WORCESTER — I’ll admit it: When I first heard that John Mayer, the Connecticut-reared, Berklee-polished purveyor of “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and the like, had hooked up with three Grateful Dead core members — singer and guitarist Bob Weir and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart — I cracked wise. Maybe you did too.
No one’s laughing now, just over a week into the maiden voyage of Dead & Company, which also includes keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and bassist Oteil Burbridge. On Tuesday night at the DCU Center in Worcester, the group was potent enough to enrapture the faithful and convert the skeptical.
To be sure, this latest swerve in music’s most fabled long, strange trip prompted its share of negative buzz, not least because it follows so closely the band’s ballyhooed “Fare Thee Well” sendoff events. But all the various post-Jerry Garcia Dead aggregations have proved that risk and serendipity remain central to this crew’s conception, and that a good night still promises transcendence.
Tuesday was a good night. That Chimenti, veteran of multiple Dead alumni functions, would deliver was a certainty. If anyone could handle the role abdicated by Dead bassist Phil Lesh, it was Burbridge, formerly of the Allmans and Aquarium Rescue Unit.
But Mayer, stated simply, has proved revelatory: a point amply supported in breathless Reddit threads, samizdat live streams, and an Amex-sponsored Madison Square Garden webcast. On guitar, he ventures Garcia’s singing tone and lilting lines while avoiding mimickry. His sandy murmur complements Weir’s seasoned warble, and his earnest vigor gives the band a palpable rise.
Most of Tuesday’s first set was comfort fare: “Ramble on Rose,” “Big River,” “Peggy-O.” (Ensnarled in epic traffic, I missed the opening “Cassidy” and “Row Jimmy.”) Then in “Sugaree,” a blistering Mayer solo signaled that elusive moment when a Dead event rises to the next level.
That intensity was sustained in “The Music Never Stopped,” and then surpassed in a sweeping second set launched with “Deal,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Estimated Prophet,” and “Terrapin Station.” Burbridge manned Kreutzmann’s kit for “Drums,” providing a beat over which Kreutzmann and Hart merrily rumbled. Inky-black cosmic slop in “Space” ceded to dawning light in “Dear Prudence,” the Beatles ballad.
Another cover, the stinging, bluesy “Get Out of My Life Woman,” honored its writer, R&B titan Allen Toussaint, who died on Monday. After closing with “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” the band offered for an encore “Ripple,” its lyrical core — “let there be songs to fill the air” — a fitting credo for this group’s newest lease on life.
Dead & Company
At: DCU Center, Worcester, TuesdaySteve Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.