Review: John Mayer hops aboard the Dead & Company train at the Forum
The members of Dead & Company had been chewing on the taut boogie-rock groove of “Bertha” for a good long while at the Forum when John Mayer looked over at Bob Weir in search of a little guidance.
Are we done? Mayer seemed to be asking with his eyes. Or do we keep going? Weir took his hands off his guitar and made a quick rolling motion.
They kept going.
The young pup taking cues from the old dog: That’s how it went Wednesday night during the first of two concerts in Inglewood by this unlikely new supergroup pairing three veterans of the Grateful Dead — Weir and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann — with Mayer, the platinum-selling singer-songwriter who’s long nursed a guitar-hero dream.
With bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, Dead & Company took shape in early 2015 but wasn’t officially revealed until August, after the Grateful Dead completed a run of 50th anniversary gigs in Santa Clara and Chicago that were billed as a final farewell from the venerable Bay Area rock institution. (Phil Lesh, the Grateful Dead’s founding bassist, played those shows but has no role in Dead & Company.)
If the timing didn’t gall hard-core Dead fans, some of whom had just shelled out thousands of dollars for an event all about closure, Mayer’s involvement might have.
Though his blues-guitar chops have earned respect from fellow musicians, the 38-year-old singer is most widely understood as a pop star, one known for his gushy love songs and his Hollywood hook-ups. Yet conventional pop stardom was never an animating force for the Grateful Dead, whose original frontman, Jerry Garcia, died in 1995.
Round and whiskery, Garcia stood proudly for music over celebrity, an idea embraced by Trey Anastasio of Phish, who filled Garcia’s role over the summer. Mayer, in contrast, promised — or maybe threatened — to transform the Dead into a heartthrob’s backing band for nightly renditions of “Your Body Is a Wonderland.”
Well, not this time.
Far from pulling his collaborators toward him, Mayer (who has talked about getting into the Dead through Internet radio) adapted to the band’s trademark sound at the Forum, the last stop on an inaugural Dead & Company tour that kicked off in October. And for that he was welcomed warmly by the crowd at Wednesday’s show, which cheered Mayer’s guitar solos and lead-vocal turns in Dead staples, including “Here Comes Sunshine” and “West L.A. Fadeaway.”
In “Loser,” which Weir sang in his throaty growl, Mayer contributed to an impressive slow-build crescendo that suggested he’d already begun sharing in the Dead’s intuitive mind-meld; a lengthy cover of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn on Your Love Light” had Weir and Mayer trading trebly guitar licks like old pals.
Mayer wasn’t completely erasing himself to fit into his surroundings. He and Burbridge drew out the R&B flavor in a funky, low-slung “Althea,” and Mayer brought something of his insinuating lover-man vibe to “Bird Song,” which here felt more sensual than the Dead’s many recorded versions of the song.
“Shakedown Street” was especially slinky too, with a delicacy the group lacked in Chicago; perhaps, Mayer had reawakened a sexual impulse in music that for years had carried more abstract thoughts.
For the most part, though, he seemed eager to plug into his bandmates’ established energy. The concert ended with a jaunty “Friend of the Devil,” which was as close as Mayer got Wednesday to doing one of his own tunes. (He’s been playing the Grateful Dead song live since at least 2013.)
Strumming an acoustic guitar as he looked again to Weir, Mayer grinned widely, a solo superstar turned happy apprentice.
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