By D.A. Dellechiaie
BU News Service
Dead & Company doesn’t act like a modern day Grateful Dead with John Mayer. They walked onstage with no introduction. You wouldn’t have noticed them if there wasn’t a mob of people in the pit staring intently at the stage for any sign of movement. The fans started cheering the second John Mayer’s white MC Hammer sweatpants came into view next to Bob Weir’s Civil War general beard, cargo pants and Birkenstocks. What about the other dudes in the band, man? They were cool-looking, too. The bassist was barefoot. The short-haired drummer wearing red-lensed Bono glasses and the keyboard player with long hair and similar glasses both looked comfortable.
“Bobby!” the suburban dads next to me yelled, raising their cans of beer in the band’s general direction. When they started playing, the crowd started to go wild. They yelled “Bobby!” another 20 times throughout the first song.
And the band? Well, they kind of stood still. The whole first act of the concert was very much a letdown. The music sounded a lot like they were warming up. There were a few times where the keyboardist, who was fantastic, would play a couple icy notes, and the guitars would return with a steady but odd strumming.
John Mayer’s face, which contorts to look like many different species of fish when he plays, was really the only sign of emotion. Weir’s bluesy growl woke a lot of us up (and every time he said blue, a blue spotlight would shine on us), but it didn’t help that the music wasn’t memorable. This is an odd curse of the Grateful Dead’s music: it all sounds similar. The drums were near silent, so the guitars were the only instruments you really heard, and there is weird blend of folk and blues with a dash of the extended warping notes of psychedelic rock.
At some points, the usually level music would become discordant. Random twangs from guitars or an odd bass “wump-wump” would break a mellow state held together by light guitar string picking, and the band would act as if nothing had happened. This was extra noticeable because (as is quite well-known about the group) they like to extend songs by about 15 minutes. Or, as one of my former teachers puts it, “The Grateful Dead started playing a song in 1968 and well, what do ya know, they’re still playing it!” After about four minutes of overtime, you begin to get a little bored, but after eight minutes, you wish they would move on. The crowd was enjoying it, but they were also “Dead Heads” and would wiggle to it no matter what.
While the small but noticeable musical dents may have been fine for those in the audience whose devotion to the band could allow for those jarring sounds, it was quite hard to find pleasure in them. What I wanted was an experience filled with as few reminders of reality as possible, and boredom is a mating call for the real world. That being said, when the band did find equilibrium, they killed it. What would come out was this steady stream of good blues “thump-thumping” mixed with a little good times beach rock.
The second act of the show was the first time I started middle age white guy shuffling with the crowd. The opener of Act 2 was “Scarlet Begonias,” a song that is known, at least through the spectacular cover by Sublime, by every person who has smoked weed. Weir’s vocals, which were until that point only deep and heavy, suddenly became softer and younger. Mayer’s guitar-playing became more noticeable and meshed well with Weir’s. Mayer’s body moved with his face, and he began experimenting with his guitar. He moved from little bird tweeting guitar solos to letting out heavy sounds that took control of the song.
The bassist sang the vocals on “Fire on the Mountain,” and his beautiful, almost reggae voice made me question why he wasn’t the lead singer on every song. Mayer’s guitar sounded like a Calypso steel drum.
As the night went on and as it got darker out, the mood of the concert became calmer and homey. The spotlights on the stage would occasionally shine on the ceiling, causing the concert hall to turn a nice shade of red or light blue. The band would play these cannon blasts of sound which would evoke a crowd wide cheer. You couldn’t help but nod and sway along.
What once annoyed me suddenly became OK. I accepted it because Dead & Company are not just a band. There are a social band. You can’t download them and enjoy them. You have to be there. Yes, physically there, not buried in a phone.
But if you do decide to see Dead & Company, please try to see them at an outdoor location. You need to be able to move to enjoy Dead & Company, and that isn’t as easy as it sounds when you have people on both sides of you trying to juggle three cans of Bud Light and a one-hitter, and the security is constantly shepherding people out of the aisle.
At a few points during the show, Weir and Mayer walked up to each other, faced each other and did the dueling guitars bit. While this is a normal gimmick, it seemed different with them. Mayer, who is responsible for a ton of students dropping out of Berklee thinking they are going to make it big like him, and Weir, who is responsible for a generation of jam bands and John Mayer, looked like — as cliché as this is —a father and his son. But there was no torch-passing in these moments. Instead, they were equals. If anything, that’s what we are lacking nowadays; moments without generational warfare where we can just admit that we are all messed up in one way or another. If a nice powwow can save our country, I think I know a band we can hire.