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

Getty Image

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.