John Mayer remembers well his Berklee College of Music days, “walking down Newbury and Boylston streets, just dreaming.”
“I’d have my guitar on my back, looking at that Citgo sign, wondering if this is all just a pipe dream,” he says with a laugh. “Everyone wants to ‘make it’ in the place they dreamed about making it. So, this is almost a sumptuous — and I’ve never said that word in an interview — a sumptuous experience.”
The college kid from Connecticut who went on to become a Grammy-winning solo artist will play a doubleheader at Fenway Park Saturday and Sunday as a member of Dead & Company, the group reprising its two-night stand from last summer at the ballpark. And Mayer is well-aware that he’s among the “company” in a band that includes core Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann.
“I’ll never be able to express how much I appreciate Billy and Bob and Mickey letting me have a home in this music,” he says. Maybe he’s not a full-fledged homeowner among this group, but “I have a futon in this home, and I have some stuff in the fridge.”
He adds, “I don’t go around saying things are honors when they’re not — but this is an honor beyond. It’s knighthood.”
He’s also well-aware that longtime Deadheads might think: John Mayer?
“I knew it would draw skepticism from anyone who heard about it without hearing us,” he says. “I’m not afraid of it — that’s what made me work so hard. I know I’m under scrutiny. But I have a distance to see the beauty. I’m coming in as a guy with no umbilical tie to it. I enjoy every last second. I cannot believe that I am, in some way, vestigially a part of this band.”
He’s an admitted “fan boy” who was “obsessed” with the Dead. Onstage his face lights up when Weir takes a solo, as much as it contorts with effort when he takes his own.
The key element to Dead & Company’s chemistry is that Mayer doesn’t attempt to imitate Jerry Garcia. Doesn’t go anywhere near it.
The 39-year-old is here to add a dash of Mayer — not imitate the Dead’s late icon. His vocals and blues guitar add a B.B. King vibe to hits like “Sugar Magnolia” or “Casey Jones,” and the result is organic.
Just ask Bob Weir.
“It’s full-on Grateful Dead operational mode,” says the guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, and founding band member. “We plug in and take it for a little walk in the woods. And [Mayer] is more than capable of doing that.”
“The contour of the show, more or less, that got formalized with the Dead; that much we inherited from the Dead,” Weir says. But the band — which also includes Allman Brothers’ bassist Oteil Burbridge and RatDog keyboardist Jeff Chimenti — is “becoming it’s own thing.”
For decades, Weir has built bands, both Dead incarnations and side projects. There was Bobby and the Midnites, his side project in the 1980s; RatDog, his side project with bassist Rob Wasserman, which became his main band after Garcia died in 1995; the Other Ones, formed in 1998 with Hart, former Dead bassist Phil Lesh, and Bruce Hornsby, among other bands. Dead & Company came together two years ago after Mayer and Weir hit it off on the set of “The Late Late Show.”
‘That will always be the over-arching ethos of the Grateful Dead: If you think you can do the job, come help out. This is not music you want to listen to, but participate in.’
Besides RatDog, Weir said Dead & Company is his favorite of the bands, and has the potential to go for years. “This one has a lot of promise,” he says.
Edging ever closer to his 70th birthday in October, Weir is nowhere near ready to retire. “I wouldn’t last long in retirement,” he says. “I love to play, always have.”
The Californian started playing guitar at 13. He met Garcia at 16, when he heard someone playing music inside a Palo Alto music shop.
“I was round the back, I could hear him inside, and that was that,” Weir says. “We got along real well. We amused each other musically and otherwise. We just had fun together. That turned into a career.”
The Grateful Dead, of course, would become the archetype of the jam band, psychedelic explorers, Magellans of the mid-set 20-minute playback, and spawning a tie-dyed culture of hardcore devotees and groupies, unlike any other band of the day.
“I don’t know what to think about that, never have,” Weir says of Deadhead culture. “I wish I had the answer for you. I’m happy they enjoy it.”
The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, a year before Garcia died.
So what was the secret sauce of the Grateful Dead?
“We kept ourselves amused. It’s that simple,” Weir said. “On and off stage. Really nothing much more to it.”
Looking back at the highs and lows now, Weir said the craziest time was Ken Kesey’s “acid test era,” when an early incarnation of the band played at LSD-fueled parties Kesey hosted in the mid-’60s. A low point was Woodstock.
“That was miserable. The Dead were notoriously bad in pressure situations. Plus we were in mortal danger any time we touched our instruments or microphones — the electrical grounding was messed up,” Weir recalls. “At one point, I got within a couple inches of the mike, and I was sent six to eight feet back into my amp. I came to with a fat lip.”
As a songwriter, Weir wrote and co-wrote some of the band’s classics: “One More Saturday Night,” “Jack Straw,” “Sugar Magnolia” among them. The songs “come in any conceivable way — sometimes music first, sometimes words, sometimes they come to me in dreams,” Weir says. “I’m about halfway through discovering new ways to approach writing a song.”
As for his favorite Grateful Dead song, that changes daily: “Any one could surprise me at any moment.”
Weir will tell you the roots of Dead & Company go back to when Mayer was guest hosting “The Late Late Show” on CBS in 2015. “He invited me as a musical guest, and we did a sound check. We were supposed to do two songs, and after two hours they unplugged us,” he says with a laugh. “One thing led to another.”
But Mayer will tell you “a confluence of events” created the partnership. “I’m a deep diver of things that inspire me. I’m capable of inducing my own obsession. That’s what happened with the Grateful Dead.”
While he was recording his own record at the time, he became something of a Dead disciple. “At one point, I was telling everyone I knew: ‘You’ve got to understand this.’ ”
One person to whom he had preached was record producer Don Was. One day when Was had Weir and Hart in his office, he asked Mayer to come by “and say hey.”
“I’ll never forget Bob sitting there on the couch in lotus position,” Mayer says. “To sit on a couch like a pool float, I thought: ‘I want that transcendence.’ ”
The disciple then launched into a full-on “sermon” to his gods.
“I explained to them what their music meant to me,” Mayer says. “At the end of my sermon, Bob said, ‘What are you doing March 7?’ From then on, everything took a backseat to showing them this is something we could do.”
Part of what makes the Dead the Dead is their inherent belief “that everyone is equal,” Mayer says. “That a guy from Fairfield, Connecticut, who was 17 when Jerry died, can join the music. That will always be the over-arching ethos of the Grateful Dead: If you think you can do the job, come help out. This is not music you want to listen to, but participate in.”
DEAD AND COMPANY
At Fenway Park, June 17 and 18, 6:30 p.m. Tickets: www.livenation.com, m.mlb.com/redsox/tickets/special-events/dead-and-coLauren Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.