The Grateful Dead’s legacy is carved in stone.
The legendary outfit — which formed in 1965 in Palo Alto but is associated with Marin County— will always be remembered as one of the most influential and important bands in rock ‘n’ roll history.
It helped define a specific era of music — ‘60s psychedelic rock — yet the group also continued to win over new fans during its entire 30-year run.
Now, more than 25 years after the band called it quits following the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995, the Grateful Dead’s music remains as popular as ever.
So, really, there’s not much point in discussing whether the group has earned its spot in the pantheon of music greats, alongside the likes of Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin and R.E.M. That case was closed when the Grateful Dead was rightfully inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
What is up for debate, however, is the lasting significance of the band’s best-known offshoot.
In other words, what will be the legacy of Dead & Company?
With the group set to bring its blockbuster farewell tour to a close with a trio of sold-out shows, July 14 to 16, at Oracle Park in San Francisco, we figured the time was right to brooch the subject with some longtime Dead followers.
The first one on our list, as is the case in all Grateful Dead-related matters, was Dennis McNally, the longtime Dead publicist who authored the definitive book on the band — “A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead.”
McNally first provides a little perspective and history, linking Dead & Company’s origins to the Fare Thee Well concerts that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead in 2015. Those five shows — three at Soldier Field in Chicago and a pair at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara — were publicized as the last time that longtime Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart would perform together.
Many assumed that this would be the last big hurrah for the Grateful Dead. Yet, it turned out to be quite the opposite.
“In fact, the Fare Thee Well shows, despite the name, signaled a re-igniting of the Deadhead phenomenon, so much so that there are far more Deadheads in 2023 than in 1995,” McNally says. “What happened was that the fans, probably more subconsciously than anything else, decided that it wasn’t just the band they loved, it was the music, and that it was a matter of taste who played it.”
So, just a month after waving goodbye to fans at the Fare Thee Well shows, three of those four longtime Dead members — Weir, Hart and Kreutzmann — announced that they’d be opening up their beloved songbook once again in a (somewhat) new group called Dead & Company.
Of course, nobody batted an eye when it was announced that two longtime members of the extended Dead/jam-rock community — bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti — would take part in the project. (Also, Jay Lane, another regular collaborator, is filling in for Kreutzmann on this tour.)
Yet, many were deeply surprised by the news that pop star John Mayer — despite being a talented guitarist, he was best known for the Grammy-winning soft-rock hits “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” “Daughters” and “Waiting on the World to Change” — would be joining the fold.
“There’s no shortage of irony for that,” says Joel Selvin, who covered the Grateful Dead and the Bay Area music scene for decades for the San Francisco Chronicle. “This guy was a teenybopper star. I saw him at Shoreline when he was ‘Your Body Is a Wonderland’ and it was all 15-year-old girls.”
Built to last?
Selvin learned about an amazing musical phenomenon while researching his book “Fare Thee Well: The Final Chapter of the Grateful Dead’s Long, Strange Trip,” which covered the band’s journey from the time Jerry Garcia died through the 50th anniversary shows in 2015.
“I came to understand that a subculture had evolved around the Grateful Dead — like a vortex, trailing them — of jam bands and younger musicians who wanted to be part of the scene and adopted the repertoire,” he said. “And not the least of them were the post-Jerry (Grateful Dead) groups — the Furthurs and all that.
“They just sort of set the tone for, ‘Yeah, you can do this at home, kids.’”
Thus, countless jam bands — and Dead-related projects — followed in the wake of Garcia’s death.
“Of course, Dead & Co. was the senior member of all those bands — there are approximately 800 Dead tribute/cover bands going at present — which is why they’ve been able to sell out stadiums for the past eight years,” McNally says.
Yet, don’t try telling David Gans that Dead & Company is a mere tribute band.
“Tribute band, my ass,” says the co-host of “Tales From the Golden Road” show on SiriusXM’s Grateful Dead Channel. “It’s members of the band playing the music that they invented with musicians of their choosing — until the end of their days. They are entitled to do that. And they are (expletive) doing a great job of it.
Selvin agrees that the group has distinguished itself from the Grateful Dead’s other post-Garcia projects on the live stage.
“Dead & Company was the best of all those efforts, whether you are talking Ratdog or Furthur or Phil & Friends,” he says. “That said, they are still a cover band.”
And that, he says, is what really keeps Dead & Company from having its own legacy.
“How can there be a legacy for Dead & Company when all they are doing is reflecting the legacy of the Grateful Dead?” he asks.
Still, that hasn’t stopped the band from selling hundreds of thousands of concert tickets to a fan base built from both longtime Deadheads and younger fans who never got the chance to see Garcia in concert.
“The Grateful Dead did two things,” McNally says. “They fused jazz improvisation with rock forms to create a unique context for their music. It wasn’t for everyone, but for a certain type of person, it was ideal. Secondly, they created a community. And Dead & Co. has nurtured both those ideals brilliantly.”
It’s understandable why fans have embraced Dead & Company, Selvin says.
“Everybody doesn’t want the party to end,” he reasons. “But here’s the deal: I remember the Grateful Dead. This isn’t it.”
Well, the party won’t end for at least three more nights — as Dead & Co. plays its final shows in San Francisco. Yet, what will happen once the last tied-dyed shirt exits Oracle Park on Sunday night?
“The Deadhead dream will endure,” McNally concludes, “even after Dead & Co. takes its rest.”