Dead & Company November 27, MGM Grand Garden Arena.
It’s a strange trip indeed, to look at the current touring version of the Grateful Dead and see John Mayer playing lead guitar. But close your eyes, as I did several times during Friday night’s Dead & Company show at MGM Grand, and the notes erupting from the man’s instrument feel nothing short of magical.
The 38-year-old pop star has succeeded Trey Anastasio of the more closely jam-aligned Phish at the band’s musical center, and Mayer’s name alone surely kept some longtimers on the couch, judging from the curtained-off upper seats for the first of two Vegas gigs. But instrumentally, Mayer more than held his own, meshing with his new mates and producing a series of dazzling solos that felt connected to Jerry Garcia’s legacy even as they added a few fresh splashes to the palate.
I witnessed Friday’s concert with a Dead newbie, and the setlist could scarcely have been better for her first experience: a funky-meets-folky first set loaded with favorites like “Shakedown Street,” “Uncle John’s Band” and “Jack Straw,” then a more exploratory second set built around psychedelic warhorses “Dark Star” and “St. Stephen,” plus a tribal “Drums” piece that saw bassist Oteil Burbridge pick up sticks and join longtime rhythm devils Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart.
If Mayer stumbled significantly, it happened during free-form segment “Space,” when he charged out fast rather than letting the groove develop, and his smooth vocals felt odd standing in for Garcia’s on “Althea” and “Row Jimmy.” But Mayer more than made up for that with some intense and interesting guitar work during “Playing in the Band” and “Let It Grow,” which for me represented the night’s peak song pairing.
Bob Weir, the Dead’s third veteran member, demonstrated surprisingly good guitar chemistry with Mayer, with the two combining to turn “Jack Straw” heavy at its finish and push the tempo of “Casey Jones” to a fitting extreme. Original bassist Phil Lesh’s presence was missed, but ex-Allman Brother Burbridge held down the low end solidly, minus a few of Lesh’s famous bombs. And keyboardist Jeff Chimenti might have been the band’s secret weapon, flavoring the music with simple but effective piano touches throughout the night.
Overall, though, there was no denying the true hero—Mayer, who no doubt won many new fans on this tour. I’m not queuing up “Your Body Is a Wonderland” as I write this, but I will keep an eye on the guy, to see what he does next. Because anyone who sits in Jerry’s seat and not only survives but thrives, has earned a reconsideration.