The continuing exploits of Dead & Company are a reminder that loving The Grateful Dead has become an increasingly complicated proposition ever since Jerry Garcia's death in 1995.
In 1998, the surviving members of the band began dusting off the old tunes and performing as The Other Ones, with guest guitarists filling in for the departed bandleader. In 2003, The Other Ones started billing themselves simply as The Dead, taking one more turn around the wheel and then knocking it off until 2008, when they reemerged with Gov't Mule/Allman Brothers Band guitarist Warren Haynes for one more tour. After that, founding members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh splintered off to start yet another Dead legacy band, Furthur, which choogled along up until the beginning of 2014.
Of course, in 2015, the four surviving Grateful Dead members celebrated the original band's fiftieth anniversary with Fare Thee Well, a short run of mega-shows. Joining them were The Dead/Other Ones/Furthur keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, early nineties Grateful Dead auxiliary member Bruce Hornsby on piano, and Phish fretmeister Trey Anastasio in the hot seat. A few months later, Dead & Company played their first show, featuring a lineup of original members Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, former Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge, Chimenti, and John Mayer on guitar and vocals. And they've been at it ever since.
At no point has it been possible to fault Lesh, Weir, Kreutzmann, and Hart for wanting to keep the fire burning. Garcia may have been the star of the band, but what they achieved together would have been impossible without each member's contributions, and the survivors retain just as much claim on the legacy as their late leader.
How Deadheads feel about all the post-Garcia ensembles has always depended on the push and pull between the perpetuation of the group's improvisatory frisson and unassailable repertoire on the one hand, and on the other, the willingness to sit through a long string of Garcia substitutes and Lesh's ill-advised insistence on vocalizing.
The latter is a non-issue in the Lesh-less Dead & Company, and while no one can really replace Lesh's transcendent bass lines any more than Garcia's guitar, Burbridge does a damn fine job on his own terms. And if Chimenti isn't the man for the keyboard stool by now, nobody is. Weir and the drummers have doubled down on their commitment to the music on the band's most recent tours, which leaves only the X-factor of Mayer, occupying the least enviable job in rock 'n' roll: replacing the irreplaceable.
There's no way to win when you're standing in for Jerry Garcia. To his credit, however, Mayer doesn't really try to emulate him, opting instead to try to capture a bit of Garcia's aura without aping his style. He's an undeniably excellent guitarist; not only does he have plenty of technical facility, he's also great at turning out concise, visceral melodic phrases, and he knows how to rock out when it's called for.
That said, an enormous part of the reason The Grateful Dead worked was that Garcia was not merely a great player, but one of the most gifted improvisers ever to front a rock band. And for all of Mayer's considerable assets as a musician, when it comes to the extended improv that's responsible for much of the band's magic, he's not really able to sustain a long enough stream of interesting ideas for the other band members to bounce off of. As a vocalist, he's serviceable, but his throaty, blues-informed style frequently feels ill-suited to the songs he's required to sing. No reasonable person expects Mayer to sing like Garcia, but its unlikely anybody's looking to learn what it might sound like if Dave Matthews fronted the Dead.
That doesn't mean Dead & Company don't deliver an enjoyable experience. There's still plenty of chemistry onstage, and those tunes won't wear out under any circumstances. What you come away with depends on what you bring with you. If you arrive expecting an act of musical necromancy that brings The Grateful Dead as the world once knew them back to life, you'll inevitably be disappointed.
But if, on the other hand, you attend a Dead & Company concert seeking a contemporary extension of that phenomenon, to revisit the jubilant realm of the Deadheads, or simply to have a fun evening watching some world-class musicians playing the bulletproof tunes that some of them helped bring into the world, all will be well.