The Dead Rise Again

I'll tell you where the four winds dwell
In Franklin's tower there hangs a bell
It can ring, turn night to day
Ring like fire when you lose your way

'Franklin's Tower'

Jerry Garcia / Robert Hunter

Is Steve Jobs a hidden godfather of the rather spectacularly revitalized 21st century version of the Grateful Dead?

It's 21 years now since the world learned of the passing of Jerry Garcia, the wildly inventive explorer of American music and benevolent icon of the counter-culture as leader of San Francisco's house band, the Grateful Dead. Yet future prospects for his and the Dead's rich and varied musical legacy may be stronger than ever.

In this summer of quite dreadful politics in the US and around the world, one of my very favorite things has been to replace my usual early morning coffee listen to the BBC while reading mostly bad news with recordings and video, often from the night before, of a summer tour by a seemingly unlikely new/old band. (The band also did a lot of live webcasts, a few of which I caught in real time.) The Dead & Company tour ran from June till the end of July, headlining the annual Bonnaroo Festival, hitting the Atlantic seaboard and hop-scotching in the middle of the country before winding up with a half-dozen shows up and down the Dead's home turf Pacific Coast, selling out big amphitheaters and baseball stadiums all over.

Dead & Company consists of three of the surviving four '60s era members of the venerable Grateful Dead, which only last year celebrated its 50th anniversary with five "Fare Thee Well" shows seemingly marking a record-setting financial end to the band, joined by three younger members. Original rhythm guitarist and co-lead vocalist Bob Weir and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman are joined by longtime Dead sideman Jeff Chimenti on keyboards, ace Allman Brothers Band bass guitarist Oteille Burbridge, and, somewhat incongruously taking over the late Jerry Garcia's role as lead guitarist and co-lead vocalist, pop star John Mayer.

While I've enjoyed some of his music, I wasn't sure what to make of Mayer's presence in the iconic Garcia's spot. Did bandleader Bob Weir, a founding member as a high schooler with dyed-in-the-wool San Franciscan Jerry Garcia of what became the Grateful Dead, recruit Mayer for the renewed Dead? Or did Mayer recruit Weir? We'll get to that, and the probably pivotal role of Steve Jobs, in a few moments.

Dead & Company perform 'Franklin's Tower,' an upbeat, anthemic jam fest inspired by Ben Franklin and the Liberty Bell.

A multi-Grammy winning hitmaker with a raft of catchy singles and top 10 albums to his credit, Mayer has been even better known as a lothario of glamorous celebrity women, sort of a way too talkative cross between Warren Beatty and Jackson Browne, and one who has been badly burned in the tabloids as a result. Mayer's music seemed pleasant enough, and I'd seen him jam impressively on electric guitar with the heavyweight likes of Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and Stephen Stills, but taking over the history-laden Jerry Garcia role in the most legendary of jam bands, one of the enduring icons of the 1960s, is a very big lift.

But Mayer turns out to be, not to put too fine a point on it, truly outstanding in the role. Think of him of a musical equivalent of Daniel Craig to Sean Connery's James Bond; he's not better, and there can be no replacing the sheer chutzpah and mojo of the original invention, but this version is not only damn good but arguably more appropriate for the time. (Of course, while that analogy works, it's more than a little glib. For Jerry Garcia didn't simply, not that it's at all simple, create a character and mystique, he was the principal innovator of an entire musical world that is far more timeless than those who imagine the Dead as a band anchored in the 1960s understand.)

And this multi-generational band of men in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s turns out to be a tremendous outfit, powering through three-hour concerts with an endlessly intriguing blend of rock, jazz, blues, country and western, folk, bluegrass, elements of world music and, yes, psychedelia. It's a rich musical stew, and amply represents what Jerry Garcia told Rolling Stone not long before his demons got the best of his too short life, that his and the Dead's aim was to explore every genre of American music. He even wanted to play Gershwin tunes. Wouldn't that have been something?

I've always liked the Grateful Dead, but in my pantheon of legendary California bands, which of course must trail the Beatles on my all-time list of favorite bands (but not by all that much), the Dead have ranked a little behind Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and the Eagles. I was too young to catch the Dead in the '60s, though I did see them around town some as a kid and thought them to be pretty cool and kindly characters. But I did see the Dead play several times around the San Francisco Bay Area in their '70s heyday -- in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco -- including the epic long night's journey into day that was the closing of San Francisco's Winterland on New Year's Eve '78/New Year's Day '79. Dumped out bleary-eyed and exhausted if still exhilarated on the sidewalk that chilly, foggy New Year's morning, I vaguely remember eating breakfast but am not sure if it was at Zim's, Mel's, or just some Denny's.

Which gets at the cliche issue of following the Dead, i.e., being a Deadhead. You didn't have to be stoned, and that was hardly the extent of the experience, but it largely went with the territory. Since that's not really my thing on any regular basis, the Dead and their genuinely intriguing and inventive repertoire had a bit of an asterisk attached, though I loved to play their music on the long drives I once undertook at the drop of hat.

So I had some of their albums, caught their wonderful free concert in Golden Gate Park in memory of promoter Bill Graham, was pleased to meet Bob Weir when he played a benefit for Jerry Brown's last presidential campaign and Mickey Hart at Brown's gubernatorial inaugural, loved Jerry Garcia ties, and Cherry Garcia ice cream was my favorite, and so on. But their music, while important to me, wasn't as central as the others. Until the last couple of months.

This is the Grateful Dead's 'Uncle John's Band,' a song marking a big turn in the band's development in 1970, which Steve Jobs cited to his biographer not long before he died as the first example to come to mind of music from his childhood that holds up very strongly today.

Having not played the Dead, as it were, to death, unlike the case with other fave raves, I was able to listen with fresh ears while following along on this Dead & Company tour as a virtual Deadhead. On the road via smartphone, as it were. (One of the many great things about Garcia and his bandmates is that they encouraged "tapers." Once the music was performed in public, he viewed it as in the public domain. As a result, there is a vast trove of amazing recorded live material that has been freely available for decades, something now vastly accelerated with the Internet and the advent of Google.)

This renewed version of the Dead is generally tighter and slicker than the 20th century original, though no less into extended improvisation. They deliver three-hour concerts, no two of which are the same.

That's right, just like the Grateful Dead -- the band dropped "Grateful" from the name when Garcia passed away of a heart attack at a Marin County rehab center in 1995 -- Dead & Company play a different show at every concert.

Between their initial tour late last year and this, the renewed Dead have played 46 concerts, with just over half coming this summer. In these concerts, they've played a staggering 112 songs. Only two, the traditional psychedelic combo 'Drums/Space,' have been repeated in every show and those two are different every time.

No other song has been played more than 13 times in these 46 concerts. That includes Dead classics, actual hits like 'Truckin',' 'Touch of Grey,' and 'Uncle John's Band.'

This is the exact opposite approach from other legendary bands. Imagine the Rolling Stones not giving their fans 'Satisfaction,' or one of the Eagles' meticulous concerts not delivering up 'Take It Easy' or 'Hotel California.' It's unthinkable.

Yet here these guys are going several shows at a stretch ignoring their best-known signature songs.

As a result, it's endlessly fascinating to follow what they are doing. With this latest tour, each week brought several new favorite songs.

And though this band obviously is pretty well rehearsed, each rendition brings intriguing new improvisations.

For all the attention that one inevitably pays to the tight yet free-flowing and frequently exhilarating instrumental jams, the songs themselves are fascinating in their own right.

Although the band comes from the '60s -- formed in Palo Alto in 1965, the Dead became a quintessential San Francisco band in just a few years before decamping across the Golden Gate to bucolic Marin, their base for nearly 50 years -- the songs mostly have a timeless quality to them.

Many of the songs, with Robert Hunter as principal lyricist, sound as if they could have been written 150 years ago or last week, often with lyrics allusive and elusive, possibly meaning nothing more than face value, or everything you can imagine.

If a few of them sound like they may be right out of Harry Smith's fabled 'Anthology of American Folk Music,' that compendium of songs from "the old free/weird America" which fueled much of the folk music revival, well, maybe they are. "Leavin' Texas, fourth day of July/Sun so hot, clouds so low, the eagles filled the sky." Glenn Frey loved that.

Garcia, a talented art student and ex-soldier, was a natural for an emerging Bay Area folk scene. With a decided fascination for the electric guitar, he and his young friend Bob Weir came out of Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions to form a rock band called the Warlocks in early 1965.

Drawn inexorably to the quirky outlaw intellectualism of the Beat scene, they became the house band of Ken Kesey's Acid Tests around the Bay Area later that year and in the Bay Area and LA in 1966, adopting the Grateful Dead moniker in the process.

CIA mind manipulation experiments in the Bay Area, with which Kesey came into direct contact while studying at Stanford and working at the Veterans Administration, had the effect of letting LSD loose among avant garde elements. Eagerly adopted by novelist Kesey, ('One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest') and other Beats like the legendary Neal Casady (Dean Moriarity in Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road,' who lived for a time with the Dead, the drug spurred the growth of a burgeoning counter-culture movement.

The subsequent Summer of Love didn't last long, but its echoes reverberate still.

As it turns out, you don't have to drop acid or smoke pot to appreciate the Dead's musical accomplishments. You just have to be in the right frame of mind. For me, a little meditation to clear away the detritus and heighten clarity, coupled with plenty of good coffee while sifting through our largely troubling political news, more than suffices.

Dead & Company lay out a jazzy, blues jam version of the signature 'Truckin' which segues into 'He's Gone.'

As someone who thinks young folks today have a terribly deficient musical scene -- especially compared with movies, which are generally as good as ever, and television, which is actually much better -- I was mainly aware of John Mayer as something of a fixture at MacWorld. I knew he was a personal friend of Steve Jobs, an old acquaintance from my days working with Apple's longtime PR/marketing guru Regis McKenna.

So when Walter Isaacson's definitive 'Steve Jobs' (here's my take on the movie version) came out less than three weeks after Jobs's death in October 2011, I was struck by how Jobs went out of his way in one of his final interviews just a few months before his death to upbraid his young friend. Notably, Mayer is the only musician he criticizes, and certainly not on the basis of capability.

Musing with Isaacson about the artists on his personal iPod, the iTunes impresario, discussing how artists age, noted that some don't age well even when young.

"John Mayer is one of the best guitar players who's ever lived," Jobs declared, "and I'm just afraid he's blowing it big time."

Jobs went on to punch up the Mayer hit 'Gravity," about a guy who keeps on sabotaging his love.

Jobs reportedly shook his head as he listened to Mayer sing the telling lyrics, then commented: "I think he's a really good kid underneath, but he's just been out of control."

A message from beyond the grave from Steve Jobs, in a massively-selling biography. And you know that the famously blunt Jobs, who made a point of including it in this book on which he essentially collaborated with Isaacson, said the same thing to Mayer in private.

Just three paragraphs above his stunning truth bomb for Mayer, Jobs is asked what music from his childhood really holds up well today. Putting aside his trademark Bob Dylan and Beatles fixations, Jobs instead cites a song by artists a lot closer to home. You guessed it, the Grateful Dead.

The Grateful Dead perform Bob Weir and Robert Hunter's 'Jack Straw' on their pivotal '72 European tour. Garcia amiably voices the dumber of the two ne'erdowells in this song inspired by Weir's reading of John Steinbeck's 'Of Mice and Men.' Casual listeners mistake the driving roots rock song with powerful electric guitar solos as a party-time travelogue, but it's actually a traditional murder ballad with a title character out of old English myth.

'Uncle John's Band,' Jobs's first choice on his iPod before punching up Joni Mitchell's 'Both Sides Now,' is about retaining utopian ideals in the face of harsher realities, mirroring disheartening developments as the '60s gave way to the '70s. It is the first song on the first of two landmark Dead albums from 1970 -- 'Workingman's Dead' and 'American Beauty' -- which move beyond the band's usual instrumental improvs, such as the scifi experimentation of 'Dark Star,' to embrace the crafted songs and folk rock stylings of their good friends Crosby, Stills & Nash. In fact, CSN coached the Dead, who previously would rattle off some lyrics then dash away into long stretches of jamming, in the art of harmony singing.

As it happened, Mayer was already at work on a change-of-direction album, 2012's 'Born and Raised', visiting the the Laurel Canyon singer/songwriter tradition of, yes, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell, et al. The opening song actually name-checks both Mitchell and frequent CSN partner Neil Young, and Crosby & Nash contribute glistening harmonies to the title track.

After a big health scare around his voice prevented Mayer from singing live for two years, he followed up the number one hit album 'Born and Raised' with another Americana-oriented album called 'Paradise Valley.' The opening track 'Wildfire,' featuring a sprightly filigreed guitar which would sound right at home on, say, an upbeat 21st century Dead album, even refers to "dancing with the dead."

Mayer then spent more than a year touring here and on a few other continents, playing nearly a hundred shows, then began pulling together another album in late 2014. But his comments -- he was an inveterate tweeter -- made it clear that chasing the pop moment was becoming wearisome.

So, as fate, or something else, would have it, Mayer producer and record executive Don Was happened to have Bob Weir and Mickey Hart in his office at Hollywood's Capitol Tower in early 2015 and invited Mayer to drop by. Mayer was so effusive about the Dead's music that Weir sardonically quipped that he should do the Dead's PR.

Mayer then invited Weir on a late night CBS show he was guest hosting on which their musical simpatico became publicly apparent. A few weeks later, in early March 2015, Mayer spent a week in Weir's Marin studio jamming with Weir, Hart, and Kreutzmann. Longtime bassist Phil Lesh, the oldest of the surviving "core four" Dead, wasn't interested in more touring, preferring to call it quits with the already scheduled 50th anniversary shows though he continues to play his own shows from time to time.

The following month, Mayer put aside his solo project and began intensive practice of the very extensive Dead catalogue, something made even more complex by the band's free-flowing way with he material and the shadow of Jerry Garcia's performance.

In their official debut concert last Halloween at Madison Square Garden, the band opens up with 'Jack Straw' as their very first song and tear down the joint, with the new guitar combo of John Mayer and Bob Weir proving especially potent.

A year ago, and just a month after President Obama issued a proclamation and fans celebrated the seemingly terminal 50th anniversary 'Fare Thee Well' events in the Bay Area and Chicago (the last city in which Garcia appeared with the band), the new/renewed band was announced. The band played their official debut show last Halloween at Madison Square Garden, the first of three nights.

And John Mayer, a Berklee College of Music prodigy who'd learned and practiced guitar alone in his bedroom at home on the Connecticut coast -- a place not all that unlike Northern California -- never joining a band as a kid, was in a band at last.

His dramatic wake-up call from Steve Jobs, and Jobs's specific citing of the Dead, doesn't figure in the Dead & Company official origin story. That centers around Mayer discovering the Dead's music by chance on Pandora, also in 2011, and becoming obsessed by it. But so what?

Maybe Jobs's very public truth bombing of his friend was just synchronicity.

It hadn't occurred to me that Mayer was "one of the best guitar players who ever lived" before reading the Jobs encomium that accompanied his criticism, but after following Dead & Company's summer tour, well, the frequently irascible but usually on-target Apple genius may just be right after all.

His young friend, who seemed a little lost as a solo survivor in the vapid wasteland
of contemporary pop, is now lead guitarist and co-lead vocalist of one of the most legendary of bands, widely accepted by a large community of fans who value free-thinking cosmopolitanism and fine music.

And the original members of the Dead, who surely want their music to not only live on but keep on growing, now have a path forward that suddenly looks extremely viable.

While the Dead have long encouraged bootlegging of their shows, so long as there is no profit involved, they also sell several high-quality albums of shows in their vast archives per year, scoring well on the charts each time.

So next steps for the new/renewed band seem clear enough. Put out a killer "best of" album from their tour, in audio and multi-media formats.

Then look to getting back in the studio to record both new material and choice older songs which never received studio versions.

It's all part of what can and should be a fairly seamless transition to new versions of the Dead for decades into the future.

Sort of a Grateful Dead: The Next Generations, with most of the original cast in fine form to make it all work.

With Mayer forming a fruitful bond with guitar partner Weir -- and how unfortunate is it that this high school co-founder of the Grateful Dead hasn't done a book? -- and every member of the band a potent creative entity in his own right, the sky should be the limit for what already has the feel of a fresh and timeless band.

The process should be fascinating. Mayer, an ace musician and aficionado of musicology, has tremendous insight into modern recording techniques and new media. His older bandmates have vast experience. Weir in particular, a family man today but the Dead's chief magnet for female attention in the day, has much to import. A soundcheck at The Gorge, a spectacular venue on the Columbia River, showed the ongoing Weir/Mayer discourse, with the older man suddenly launching into all the verses of Errol Garner's elegantly romantic jazz classic 'Misty.' He then turned to Mayer to say: "This is San Francisco."

Mayer has a lot of experience on the East Coast and in Los Angeles, but the unique milieu which produced the Dead is still new for him.

A few days after the tour closed last week, Mayer posted an eloquent note to his bandmates and
"the GDEU "Grateful Dead Extended Universe)," describing each show on stage as "a beautiful adventure" before going on in a more personal vein.

"I grew up a lone wolf in a bedroom practicing my guitar, and all I ever really craved was community. The community I feel now between my brothers and sisters in this band and crew, and the connection between everyone in the audience from the front row to the back, to those who listened from couches and cars, to those who come up to me and say more with their eyes than their words in their attempt to tell me what this means to them - I will never forget it, because I will never stop feeling it." ... "And it must be said - to Jerry: what a light you are that I could bask in your shadow. Love you all."

Long may Dead & Company run on its voyage of musical legacy and discovery.

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