Like a lot of kids who grew up listening to classic rock, I eventually discovered American Beauty. No, I don't mean the Sam Mendes/Alan Ball movie. I mean the Grateful Dead album. I bought American Beauty off of iTunes my freshman year of college. While the vast majority of my teenage classic rock education came from digging through my dad's massive CD collection, I discovered the Dead on my own. They were a little too hippy for my dad's tastes. But, god, for a good four month period, American Beauty was the only album I listened to. Its mix of rock, folk, and psychedelia was exactly what I was looking for as someone who'd grown up on Pink Floyd, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Band.
But as much as I worship that album, I'm not a Dead Head. I love American Beauty and Workingman's Dead but (and this is going to be the most heretical thing I can say on the planet) I think they are an overrated live band. Jamming out with extended guitar solos and crazy feedback loops for two hours isn't a replacement for actual songs. Yes, I went there. I can enjoy jam bands (I'm a fan of early Dave Matthews Band) but the songs should always come first, and as someone who once won a 16 DVD set of Grateful Dead concerts in a contest, I can tell you that creating a psychedelic wall of sound is their deal live & I'm sure that's the greatest thing on the planet if you're tripping your balls off on acid, but if not, it all starts to bleed together by the end.
And that's why I'm so happy that John Mayer has joined the Grateful Dead. Dead & Company is the new Grateful Dead-adjacent project (the other notable one being Phil Lesh & Friends) that emerged in the wake of the Fare Thee Well tour that we got last year that was supposed to be the end of the Dead. Of course, that tour was such a mega success that the remaining members of the Dead that they'd be crazy to walk away from the music, the fans, and (let's be honest) the money . And so Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann decided to enlist John Mayer (and a handful of other musicians) to form Dead & Company and head out on tour including a spot at Bonnaroo this summer.
It's not especially hip to admit that I like John Mayer. He's become (alongside Dave Matthews) a poster child for the white bro alt rock scene of the last twenty or so years (his debut LP, No Such Thing, turns 15 years old this year). And in all fairness to Mayer's haters, I get it. His lyricism can often careen uncomfortably close to "nice guy" toxic masculinity bulls***, and everything about his public persona screams of entitled womanizer. But, I could also listen to this man sing and play guitar all day.
John Mayer has rightfully earned his reputation as the Millennial generation's Clapton as a guitarist. He is one of the living embodiments of the notion that great guitar work isn't how fast you're playing the guitar or how complex your guitar work is (although Mayer packs more than his fair share of jaw-dropping technicality into his guitar work) but it's how unique the melodies you craft are and as a purveyor of smooth, slow-hands guitar rock, there hasn't been anybody doing quite what Mayer does with his guitar in decades (though there have been plenty of boring wannabes who see Mayer's schtick and think they're suddenly revolutionary cause they're singing balladds on the acoustic guitar). Throw in Mayer's silky and soulful voice, and it seems difficult to shortchange his immense talent in all facets of songwriting except for lyricism (which is not to discount lyricism as something that's very important and as an area where he could always use major improvement).
But when I heard that Mayer was joining the Dead, I was a little skeptical at first (as many folks were). His soulful guitar pop-rock seemed like a far cry from "Box of Rain." I had no question that he could easily fill Jerry Garcia's shoes on the guitar and I assumed his voice would an interesting layer of new textures to the Dead's sound, but it just seemed like a stretch to have him on the same stage as Bob Weir and Mickey Hart. But he stopped by The Tonight Show last night with the band to perform with Dead & Company and my concerns were immediately assauged.
Maybe a proper Grateful Dead live show will be different, but the performances of "Shakedown Street" and "Brown Eyed Woman" on Fallon were precisely what I would want from a Dead performance. Room for improvisation and jamming (Mayer was practically making love to his guitar during a breakdown in "Brown Eyed Woman") but a dedication to playing the songs without engaging in a lot of superfluous bulls***. The Grateful Dead were exceptional songwriters at their peak. Gorgeous southern folk rock melodies and mesmerizing hooks, and maybe it's the presence of Mayer, but the band felt centered...they felt focused and the songs were guiding the performance and not jams.
I will reserve my final judgment til after the Bonnaroo set and I have a chance to witness Dead & Company in person for myself (an evening I'm highly anticipating), but listening to Bob Weir and John Mayer trade vocals back and forth on "Shakedown Street" and seeing Mayer anchor the tightest psychedelic folk groove on "Brown Eyed Woman" has me feeling more excited about my trip down to the Farm than anything since the lineup was announced last month.