Dead & Co. at Target Center: Is Mayer the spiritual heir to Garcia?

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Dead & Co. in New York earlier this month

Assuming Jerry Garcia is in heaven — why wouldn't he be? — I have no doubt he looked down upon Target Center Saturday night with a smile while listening to John Mayer's shred-tastic renditions of the Grateful Dead tunes he established as rock 'n' roll canons.

Simply put, since Garcia's 1995 passing, there's been no finer "Jerry" than the uber-talented Mayer, who's combining forces on this tour with Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann to form Dead & Company. (The group is rounded out by bassist Oteil Burbridge of the Allman Brothers and Ratdog keyboardist Jeff Chimenti.)

Dead & Company played nothing but Grateful Dead classics — the Beatles' "Dear Prudence," long a Dead staple, was mixed in as well (video of that song can be found here) — but the night was really all the spirit of Garcia as channeled through Mayer, who made his guitar sing as he tore through dozens of crowd-pleasing solos.

As far as his guitar playing goes, Mayer's approach is clearly informed by Garcia's unique tone and licks, but he's somehow synthesized Jerry's sound into his own bluesy style. And my God, that guy can play. I've seen world-class guitarists spanning the gamut from Eddie Van Halen, to Prince, to Pat Metheny and back again, but I can say without a moment of hesitation that I haven't seen anybody play the instrument more excellently than Mayer did at Target Center on Saturday night. He's just that good, especially compared with others who have tried to fill the "Jerry" role alongside Weir over the course of the past two decades.

Was the I'll-just-let-my-playing-talk rock star I saw on stage Saturday really the same guy responsible for "Your Body is a Wonderland?" It almost seems impossible after watching Mayer lead thousands of smoked-out Deadheads through numerous cycles of face-melting tension building and release, but sources report that indeed he is.

Weir's rhythm guitar remains solid, but his vocals clearly reflect he's 68 years of age. He can't hit the high notes like he used to, but nobody was complaining. In fact, his diminished status actually made lines such as, "I may be going to hell in a bucket, babe, but at least I'm enjoying the ride," more poignant than ever.

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John Mayer rocks out with Dead & Co. Saturday at Target Center

Mayer's singing, on the other hand, is almost too good for these tunes. Part of the beauty of Garcia was that his thin voice routinely struggled to hit the high notes. Sloppiness, after all, was always part of the Grateful Dead's charm. But Mayer pulled the tunes off and made it look easy — perhaps too easy, which might partly explain why so many people seem to have a visceral distaste for him.

To illustrate what I'm getting at, compare Mayer's rendition of "Bertha" during a show earlier in the tour to Garcia's rendition from 1989. Dead & Company's version is cleaner (and a bit slower, which might reflect Hart and Kreutzmann's advancing age), but it isn't necessarily better. Hell, they both rule.

Hart and Kreutzmann's drum break toward the end of the second set incorporated an unexpectedly industrial-style grittiness. The tribal, propulsive beat they constructed kept the energy up until Mayer and Weir returned to close things out with a raucous, crowd-pleasing version of "One More Saturday Night." For an encore, they offered an acoustic rendition of "Friend of Devil," closing the night out on a quiet note. ("If I get home before daylight I just might get some sleep tonight," the song concludes.)

Burbridge's approach is more jazzy than that of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, and he did a phenomenal job playing off the copious ideas flowing out of Mayer's guitar. And Chimenti sounded excellent moving back and forth between the acoustic piano (props for hauling around a real one!) and organ.

I went in with high expectations and am happy to report Dead & Company actually surpassed them. As I walked out into the brisk November evening, I reflected upon how John Mayer may indeed be the spiritual heir to Jerry Garcia. How crazy that thought would've seemed just a year ago!

What a long, strange trip, indeed ...

Critic's bias: If you told me the Grateful Dead are one of the greatest American rock bands of all-time, I wouldn't disagree with you. 'Nuff said.

The crowd: I could smell weed even before I entered Target Center. Once inside, Deadheads were passing around joints, THC vape pens, pipes... you name it. Target Center staff mostly let it slide, although the usher working my section did aggressively shut down an older guy sitting right behind me when he saw him smoking a joint. I suppose the guy was doing his job, but it was a minor buzzkill, as the smoky vibes were entirely happy and positive.

Senator Al Franken was there. As we left, he was smiling and posing for photos with fans in the Target Center lobby. Wonder if anybody tried to pass him a joint ...

Random notebook dump: I have no doubt I won't be the only writer praising Dead & Company's Target Center show. That stands in stark contrast to the legacy of a legendary Grateful Dead gig (with Tom Petty and Bob Dylan!) at the Metrodome back in 1986.

Setlist:

First set:

Jack Straw

Big Boss Man

Mexicali Blues

Jimmy

Ramble On Rose

Hell in a Bucket

Casey Jones

Second set:

Cumberland Blues

Cryptical Envelopment

Uncle John's Band

Scarlet Begonias

Fire on the Mountain

Drums/Space (Grateful Dead cover)

Dear Prudence

Going Down the Road Feelin' Bad

One More Saturday Night

Encore:

Friend of the Devil


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