By Brian Ives
Grateful Dead guitarist/singer Bob Weir and his new musical collaborator John Mayer recently held a teleconference to discuss their upcoming tour as Dead and Company. During the event, they talked about how the ad hoc Grateful Dead reunion group got together, and how long they plan to go on for.
Weir said that the seeds of Dead and Company were sown when John Mayer was guest hosting CBS’s Late Late Show in the interim between the end of Craig Ferguson’s tenure as host, and before James Corden took over. Mayer invited Weir to perform with him on the show.
“We were going to do, like, two songs,” Weir said. “And we did a sound check that lasted about an hour and a half and touched on those two songs briefly and then just went and kept going. And [CBS] finally had to unplug us, they had a show to produce. And so, the idea came up to put together a band.”
Mayer said that he had to put in a lot of work before starting to work with the rest of the band, which includes Grateful Dead drummer/percussionists Micky Hart and Billy Kreutzmann, along with bassist Oteil Burbridge (formerly of the Allman Brothers Band) and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti. “I took most of 2015 off from touring and even recording,” Mayer said. He knew he could learn the huge amount of songs necessary to perform with the former members of the Grateful Dead. “I knew that it could be done, but not without a really, really large amount of time to do it, in terms of learning all the songs, and also figuring out sort of that really subtle combination of what is absolutely inherent and native to the music, and what can be changed, so that whatever I’m doing seems really authentic to me.” He said that by the time he knew that the tour would likely happen, he had about 100 days to prepare.
“There were songs I knew; there were songs I didn’t know. And so I kind of built this assembly line in my head of learning the songs that I knew, and really listening hardcore to the songs that I didn’t. For the most part, I was just going on the same ride that every other Deadhead goes on, where they discovered the music, one song at a time. So it’s what I call sort of ‘shaking the big Polaroid’ with this music. It was a lot of learning of songs, and then it was a lot of really trying to get the combination right, like I said.”
During the media event, Mayer admitted that he didn’t grow up a Deadhead, but he was certainly aware of the iconic group. And he wasn’t sure how fans would react to his presence in the new lineup: “Certainly, I wasn’t sure how it was going to be received at all, but I knew that in the nucleus of it, that there was some authenticity. There was a lot of authenticity. Musically, it’s exactly what I was hoping it would be; 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. So it couldn’t have been better for me.”
Mayer also discussed the status of his solo career: “I feel like I’m at this point where the shape of my career is sort of in line with the shape of who I am as a person, which is a little broader than just having a solo career. I’m really, really thankful for the solo career, giving me the opportunity to be able to leave the solo career, and then come back to it, and have it still be there. So I feel like I have the best job in music right now. It’s a little bit boundless.”
He notes that he’s not under the same pressure that he was in the 2000’s to churn out hit after hit: “It’s not necessarily a guy trying to make a record to go to number one to continue to keep that machine going. It’s really me now. And I thank Bob and Mickey and Billy and Jeff and Oteil for the opportunity to really open the door and walk outside. It’s very difficult to get the strength to decide to put something aside that’s become sort of your life. It’s what you know. It is the routine to make a record and tour, make a record and tour, make a record and tour, in terms of just keeping this sort of world domination scheme going. But the music that these guys make, the music of The Grateful Dead, made this [opportunity] such a no-brainer in terms of me understanding exactly why it was I wanted to put a [solo] record on hold. And it just is like another – it’s just another badge on the sort of musical lapel, you know?”
“Most people [who] are solo artists: the solo [career] is the very top of the pyramid. And interestingly for me now, the solo [career] is underneath the top of the pyramid, and the top of the pyramid is just ‘musician.’ And that is so freeing and beautiful. I’m not held to any record cycle. I’m not held to any pop cultural demand right now. And to be this many years into a career and still be discovering how to play the guitar is, I think, the sign that I’m really on the right path, in terms of being a musician. And it’s hard to commit to being a musician when you become successful; you want to keep so many other balls in the air. So to be more sort of practical in the answer, I put [my solo] record aside last April, and just started to learn all this music, and came back to the album in January, which was actually really good to take time to step away from it and listen back to it again, and decide what are the songs that have stood the test of time. And so now, I’m back in the studio making the record. I’ll finish it by the end of the year. And this year will have been a year that I was both in this band touring, and finishing my record, so that next year will be a solo artist sort of a year. But I will never close the door on Dead & Company, ever. And I think as long as there’s a desire to do it, I know how to carve time out. I think it’s always going to be worth doing. I will do Dead & Company as long fans want it, and as long it still feels like there’s something left on the table to try and play and get right and explore. So for me, I couldn’t be happier as a musician and a career artist now.”
“Well actually, we had decided previous to the Fare Thee Well concerts that we’re going to do [this],” Weir explained. “At least we were going to run it up the flagpole, because I played with John, like I said, in January of last year. And it became apparent to us that this was a rabbit that we wanted to chase. And so we were already talking about it. And we brought Mickey and Bill into the conversation. And Phil is getting older, and has less than limited interest in hitting the road anymore. So we knew we were looking in a different direction there. And so we got to talking. We had already, by the time we hit the Fare Thee Well concerts, we had already auditioned some bass players, and had a pretty solid notion of what we were up to. But we were loath to talk about it at the time, because there was still way too much undecided about it, and it really hadn’t much taken shape, and besides, you don’t want to be talking about your next project [when you’re on a current project]. We were just sort of feeling our way into Dead & Company without putting a lot of thought to it, while we were concentrating on the 50th.”
One question many fans have is: How long will this particular collective go on for? Well, Weir shared a vision of the band that wouldn’t even include Hart, Kreutzmann or himself. “This is the first I’ve actually expounded on it in the press, I think,” he said. During a performance on the last tour, he had a vision of the future. “I looked over at John, and it was 20 years later. And John was almost fully gray. I looked over at Oteil and his hair was white. I looked over to my left and Jeff’s hair was all gray. Looked back at the drummers, and it was a couple of new guys, younger guys, doing a great job. I looked back at the back of my head, and it was some kid in his twenties, delivering with fire and aplomb. And then that same vision came back to me later that night in a dream. I came out of a dream, woke up having seen that same thing, only in greater detail. And it changed my whole view of what it is that we’re up to.”
They also discussed the possibility of this incarnation of the group recording new music. Mayer said, “I’m open to anything that – how do I put this – that could really take strong root on a musical level, that can really validate itself on a musical level. If it can state its case for the reason it needs to exist, then I would absolutely jump to doing it. I would actually be very interested to see what the band could do as composers and as improvisers. I’m open to anything that this band could or wanted to do, as long as it answered the constant question, ‘Why?’ And if it has a strong answer, I would love to do it.”
Weir added, “Using John’s imagery, I’ll just say that I think it’s fertile ground. We have a lot of ground to cover before we get to that place, but I think we’re getting there. We don’t have any immediate plans, but I know it’s in the back of everybody’s heads.”
Finally, Weir answered Radio.com‘s question, about the late Merle Haggard. Haggard, of course, was famous for the 1969 song “Okie from Muskogee,” seen by many as an anti-hippie anthem. The Dead, however, remained fans of the Hag, and recorded his classic 1968 song “Mama Tried.”
“I listened to a lot of country when I was a kid,” Weir said. “If there was clunker song on the rock and roll station, often times the country button was the first one I hit, because there wasn’t a huge a difference and still isn’t, for that matter, a big difference between the country presentation and the rock and roll presentation: [it’s] small electric bands.”
“So I was listening to Merle Haggard and Buck Owens and George Jones, Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty and Johnny Cash. And when he came out with ‘Okie from Muskogee,’ I had a pretty strong suspicion at the time that he was laughing all the way to the bank. I had a pretty strong suspicion that he was smoking pot on the back of his tour bus, and he was just – he came up with a character, as a writer, as a storyteller. Now any artist is a storyteller, first and foremost. He has painted a picture of a character, and it resonated with a lot of folks. But that was not a statement of who he was. As a writer, you don’t know why this character presents himself to you and lets you color him in. And you don’t even ask why. You just go with it. And I knew at the time… Christ, I was in my early 20s, if that old, when the song came out. But I knew instinctively that was what he was doing. And so when I was listening to it on the radio, I was going with it. I was living and breathing with that character, as he was letting the character express himself on the recording. I wasn’t busy being judgmental about ‘Why is this guy writing this kind of stuff?’ I don’t judge other writers by what they choose to write about, what stories they choose to tell, because a writer often doesn’t have that choice.”
You can see some Dead & Co. footage at this year’s Fathom Events’ “Meet Up at the Movies” event, which will feature a showing of a previously unreleased Grateful Dead concert from Sullivan Stadium, Foxboro, MA July 2, 1989. For more information on that event, go here.
Meanwhile, Dead & Company’s next tour kicks off June 10 in Charlotte, NC. Get more info on the tour at the band’s website.