Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Success of John Mayer with Dead and Company

Fare you well, Fare you well
I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul
--Robert Hunter, Jerry Garcia

As we stood in the upper half of Madison Square Garden last Saturday and listened to Bob Weir and pop-star-turned-deadhead, John Mayer, sing those words in the newly formed Dead and Company, a realization came over me about the power of the Grateful Dead’s music. The initial attraction, staying-power, and cult-like following of the Grateful Dead comes from Jerry Garcia’s ability to transcend both personal and musical ego and allow the music to grow out of genuine emotional sentiment. In those special moments of “Morning Dew,” “Stella Blue,” “Wharf Rat,” or a dozen others, Garcia’s voice becomes so plaintively raw and pleading that you feel as though you’re not only seeing through the public mask that adorns us all, but into the heart of a man yearning to find freedom and redemption through public musical confession. So much of today’s popular American music comes not from real people, but from the carefully crafted characters they play on and off stage; yet Garcia and the Grateful Dead became one of the most successful bands in the world by peeling away those false layers year after year in front of thousands of fans, until there was little left other than the song...and maybe a drug addiction or two.    

There used to be a time when art, literature, and music could be openly based around sentiment. A person’s raw emotion had the power and legitimacy to drive a song or a story. Now, with our every waking minute being consumed by the hyper-industrialized process of profit driven media commercialism, sentiment has fallen out of favor, replaced by the protective mental armor of Irony and Cynicism. The Millennial-driven multimedia world thrives on an outward display of attitude and hipness. Any notion of inwardness or sentiment is seen as weakness by naivete. Author David Foster Wallace wrote, “What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and na├»ve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

Photo by Katie Friesema

The Dead and Company consists of original members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann, along with Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbridge, pianist Jeff Chimenti, and pop-star John Mayer on guitar--essentially playing the sacred parts of Jerry Garcia. The genuine confusion as to why three of the remaining members would tour with John Mayer has suddenly been replaced with questioning why is this the most successful incarnation of the remaining members in the last 20 years. To attempt to answer this “why,” you have to be willing to dig deep into our complicated and mysterious relationships with music, art, popular culture, expectations, and biases. It is almost the perfect storm for music lovers to confront why and how we love music and how much power it has in our identities.

When Bob Weir announced they would be doing a major tour with Mayer on guitar, there wasn’t any of the emotional backlash that occurred with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio playing the final Chicago shows in July. (Those were the final shows that included all four living members of the GD; original bassist Phil Lesh has bowed out of any further tours.) Instead of the passionate and heated online debates, fans seemed to react to the announcement with a mix of shock, disappointment, and a collective eye roll. The band and music they had dedicated so much of their lives to was going to tour with a guy who had spent years as celebrity tabloid fodder. But when the first shows happened and people listened to the recordings, everything changed. There was a passion and buoyancy in the music that had not been heard since the 70s and 80s.

After attending one show and listening to a half dozen others, I believe that Mayer’s success is based around his natural inclination to find and share the deep emotional content that Garcia brought to the music. His ability to soulfully connect to the music of the GD is also, ironically, the same quality that made him famous in the female pre-teen pop world by writing songs such as “Dreaming with a Broken Heart,” “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room,” “Daughters,” and “I Don’t Trust Myself with Loving You.” The only sin greater than expressing sentiment is doing it for pop-culture fame. Our mental armor of cynicism creates a distrust of anything that is both popular and sentimental. It can be one, but it can’t be both--or so we tell ourselves.  

Photo by Tim Johnson
In the 20 years since Garcia’s death, the remaining members have formed many incarnations with the who’s who of rock guitarists: Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring, John Kadlecik, Trey Anastasio, and Derek Trucks. I will argue, however, that Mayer is the most successful by a long shot. There is something within Mayer that allows him to wear the heavy cloak of the legacy of the GD while not losing his own personality. It’s the unique mix of tradition and youthful energy that makes the spirit of the music sound more alive than any other time in the last two decades. He plays with the technicality of Trey and Jimmy, the soul of Warren, and the creativity of Trucks. Most importantly, he also plays with the same deep musical sentiment that made us all fall in love with Jerry Garcia in the first place.

--Brian Paul Swenk

Keep up with me here:

If you like the posts, please share and sign up for emails on the left.

No comments:

Post a Comment