For legions of Deadheads around the world, last summer’s “Fare Thee Well” concerts in Santa Clara and Chicago marked a cathartic end to music’s greatest long, strange trip. But even before the fireworks had faded, rumors were buzzing about a new outfit built around a seemingly unlikely figure: John Mayer, an estimable guitarist more widely known as the easygoing purveyor of hits like “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and “Waiting on the World to Change.”
Last October, Grateful Dead mainstays Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart hit the road with Mayer, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, and bassist Oteil Burbridge as Dead & Company, playing a string of dates that included a Madison Square Garden webcast and a memorable Worcester show. Emboldened by that jaunt, the band is touring again this summer, and comes to Fenway Park on Friday and Saturday for concerts that will be streamed on the Nugs.tv website.
Speaking by telephone from California, Hart explained how an unforeseen intersection with Mayer turned into the newest fork in the Dead’s golden road to unlimited devotion.
Q. Lots of people seemed surprised by how suddenly Dead & Company seemed to materialize in the wake of “Fare Thee Well” last summer. What made you hit the road so quickly?
A. Well, I don’t think there was any plan behind this — it was more serendipitous, a chance kind of a thing. You know how that is: You have to follow the arrow that points down that road. John [Mayer] just popped up right before “Fare Thee Well,” and it occurred to us: Man, let’s keep playing. This guy loves Grateful Dead music so much, and he’s really a great guitar player and great singer. And he turned out to be really a cool guy, a nice fellow to hang with — and he works well with Bob. That was the first inclination that this guy might just fit in the sleeve.
Q. How long would you say it took Mayer to settle into the matrix?
A. It was really instantaneous. I think what had appeared to be enthusiasm for the band turned into a music lust: He really wanted it badly. He stayed out in his camper for months behind the studio, and came in as a student. He gelled right away, once he started really learning the songs. He’s got a great memory. He’s kind of like a pop star in recovery, you know? [Laughs]
Early in the first tour — this is a funny little thing that’ll give you an idea of how far our worlds were apart — we played a first set and [makes dismissive sound]. We didn’t play the last song; Bob thought “that’s it,” and puts his guitar down and walks off. That was the signal that that was the end of the set. And John stayed in front. I saw John just looking around, he didn’t know what was going on, the whole band left and he was on the stage. So I went out there and said, Hey, John, the set’s over, are you going to play a solo now? [Laughs] He says, “It’s over? We didn’t play all the songs!” And I said, Welcome to the Grateful Dead.
Q. Jeff seems like an old hand by now, but have John and Oteil helped you find new opportunities in familiar material?
A. Of course. Whenever you add anybody to the conversation, you just don’t go on with your normal conversation; you include them in it, and they include you. We absolutely are performing the songs a little differently. With a virtuoso bass player like Oteil, there’s really nothing much you can say — he knows where to do it and how to do it. Jeff is in there, right in the middle of it all. Bill and I are playing together beautifully, and the rhythm is right.
Q. You covered a lot of ground last year, with something like 60 classic songs rehearsed and ready. Are you adding more tunes this time around?
A. Oh, yeah, we’ve added about 20 or so new songs, “Liberty” and . . . there’s all kinds of songs, which I’m not going to tell you. [Laughs] My wife’s a lawyer; she’d say, “I cannot reveal this information at this time.” I think we’ve got 80 or 90 songs now.
Q. Bob recently told Rolling Stone that you’re thinking about taking Dead & Company into the recording studio. What would you be looking to do?
A. One of the things we want to do is record the songs that we never recorded with the Grateful Dead. There’s 15 or 20 of them that have never been recorded. That’s one thing. The other thing is new material, but that’s in the future. Right now we’re mostly just concerned with bringing a great musical experience out each night, having fun, and enjoying this music with other people.
DEAD & COMPANY
‘[John] gelled right away, once he started really learning the songs. He’s got a great memory. He’s kind of like a pop star in recovery, you know?’
At Fenway Park, July 15 and 16 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets: $55-$104. boston.redsox.mlb.comInterview was condensed and edited. Steve Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.