The Most Alive Dead Band of All

by | Jul 21, 2023

Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of the Grateful Dead, 2015, naleck. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Eight years after their first tour in 2015, Dead & Company are calling it quits this summer. Their final shows are scheduled for July 14, 15, and 16 at San Francisco’s Oracle Park. The John Mayer–fronted reunion act, which includes all surviving permanent members, save for bassist Phil Lesh and, as of this year, drummer Bill Kreutzmann, is the last remnant of iconic psychedelic rock band the Grateful Dead. To be sure, their repertoire almost exclusively consists of songs written or popularized by the latter, but Dead & Company are no mere cover band. Across seven decades and at least as many reincarnations of the original, Dead & Company aren’t living vicariously through the Grateful Dead. Rather, their athleticism, at once daring and illuminating, renews the Grateful Dead’s oeuvre: Dead & Company are the most alive Dead band of all.

Though for some, the music never stopped (disbandments and reunions aside), the Dead have been dead a few times over already. Despite their quick rise to legendary status in the 1960s, persistent commercial success, and clear aesthetic continuity with grunge (how could we forget Kurt Cobain’s “Kill the Grateful Dead” T-shirt?), by the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Dead had become somewhat passé, no longer at the fore of cultural production, but still haunting its imagination. And yet, over the past 10 or 15 years, cultural critics have observed a new renaissance of Grateful Dead fandom. The early 2010s saw an unexpected but compelling renewal of the band’s influence among tastemakers and new audiences, not only (or even primarily) in music, but also in streetwear, online curation, visual art, and design. As through an unbroken chain, the Dead rose once again, transfigured and retuned for 21st-century popular culture. 

Just around that time, in 2011, John Mayer had his first fateful encounter with the Grateful Dead, on a Pandora streaming playlist of all places. In 2015, after connecting with Bob Weir on the set of The Late Late Show, he joined Weir, Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, Oteil Burbridge, and Jeff Chimenti to form Dead & Company. Eight years on, no one needs to be convinced: with Dead & Company, the Dead have been back, playing their hardest in front of the greatest crowds, athletically channeling a novel form of artistic productivity beyond original composition. 

As through an unbroken chain, the Dead rose once again, transfigured and retuned for 21st-century popular culture.

The original Grateful Dead were famous for workshopping new songs as part of tour performances, practically composing during onstage improv. Well-loved hit “Althea” was brainstormed live for three long years before it was committed to wax on 1980’s Go to Heaven. Such untiring efforts at road-worn, in-flux artistic production remained common throughout the Dead’s original tenure, from the 1960s to the ’90s. To this day, some of their most iconic originals, like “The Eleven,” “Bertha,” and “Jack Straw,” remain untouched in-studio. 

Dead & Company work very differently. They don’t write new songs, onstage or in-studio, and yet they aren’t just a cover band. Even without Jerry Garcia, the presence on stage of Weir, as well as Hart and, usually, Kreutzmann, dispels any feelings of inauthenticity one may associate with a tribute act, no matter how much they may resemble the original. Weir, for instance, is no impersonator: his playing possesses both the uniqueness and the “locale,” the irreplaceable cultural and physical place, that philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin associated with the “aura” of an original artwork. This aura, a kind of aesthetic presence that resembles religious experience, “the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be,” can never emanate from an artwork’s reproduction. There is no other Bob Weir but the one onstage, maybe a few yards away from the viewer, yet never as unnaturally immediate as a hologram or recording. Same, of course, for Hart and Kreutzmann. 

Eight years on, no one needs to be convinced: with Dead & Company, the Dead have been back, playing their hardest in front of the greatest crowds, athletically channeling a novel form of artistic productivity beyond original composition.

Yet it is not the presence of original members alone that makes Dead & Company live. In their athletic devotion to creative performance, they overflow the niche reserved for legacy acts. This incarnation of the Dead is grinding, achieving illumination, not in the Dionysian dissipations of 60 years ago, but through a different kind of expenditure, enormous in magnitude: a pouring of energy into the recursive attempt to remain sharp. Take as example “Althea.” Dead & Company’s creative variations of this song alone showcase the artistic value of their vigorous physical commitment to performance. Cue the muscular groove at Playing in the Sand, Riviera Maya, Mexico (February 15, 2018); the harsh, Q-Tron–heavy performance at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio (November 25, 2017); the almost musique concrète screeches at Citi Field, Queens, New York (July 15, 2022). Even on this summer’s Final Tour, Dead & Company have been giving us iterations of “Althea” that any listener would recognize as familiar, yet daring at the same time. 

Dead & Company balance the inherited Grateful Dead songbook with frankly vanguardist ambitions, invoking the original only to surpass them. They emanate their own aura, their performances making no attempt to match or reproduce a mourned original. The ultimate result of expensive, persistent commitment, Dead & Company compensate for the end of original songwriting through sheer athleticism, an almost uncanny degree of physical and mental clarity that put them ultimately in the position to daringly pursue advanced insight. They are not racing against a shadow self, not racing to beat their personal record: they are just racing. 

Antonio Lenzo

Antonio Lenzo

Publab Fellow 2023

Antonio Lenzo is a writer, scholar and translator based between Rome and the Bay Area, writing about contemporary and medieval literature, critical theory, and trans studies in English and Italian. Having studied English literature at Stanford and King’s College, London, Antonio’s research work has queried the intersection of manuscript studies, devotional literature and theory, as well as premodern representations of transgender subjectivity in hagiography. Antonio has experience as a college instructor and a communicator, as well.