The Grateful Dead will not die.
Frontman and figurehead Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995 but the Dead have refused to die. Every once in a while, the various surviving members find new players and hit the road under new monikers.
This summer, the Dead celebrated their 50th anniversary with five stadiums concerts dubbed “Fare Thee Well” featuring kindred singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio of Phish. This fall three surviving Dead members — singer/guitarist Bob Weir and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann — have hooked up with pop star John Mayer as lead guitarist and co-lead singer calling themselves Dead and Company on a 21-city tour that included Minneapolis’ Target Center on Saturday.
On the surface, this might sound as preposterous as, say, Justin Timberlake fronting the Rolling Stones after Mick Jagger disappears. After all, Mayer, 38, is a Grammy-winning singer of cheesy, sappy pop songs and a sometimes guitar hero best known for his blues work.
But once Dead and Company got cooking Saturday, it was almost as good as a good ol’ Grateful Dead concert.
Mayer is not Garcia and never will pretend to be. On Saturday, he not only was a respectful steward of the Dead canon but he certainly has reenergized this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band, whose core members range from 68 to 72 years of age. (Dead bassist Phil Lesh, 75, is not involved with this lineup.)
Mayer may have been caught up in a Garcia-inspired jazz/bluegrass/rock vibe on such early selections as “Jack Straw” and “Row Jimmy.” But he was his own man on a lumbering, workmanlike reading of the Jimmy Reed’s blues chestnut “Big Boss Man,” which is more in his wheelhouse.
Mayer found his fit with Dead and Company midway through the opening 75-minute set. There was a striking jauntiness to his guitar solo on the country-tinged “Ramble on Rose.” And then on the ensuing “Hell in a Bucket,” he helped the band find a Stones-like grit and edginess.
Weir, whose stage persona usually ranges from laid-back to blasé, sang with a newfound passion and Mayer tore it up on his electric six-string. Stage lights swirled, Mayer’s guitar soared and the 10,000 Deadheads — both old hippies and a new tie-dyed generation — in attendance got their musical high. (Judging from the aroma in the arena, there were other crowd sources of getting high.)
Next Johnny B. Goode jumped into the engineer’s seat for “Casey Jones” and, with his guitar and voice, kept picking up speed, driving this runaway train to places Garcia never went before.
During the longer and more satisfying second set, it was unquestionable that this has turned into Uncle John Mayer’s Band. He seized control on the crisp opener “Cumberland Blues,” found a gorgeous lyricism on the brilliant “Scarlet Begonias” and danced a little soft shoe during “Uncle John’s Band” when his jazzy/jammy guitar playing admirably landed in Garcia territory.
Every once in a while, Mayer forgot where he was and struck some guitar-star poses, jumped up and down, and stood with his mouth agape. In the second half, he didn’t need to turn to Weir for direction or approval as he’d done a few times in the opening segment.
Except for a long noodling intro on “Jack Straw” and the indulgent “Drums” duet and spaced-out guitar jam “Space,” Dead and Company was fairly efficient. The group — which also features ex-Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti — seemed tighter and more focused than vintage Dead. Unlike at old Dead concerts, there were no long pauses between numbers for guitar tuning or intra-band chats.
In the end, what’s obvious about the legacy of the Grateful Dead is that it’s all about the spirit, the songs and the sense of community. So maybe 20 years from now, Mayer will be carrying on in a band called Dead and Never Gone.