Wisely, guitarist John Mayer does not try to copy Jerry Garcia’s memorable licks, solos, tones, and styles.
By Scott McLennan
There’s no replicating the house that Jerry built, but Dead & Co. is a mighty fine tour guide through the singular sound that the Grateful Dead created over its original 30-year run.
Dead & Co. returned to Boston’s Fenway Park on Saturday for the first of a two-night stand, and the band did not disappoint. Led by Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir and featuring original drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, Dead & Co. draws refreshing energy from guitarist John Mayer, keyboard player Jeff Chimenti, and bassist Oteil Burbridge.
The story is well known: In 1965 a bunch of San Francisco Bay musician/misfits come together around the rewards of LSD and wild musical exploration. Unpredictably, they became counterculture icons. The Grateful Dead created a sturdy catalog of songs that absorbs and refracts the American experience through a brand of rock ‘n’ roll that reflects a host of influences: jazz, blues, country & western, urban, and rustic. But with the 1995 death of Jerry Garcia — visionary guitarist, singer, and songwriter as well as a leader who hated to lead — Grateful Dead ceased to be. Ever since, the band’s surviving members have recast the music in various fashions, stoking and feeding a multi-generational audience that still embraces the music and the uplifting idea that Grateful Dead stands for something bigger than just a great bunch of songs.
The major plot twist with Dead & Co. is the inclusion of Mayer, the anti-Jerry. Mayer is pretty and polished; he’s poised and professional. Garcia was brilliant but a bit of an unmade bed; he played with abandon in the hopes of reaching an emotional high in the music, often risking crashing into a musical cul-de-sac.
Wisely, Mayer does not try to copy Garcia’s memorable licks, solos, tones, and styles. And that non-slavish approach to the past serves Dead & Co. well, though it is still simpatico enough to please those who have been listening to Grateful Dead music for decades or are just getting into the tunes and their attendant scene.
Dead & Co. began Saturday with an hour-long first set that ambled through seven songs, tapping into several different genres and styles. Acknowledging the march of time, Dead & Co. cut the tempos to many of the selections plucked from the Grateful Dead songbook, though the band could still ratchet up the energy when needed.
A sprawling read of the mellow “Ramble On Rose” slowly built into the first set’s highlight. The band generated a full head of steam with a Mayer-sung country-blues flavored “Sugaree” and then launched into a jazzy set closer, an elongated version of “Passenger,” with Weir adding new lyrics to the middle of a song that first appeared on 1977’s Terrapin Station album.
True to Grateful Dead concert formatting, the show’s second set was longer, jammier, and more freewheeling.
A snappy run through the Motown staple “Dancing in the Streets” set off the second set. Then the band welcomed in some weirdness with the angular and intricate pairing of “Help on the Way” and “Slipknot,” which put the spotlight on Mayer’s guitar chops.
Weir whipped up some biblical mysticism with “Estimated Prophet” and then led the band into a rich and probing version of “Eyes of the World.” A techno-laden drum jam popped up in the middle of the song before it rolled back into the summery groove of “Eyes of the World” — at this point, Dead & Co. achieved a most Dead-like state.
The ballad “Standing on the Moon” was a homestretch standout, giving way to “Franklin’s Tower,” a song that the Grateful Dead normally attached to the earlier-played “Help on the Way” and “Slipknot.” The change made for an entertaining shake-up of expectations on Saturday.
And Dead & Co. is about dealing with expectations. What the Grateful Dead created with Garcia is unrepeatable, a unique combustibility that, when the band was firing on all cylinders in its live shows, transported musicians and listeners to transcendental places. Dead & Co. is less likely to deliver that kind of epiphany, but the group is doing an admirable job of keeping the spirit of the Grateful Dead’s original trip alive.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.