Why is this interesting? - The Dead & Company Edition

On song, synergy and May-December relationships

Todd Krieger (TK) and I go back to a random email introduction in 2007. The email said, “Just looking at the people you know- he seems like someone you’d also know.” I didn’t know Todd then, but as soon as I met him I understood the comment. He lives in SF, has a very eclectic mix of interests, and professionally covers an area at the intersection of tech and content. - Noah (NRB)

Todd here. While not quite as relentless as Bob Dylan’s never-ending tour, the latest incarnation of the Grateful Dead, ‘Dead & Company.’ is cranking up once more for a mini Fall tour that started with Halloween at MSG and will be closing out the year in the Bay Area, reigniting the Dead’s fabled New Year’s extravaganza at the newly opened Chase Center in San Francisco. And as has been the custom for the last four years, this in theory odd, yet in practice effective, pairings of musicians and body of work is happening yet again. 

John Mayer, he of the voluminous Instagram comments, has been sharing the stage with a unit comprised of three of the original members of the Grateful Dead (Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart), as well as a handful of other sidemen like bassist Oteil Burbridge (Allman Bros., Aquarium Rescue Unit) and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti. (Chimenti occupies the proverbial hot seat as keyboardists are to the Grateful Dead as drummers are to Spinal Tap).

Over the summer the band played sold-out stadium shows coast to coast grossing $40.9 million in just over a month (which would put them right between Paul McCartney and Michael Bublé and that seems about right), introducing legions of new fans to the 500+ songbook that forms the core of the performing repertoire. With each new stop, they continued to expand ever more deeply into covers steeped in Americana from Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” to Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and the band’s own primal psychedelic rock like “St. Stephen” and “Dark Star”. 

Why is this interesting?

What’s fascinating about this particular incarnation of the Dead is that after any number of attempts to fill Jerry Garcia’s shoes, this one is sticking. From Furthur to the Other Ones, and Phil Lesh and Friends to the Fare Thee Well Shows in Chicago with Trey Anastasio, the other post-Garcia line-ups paid service to the music but did not inhabit it as this current grouping does. The root of the Grateful Dead has always been an all-hands on deck allegiance to the great God of improvisation, and Mayer’s managed to become the straw that stirs the drink in this latter-day configuration. I think there are a few reasons this has worked out so well.

First off, the music. Mayer’s blues idiom is one of the reasons the band sounds fresh, as the other stand-ins for Garcia came from a rock and roll background where Mayer, for all of his flaws, is steeped in the blues, like original vocalist McKernan. Something about it works particularly well with the band’s signature blend of psychedelia, country, and improvisation breathes new life into each song in ways both surprising and uniquely satisfying.

Second, the relationships, particularly with famed Dead #2 Bob Weir, who was introduced to the guitar prodigy by uber-producer and current bandmate Don Was. The union of Mayer and Weir (who, in a bit of synchronistic oddness, share a birthday), has given both of their careers remarkable boosts and their May-December relationship offers an opportunity to learn about mentors and mentees, how life can surprise you, and the permanence of song living outside of its original formation.

Third, it’s the fans, and among these, I count myself one. Many of the faithful feel Mayer is giving fuel to a fire that was dying. By recreating the psychic improvisational synergy of the earliest Dead shows with this line-up, the love affair between audience and band has been rekindled and while there are criticisms that the band is slow, their ability to dive into the layered architectural nature of the music is at this point revered. In addition to the aforementioned blues idiom bringing the band’s energy full circle, where the ’80s Dead were ravaged by the road and the excesses that came with it, this band has the energy, focus, and commitment that were in short supply. It is evident they are mixing up the setlists in ways that are keeping the fans coming, hoping to catch that elusive ‘Terrapin Station’ or the be-all-end-all of ‘Dark Star’ and ‘St. Stephen’ into ‘The Eleven.’ 

And after all, it is the setlist, and the variation found therein that may hold the secret to some of the longevity. The original band never performed the same set twice, and it is the possibilities of the extensive songbook and willingness to explore that makes listening to their 2,000 plus show archives always interesting and the promise of potential of their live shows worth attending. 

No less an observer of human nature than Amy Cuddy authored a fairly accurate portrayal of what this incarnation means. And Mayer himself commented on what the synergy has meant to him in this brief missive ending his solo tour. 

And lastly, Mayer seems to have found his soul, and Weir has gone from a rough patch with some less than stellar moments before hooking up with Mayer to an energized Tasmanian devil touring machine. Theirs is a pairing you could not have foreseen but at the lyrics famously go: “Once in a while you get shown the light … In the strangest of places if you look at it right.” (TEK)

Book of the Day:

I’m a sucker for frameworks (and some might call me an overthinker), so this book Am I Overthinking This looks perfect. Lots more pages are available in this My Modern Met post. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Todd (TEK)

PS - Noah here. I’ve started a new company and we are looking for a sr. backend engineer to join the team. If you are one of those or know anyone great, please share. Dinner’s on me at a restaurant of your choice if you help us find someone.

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