Months ago, anyone with a decent grasp of musical knowledge would question how the singer of love-ballads such as “Your Body is a Wonderland” and “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” could fill the shoes of the late Jerry Garcia. After a two-night run at the “World’s Most Famous Arena,” Deadheads and music aficionados alike are eating their words as John Mayer embodied the spirit of Garcia, blistering through Grateful Dead masterpieces such as “Dark Star” and “Uncle John’s Band.”
Dead and Company, the newly-formed supergroup featuring Mayer and the surviving members of the Grateful Dead minus bassist Phil Lesh, took to New York City to celebrate Halloween weekend with a pair of shows at Madison Square Garden. Joining the band were Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge, and longtime Dead collaborator Jeff Chimenti.
With two shows already under their belt, Dead and Company have perfected the art of the setlist, mirroring an ‘80s Dead set. Fortunately, I managed to catch the group’s second show of their Halloween run and experience this momentous collaboration for myself. Being present for the Fare Thee Well shows this summer, with Trey Anastasio stepping into the shoes of Garcia, my expectations for Mayer were below those of Anastasio.
When it came for the first set to begin, the arena filled in quickly as the troupe carried on the tradition of “never miss a Sunday show” with a bluesy rendition of the biblical “Samson and Delilah,” fitting perfectly with the stylistic improvisation of Mayer. The first set presented itself as the only opportunity for Mayer to take lead vocals, which lacked in comparison to Anastasio, but was made up through his guitar chops. Mayer stormed in a one-two-three punch through the Garcia staple, “Sugaree,” ‘70s icon, “Bertha” and a notable slow-tempoed “Friend of Devil,” reminiscent to the style of the version on “Dead Set.”
Upon first inspection of Dead and Company, I couldn’t help but admire the fluidity amongst the band as they weaved in and out of pieces compared to the rigidness and straightforward-complexity of the Fare Thee Well shows. Mayer seemed at ease as he explored scales, while still managing to maintain his signature bluesy style and incorporating the spirit of Garcia, such as with “Crazy Fingers”; in this piece, Mayer and Bob Weir ambitiously collaborated to create a melodic lullaby that had Weir perform at the height of his vocal intensity.
As much as I missed Lesh’s bass bombs that give each piece its own sense of insatiable rhythm, Burbridge took the role of the silent protagonist as he grooved his way through the first set, leaving the Company to build upon him. Chimenti also unleashed himself upon the keys unlike his restricted understudy with Bruce Hornsby, which provided useful to the architecture of their sound. To close out their successful first set, the band chose to perform the fan-favorite, “Uncle John’s Band,” which cemented this band as a completely different beast from that of what was seen with the final Dead shows.
For the second set, Mayer and Weir started off by leading the band through renditions of “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain.” The jams, especially from Mayer, were beyond words as Mayer utilized as many licks and tricks as he bridged the gap between the two pieces. This came to be the highlight of the set as each member shone through their own light, whether it have been Weir and Mayer trading lead with Chimenti to Billy Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart balancing each other out rhythmically.
Burbridge also had his time to shine as he layered his delayed bass through “Shakedown Street,” igniting an arena-wide dance party. Mayer showed his true colors with an inexplicable performance that almost felt like Garcia was on stage with the crew. Following that was a jam-tacular celebration of “Dark Star” as well as “Drums” and “Space,” which is the percussion highlight of any Dead performance.
“Wharf Rat,” the Weir-led ballad, delved into the softer, spiritual nature of the evening that was almost ethereal in nature. A personal favorite, Dead and Company did the piece justice as Weir brought solace to the crowd through his warm vocals. To close out the evening, Dead and Company cover of Henry Whitter’s “Going Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” left the audience with a bluesy ending to an explosive evening.
With a night as memorable as this, one can only imagine what the future of Dead and Company might look like after their current tour wraps up with a New Year’s Eve show in California. One things for certain, Mayer should quit the ballads and stick with this group — it will lead him to a golden road of unlimited devotion.