On Friday night, the audience at the Verizon Center witnessed a marriage of blues virtuosity and jam-band perfection as John Mayer took the stage alongside former Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. A diverse crowd of almost 18,000 featured youthful fans of Mayer bonding with the typically older set of “deadheads” — ever-fervent supporters of the psychedelic rock group — over the course of an almost four-hour show.
Dead and Company, an offshoot of the legendary Grateful Dead, represents both a departure from Mayer’s solo work and a continuation of the Grateful Dead legacy after the group officially called it quits this past summer following a series of shows commemorating its 50th anniversary. While many were initially skeptical of Mayer’s ability to fill the legendary shoes of the late Jerry Garcia, Mayer has proven his ability to both integrate with the group, into which he was brought in after auditioning for the role, and deliver a near-flawless interpretation of Garcia’s work imbued with his own personal flair.
The set kicked off with the energetic “Truckin,” off the group’s 1970 album, “American Beauty.” A relatively simple stage made it clear from the outset that the focus would be on the music. In typical jam-band fashion, the song was stretched to more than double its studio duration. The sing-along favorite included multiple solos featuring Mayer’s signature melodic style coupled with the eccentricities of the late Jerry Garcia.
By the time “West L.A. Fadeaway” came around two songs later, Mayer had lost his jacket, and the group had come into its own. Featuring an emotional interlude by Bob Weir with a song said to be about the death of comedian John Belushi, the group slowed everything down and highlighted the mellow, catchy vibes that have attracted so many over the years. The song’s call-and-response nature proved that 50 years on, the group had lost none of its sharpness.
Following a 20-minute intermission between sets, the band kicked off its most memorable run of the night. The 40-minute trio comprised of “Eyes of the World,” “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain” was met with wild applause, plumes of smoke and singing voices. While the three songs are normally easily differentiable, the band’s razor-sharp improvisations blurred the lines between one song and the next, leaving longtime Grateful Dead fans trapped between silent awe and euphoric vocal participation.
The incredible ensuing ovation was met by the band walking offstage, save for drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. Hart, a musicologist with the Smithsonian Institute, commissioned a group of scientists to measure the properties of live waves from planets, stars, nebulae and galaxies using complex algorithms in a process called sonification. The result of this project could be heard in a 15-minute solo, composed of “Drums” and the aptly named “Space” that featured hypnotically pounding drums played over the trance-inducing harmony of space.
The final songs of the evening’s second set, the Bob Weir-penned “Looks Like Rain” and a cover of the Wilson Pickett ballad “In the Midnight Hour,” marked a sonic deviation from the group’s traditional hippie-inspired bliss. The soothing chords of Mayer’s guitar and the fatherly tone of Bob Weir’s voice lulled the audience into a synchronized sway during “Looks Like Rain,” and the band kicked into bluesy high gear for “In the Midnight Hour.”
One of the Grateful Dead’s more pop-inspired tunes, “Touch of Grey,” provided an extremely optimistic finale to a show that, for many, may be the last time they see beloved figures Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann take the stage together. It is often known by its sing-along refrain: “I will get by, I will get by, I will get by, I will survive.”
Overall, the show was a remarkable display of artistic ability. Evident beyond the soaring piano, guitar, bass and drum solos, which demonstrated the individual talent of each artist, the greatest accomplishment lay in the show’s subtle intricacies. The musicians’ devotion to the beloved songs that have carried generations through good times and bad was evident in their ability to respond precisely to each other’s cues while giving each moment a personal flourish.
Following the Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well tour this past summer, Dead and Company is as close to seeing one of the most famous bands of all time, and the band that gave birth to the jam-band genre, as one can get. However, this show was no consolation prize. Featuring the core of the Dead doing what they do best alongside the enigmatic and supremely talented John Mayer, Dead and Company’s performance Friday night was simply stunning.
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