In Praise Of John Mayer’s Unlikely Second Life As A Jam Band Hero

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Around this time of the year, the annual “Song Of The Summer” debate inevitably becomes a thing, even if one song rarely dominates the collective consciousness in these fractured times. For instance, a song that has stuck with me like a mosquito to a porch light this summer is “New Light,” a lightly funky soft-rock confection by John Mayer that sounds like something Jack Tripper would’ve heard at the Regal Beagle in 1981. (If the words “Boz Scaggs” mean anything to you, you will like “New Light.”) But “New Light” isn’t really a hit — it didn’t dent the Hot 100, and peaked at only no. 7 on the Hot Rock Songs chart before slowly slipping down. Not that any of this seems to bother Mayer.

“The great thing about being 40 is that you have seen the lifespan of people’s opinion,” Mayer told Apple Music’s Zane Lowe in May. “I have selectively retired from certain things. I’ve retired from the idea that this song you hear is going to make me a star…a bigger star, and that I’m going to win a record of the year. I think that’s up to other people now and I’m just more excited by the fact that I can do anything today.”

The Apple Music interview is a fascinating example of the duality that has come to define John Mayer’s career. Lowe treated Mayer as a kind of tenured troubadour, whose contemporary relevance to the pop mainstream is his role as mentor to current “white guy with a guitar” hitmakers like Ed Sheeran and Shawn Mendes. At one point, Mayer even referred to himself as a “teacher,” the surest sign that he’s retired from “young turk” status. But the main reason why Mayer can afford to contentedly wave goodbye to his pop career was only glancingly referenced by Lowe during the hour-plus conversation.

Since 2015, Mayer has played guitar in Dead & Company, an offshoot of the Grateful Dead formed by guitarist Bob Weir and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart. In the mainstream media, Dead & Company typically warrants only a passing reference when discussing Mayer. For instance, a lengthy New York Times profile timed with Mayer’s 2017 album The Search For Everything mentions Dead & Company just once, referring to it as a “side gig” in the fourth paragraph from the bottom. And yet, by the end of 2017, after The Search For Everything failed to reignite Mayer’s flagging pop stardom, Dead & Company was ranked among the highest grossing tour attractions in the country, raking in more than $50 million.

This summer, Mayer is back on the road playing Grateful Dead favorites in amphitheaters and stadiums across the country — the tour launched in late May, around the time that “New Light” peaked on the rock songs chart, and continues with dates in July and August. Not bad for a “side project” that is now a focal point for the latest chapter in Mayer’s career.

John Mayer lives such an unlikely musical double-life that most people on either side won’t even acknowledge his “other” half. The pop-oriented press tends to ignore his jammy excursions, and the jam world is fine considering him almost solely as a highly proficient guitarist. It’s a fascinating case study in two very different scenes that normally regard each other with disdain sharing joint custody of a talented musician with a sometimes dubious past.

At first, it was hard not to view the marriage of convenience between Mayer and Dead & Company with extreme cynicism. For three-fourths of the Dead’s surviving members — only bassist Phil Lesh declined to join the “new” band — Dead & Company seemed like a cheat after 2015’s highly successful Fare Thee Well concerts in Chicago and Santa Clara, California, which were billed as a grand finale for one of America’s most storied institutions. And enlisting Mayer of all people as a replacement for the late Jerry Garcia was flat-out perverse for many Deadheads.

Mayer responded to the skepticism by being endlessly respectful of the Dead’s legacy in interviews and on stage, where he has given himself over fully to the band’s aesthetic, aping Garcia’s distinctive guitar tone and adapting to the band’s improvisational, occasionally chaotic jamming style on traditional epics like “Dark Star” and “Bird Song.” But you can also hear Mayer molding his bandmates — even as his playing has gotten looser, the veteran Dead guys have sounded a little more polished and professional.

Mayer’s reverence has not gone unnoticed. After initially dismissing his “Blues Hammer melodrama, flashy stage moves, and fashion awareness,” Pitchfork’s Jesse Jarnow actually came around to praise Mayer in 2016 for “being a conduit for the band on his own terms,” drawing in a new generation of fans who love Grateful Dead bootlegs but were born too late to ever experience the Garcia iteration firsthand. For that audience, Mayer is now as much a fixture of Dead lore as the three old guys. Last month, when Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon joined Dead & Company for several songs during a concert in East Troy, Wis., it was the hip indie-rocker who drew the ire of vocal critics, not the reliable, handsome pop star who has long since proven himself.

Open-minded Dead freaks might even concede that the gap between the band’s stadium-filling ’80s period — which Dead & Company most resembles — and the tasteful blues pop that Mayer staked his solo career on isn’t as wide as some diehards want to believe. After the addition of keyboardist Brent Mydland in 1979, the Grateful Dead released 1980’s Go To Heaven, their yacht-rockiest album, with an infamously majestic all-white album cover that made the Dead look like the Doobie Brothers after an unfortunate bus accident.

The highlight of Go To Heaven is “Althea,” the slyest love song in the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter songbook, with a lazy, rolling guitar riff that putters with understated deftness. Mayer first heard “Althea” in 2011, on a Pandora station that pulled up the song randomly. A devotee of Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mayer knew virtually nothing at the time about the Dead. But he loved “Althea.” An obsession with that song turned into an intense Dead phase that blossomed into enduring fandom.

At first, Mayer would listen to the band constantly on satellite radio while driving around L.A. Then, he downloaded every edition of the “Dick’s Picks” series of archival live recordings onto his phone. After that, he made two albums, 2012’s Born and Raised and 2013’s Paradise Valley, influenced by the Dead’s two most famous records, 1969’s Workingman’s Dead and 1970’s American Beauty.

Mayer has expressed preference for the R&B-leaning numbers in the Dead catalog, particularly “Sugaree,” “They Love Each Other,” and “Loser.” Again, these laidback songs aren’t that far removed from the music that Mayer made even before his Dead conversion, including multi-platinum albums like 2001’s Room For Squares and 2003’s Heavier Things, which leaven radio-made pop hooks with slickly performed blues licks, like Dire Straits for millennials.

Mayer’s fascination with the Grateful Dead coincided with the lowest point of his professional life. In 2010, in an interview with Playboy, Mayer casually joked about having a “hood pass” — presumably because of his relationships with Dave Chappelle and Kanye West — adding that this honorary distinction should really be called an “n-word pass.” Only he didn’t say “n-word.”

There were other lows in that interview that have since been rehashed in dozens of interviews and think pieces — blaming his aversion to dating black women on his “white supremacist” penis, likening Jessica Simpson to “sexual napalm,” and other displays of thoughtless boorishness. In a way, Mayer was lucky that he wasn’t wiped off the face of the planet right then and there. (The tolerance for race-related transgressions is far lower now than it was even in the first part of this decade.) This is not to say life was easy for John Mayer in the early 2010s. The Playboy fallout put a permanent dark cloud over him for a while. He become the Job of pop music, subjected to musical taunts from Taylor Swift and, more seriously, a throat condition that compromised his ability to sing and subsequently required surgery.

For Mayer, joining Dead & Company was both a chance to reboot as a guitar hero — which Mayer previously attempted in the mid-’00s with 2005’s Try! and 2006’s Continuum, his best “rock”-oriented records — as well as an opportunity to access an audience less concerned about his past sins.

In the pop world, Mayer’s reputation as an uncouth womanizer who also makes deeply uncool, middle-of-the-road pop-rock continues to haunt him. “John Mayer Knows He Messed Up. He Wants Another Chance” was the headline on that New York Times piece from 2017, which begins with several paragraphs recounting the controversy from 2010. But in the jam world, fans and critics only care about Mayer’s ability to replicate Jerry’s old feel in “Feel Like A Stranger” or “Eyes Of The World.”

So long as he can pull that off every night, Mayer will have a loyal following of Deadheads for the rest of his career. Just ask Bruce Hornsby, who had a Mayer-like career as a MOR singer-songwriter in the ’80s before joining the Dead as an occasional member in the early ’90s, a connection that acted as a kind of Deadhead baptism that changed how his music was perceived forever afterward.

This has already started to happen with Mayer. Now that he’s been integrated into the Dead family tree, his soft-rock past seems comparable to Mydland’s Chicago-like deep cuts on ’80s Dead studio albums, or even Weir’s schlocky bar-band side project, Bobby and the Midnites. The longer he plays with Dead & Company, the easier it becomes to imagine that he always belonged there, merging his two prodigal halves into a strangely cohesive whole.