Night of The Living Dead: Dead & Company At Jiffy Lube Live, Bristow, Virginia
If you went to bed the night of July 5, 2015 listening to the last chords of “Attics of My Life,” you might be forgiven for feeling a little confused.The Grateful Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” tour concluded at Chicago’s Soldier Field and it seemed like all was said and done. Imagine the surprise then that you can still see the Dead in a town near you.
If an era had sunsetted, it seemed an odd time to do so given that it came twenty years after Jerry Garcia’s death. .But then again, from the get go, Fare Thee Well never really felt like the last time. As shows were being announced, rumors were swirling that a tour was being planned with guitarist John Mayer joining Bob Weir. Since November, they have paired together with original drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart in a new version called Dead & Company.
Weir has fronted various incarnations in a post-Garcia world with original bassist Phil Lesh and as Further and the Other Ones. They even ventured to use the words “The Dead” for a short time. Today, minus Lesh, Weir stands below the drummers alongside Mayer, and is flanked by keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and bassist Oteil Burbridge to his right. In 2016 it’s the company he keeps.
The odyssey that has lasted over fifty years, has touched baby boomers, Generation X, and millenials though the constant of time, tie-dyed shirts, off-key harmonies and extended jams. Onstage at Jiffy Lube Live amphitheater outside of Washington, D.C., the tradition was honored over two sets that lasted nearly three hours.
As the band members walked unannounced to the stage, Mayer led the troupe with his hands pointed up together and bowing his head in appreciation to awaiting fans in the front pit. With a nod to Weir, Mayer slipped naturally into a lazily funky groove of “Cold Rain & Snow.” Mayer’s boyish face reminds of another era and Weir’s once perennially teenage looks now overrun by his thick white hair and graying beard.
The stoic Weir stares but never smiles and it all has the effect of someone who’s seemingly just been released from years of captivity. But his voice is still stubbornly strong . He took over Garcia’s duties in “New Speedway Boogie” with suspenseful storytelling and a rasp that had both bark and bite. The one time ranch hand then regaled us with narration like a spoken story in “El Paso,” the Western ballad of Mary Robbins with Mayer painting the panoramic guitar accents against the fills of Weir’s subtle but lush and always present rhythm guitar.
In the post-Garcia world, the bands that have graced the stage have jammed faithfully but rarely been magical. When Trey Anastasio played on the Fare Thee Well shows, he added spunk and spirit and a presence that had previously been missing. Like Anastasio, Mayer is technically adept and secure enough that he can be himself and not worry about having to be Garcia.
Mayer’s restrained energy was almost deceiving. He displayed both modesty and humility and deference not to over dazzle. But his poignant and piercing licks reached a peak during “Candy Man” as the tempo changed several times and like in “Viola Lee Blues” later in the second set, the intensity of the jam escalated.
The swathe of keys and drum brushes and Weir’s rhythm guitar is a like a palette of colors against which Mayer soars. In the dreamy soundscape of “Birdsong,” the band’s nuanced playing was like a canvas for Mayer who was a willing accomplice to direct the jam.
Mayer reverently looked at Weir who called an audible during and brought Mayer back to sing the chorus. In the first set’s closer “Don’t Ease Me In,” Mayer’s inner fandom found himself bobbing up and down like a pogo stick, evidencing a smile that couldn’t break Weir’s intense but dazed gaze.
When the band came back from a break between sets, Weir led with a dramatic reading of “Lost Sailor” and a funky “Saint of Circumstance.” Mayer had barely had time to switch guitars before the band began what would be an eighteen-minute jam of “Viola Lee Blues” with Mayer playing at his most fluid and frenzied and the band alternating tempos and runs as if through osmosis. Mayer seemed almost like he was jogging in place and looked up at one point smiling as if to say, “Am I really here playing with this band?”
“Inspiration!” Weir barked out during what felt like the symphonic climax of the opus “Terrapin Station” and all of its ragged harmonies that followed. The band left during “Terrapin Station.” Left to his own devices, drummer Hart who wore a t-shirt emblazoned with The Rhythm Devils, held court with his own percussion workshop with Kreutzmann and Burbridge. The ritualistic “Drums” that felt like more interesting blend of tribal rhythms overlaid with sounds that conjured Kraftwerk and hip hop simultaneously. The cacophony ended with a clipped sample of President Kennedy’s famous line “Ask not” cut off from its full reading.
Coming back onstage and into “Space,” Mayer cast a blues groove with ancestral delta roots against Weir’s accents, cascading into the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence.” Weir summoned a growl during “Sugar Magnolia” that closed the show. Mayer opened “Black Muddy River” with a heartfelt guitar intro and saved the evening’s most soulful vocal for the show’s sole encore.
“Is that the beginning, middle or end of the song?” one of my friends said she asked herself during the show. Perhaps Mayer hoped for the same which is the whole point of why the band still is playing. This may not be your father’s Dead nor is it your grandfather’s. Whether Weir gets to the the amorphous “next plateau” he’s described aspirationally (and whatever that may be), this is music still worth seeking out any night–and company worth keeping.