Dead & Company was formed to help pay someone’s mortgage instead of paying homage to the group’s timeless music.
To ensure I wouldn't become hypnotized by Mayer’s facial expressions as he played the famously dexterous guitar arrangements, I enlisted a friend who saw the Dead back in 1983 to help educate me. Everything that he loved about the band was all around him: the tie-dye shirts, easygoing fans, and trippy on-stage imagery. He fell under the band’s spell as soon as Weir sang the opening lines of “Feel Like A Stranger,” but I wasn’t there yet.
Then I caught a moment when it was obvious from the look on Hart’s face that he missed a beat. The prolific drummer smiled knowingly at Chimenti and they shared a laugh.
I knew in that small and seemingly inconsequential moment they were honoring what Garcia wanted for everyone: an opportunity to have fun. I took a deep breath and enjoyed the ride. It wasn't going to be what it was three decades ago, but I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of. As I saw my friend playing air guitar and singing along to “Cassidy," it was obvious the music had never stopped for him, either.
It was interesting to see the dynamic between Mayer and Weir. The 69-year-old guitarist played his instrument as effortlessly as Kerouac typed onto a paper scroll, telling the stories that have resonated for generations. Mayer, to his credit, refrained from grandstanding. He and Weir carried on a musical conversation spoken through a lovely cover of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence,” and the night ended with a beautiful encore of “Touch Of Grey.” Everything about the performance felt natural and organic, and never once did I feel a trace of ego on the stage.
My moment of Deadhead conversion came in the middle of the show’s first set, during Mayer's guitar solo on “Sugaree.” I closed my eyes and let every note wash over me, singing and moving my body along with the music. Something finally clicked inside my brain. Maybe it was a contact high, but I felt a kinship with everyone around me, from the three generations of fans behind us to the man who talked with my friend and me in the parking lot, rambling on for several minutes about everything from the Buffalo Bills to last Saturday’s show in Las Vegas.
In that moment, I realized the Grateful Dead is greater than one man — and I'm ready to punch my ticket for the ride through their music.
Setlist (according to livedead.co)
"Feel Like a Stranger"
"New Minglewood Blues"
"Samson and Delilah"
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"Saint of Circumstance"
"Fire on the Mountain"
"Touch of Grey"
What: Dead & Company at Ak-Chin Pavilion
The Crowd: Deadheads of all ages
Random Notebook Dump: Did Mickey Hart just put on a sailor cap?
Editor's note: This post has been updated from its original version to clarify that while John Mayer was present for Fare The Well concerts, he did not perform at them.