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.”