Deadheads descended on Fenway Park this weekend as Dead & Company – the current incarnation of Grateful Dead survivors with pop star John Mayer front and center – proved that Mayer’s inclusion might be both over and underemphasized.
Mayer’s only the latest in a range of guitarist/singers put in the position of filling the unfillable shoes of the late Jerry Garcia, but people tend to be more critical, partly based on his music and image. Nonetheless, the onetime Berklee student has secured strong chemistry with this impressive edition of Dead mainstays Bob Weir and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, along with final Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbridge and RatDog keyboardist Jeff Chimenti.
Mayer does give the gang much-needed spark, particularly on tunes that drag the tempos. One emerging number in Saturday’s first set floated the guessing game over whether it was “Tennessee Jed” or “I’m Gone.” Instead, it was a more lazy “Ramble on Rose,” which finally blossomed when Mayer helped kick up the jam.
He also sang lead on a few songs in that hour-long first set, including “Big Boss Man” (a tribute to “Pigpen” McKernan, who played his last show as a member of the Dead 45 years ago to the day) and “Cold, Rain and Snow.” Mayer peppered both numbers with crispy blues licks, something that’s especially up his alley.
But Weir, increasingly rejuvenated from the rough patch he hit a few years back, took charge in Saturday’s 105-minute second set, singing with authority over the edgy reggae groove of “Estimated Prophet” (with Mayer and Burbridge piping the “California” chorus behind Weir’s exhortations) and “Eyes of the World,” once it moved past an opening stutter.
Things weren’t so smooth before those highpoints when the jazzy, syncopated “Help on the Way” wove into instrumental “Slipknot!” which slipped into messy-if-right improvisation. Credit the guys for taking chances in the tradition of vintage Dead jams that sounded like everyone was taking a side trip to separate planets from the song they were just playing, but this one got stuck in search mode.
Likewise, a tribal “Drums” duet between Kreutzmann and Hart that got lost in electronic frosting and eye-blasting visuals slid into a more sublime “Space” that seemed to beg for a “Dark Star” (alas, saved until Sunday’s finale) but instead dropped into an unexpected and unnecessary reprise of “Eyes of the World.”
Nonetheless, the band was playing to a colorful Saturday crowd eager for singalongs that continued with “I Need a Miracle,” “Franklin’s Tower” (which usually follows “Slipknot!” but closed the set with fans chanting “Roll away the dew”) and the inevitable rave-up “One More Saturday Night.”
So a few hiccups weren’t going to spoil the fun for a Dead offshoot that sounded mostly vital and consistent, with the younger guys all growing into their roles, serving a solid two-night kickoff to Fenway’s 2017 summer concert series.