Dead & Company: What A Long, Strange (Extended) Trip It’s Been

FRIENDS OF THE DEVIL: Dead & Co.’s Oteil Burbridge and Bob Weir are pictured on stage during the band’s July 3 show at Boulder, Colorado’s Folsom Field. Photo by Jay Blakesberg

The wheel takes a final turn for Dead & Company as the supergroup settles into San Francisco for its three-night swan song July 14-16 at Oracle Park.

Since its 2015 formation – when the band consisted of original Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, along with John Mayer, Otiel Burbridge and Jeff Chimenti – D&C have been one of the most consistently successful touring outfits. Kreutzmann did not go out on the final tour, replaced by Jay Lane.

Irving Azoff, who along with Steve Moir co-manages Dead & Company with Activist Artists Management’s Bernie Cahill, said he wasn’t surprised by the band’s phenomenal tour success and boffo box office numbers, which include an impressive total tour gross thus far of more than $434.2 million and 4.08 million tickets sold.

“Once I saw it the first time, I knew it would work,” Azoff said. 

Dead & Company are pictured at Cornell University’s Barton Hall, May 8. (Photo by Jay Blakesberg) Pick Up This Issue of Pollstar Here

Liz Norris, partner at Activist Artists, concurs. “I’ll never forget the first show in 2015 at Madison Square Garden, looking out into the crowd and seeing so many tears of joy,” she said. “We knew it was the beginning of something special.”

Azoff (who is also co-founder of Pollstar parent company Oak View Group) also acknowledges that it’s hard to compare Dead & Co. to what came before the 1995 death of Jerry Garcia, the band’s virtuoso lead guitarist and spiritual anchor. He rightfully calls The Grateful Dead, “one of the icons,” alongside bands like the Beach Boys or Eagles, whom he’s managed since 1972.  “I don’t think you can say it’s culturally more important,” he said. “It’s enough to say it just added to the mystique.”

That mystique began some 60 years ago in an alley off University Avenue in Palo Alto, California, on New Year’s Eve in 1963, when a 16-year-old Bob Weir heard Jerry Garcia’s banjo strains coming from a music store. Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, the Dead were a counterculture phenomenon borne of the Bay Area’s vibrant music scene and a certain amount of LSD experimentation. The Dead were the house band on Ken Kesey’s Magic Bus, made famous in Tom Wolfe’s masterwork “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” 

Primary lyricist Robert Hunter famously took part in the MKUltra mind control experiments, getting dosed with acid and other hallucinogens. One of the Dead’s sound engineers, Stanley Owsley, was a prolific producer of “super clean” LSD. Steely Dan celebrates him in their song, “Kid Charlemagne.” And Garcia’s nickname was “Captain Trips.”

Though the Dead catalog is filled with classic songs, it’s telling that they released 13 studio albums and 77 live albums and had virtually no radio hits, save their late-career song “Touch of Grey” from 1987, which made it into the Top Ten. They were instead pioneers of live, performing more than 2,300 concerts in the Garcia years while forming the live industry’s bedrock. 

Deadheads, the nickname for devout fans, often spoke of the “X-Factor,” that is how each performance was unique unto itself and something that could never be replicated in a studio.

Fans were encouraged to openly record shows, with cassettes traded, shared and fetishized around the world. Outside each show was “Shakedown Street,” a Deadhead street bazaar and tailgate party where community thrived and unique merch and mind-altering substances, not to mention tickets, tapes, T-shirts, posters, jewelry, candles and even transportation could be sold, bartered, imbibed or just given away (“miracles”). The flea market was in rare form during the July 7 and 8 shows at the Gorge Amphitheatre in Central Washington, and the converted school buses chugging along Interstate 90 afterward were further reminders of an ethos that lives on.

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BOULDER DANCE: Dead & Company’s final tour has included a few surprises, including an appearance by Dave Matthews at Folsom Field, in Boulder, Colorado, on July 3. Photo by Jay Blakesberg

A feature of Dead & Co. shows that also built upon that community aspect was Participation Row, conducted with Reverb, that championed causes dear to the band without proselytizing. “We couldn’t be prouder of Participation Row and how much the fans have embraced it, said Kristina “Red” Tanner, Partner, Activist Artists Management. “The amount of money raised and actions taken by fans gets bigger every year.”

In their day, the Dead created their own mail order ticketing service, invested in state-of-the-art audio and visuals and had their own communal security that looked out for one another, the occasional biker run-in notwithstanding. 

Nearly 30 years since Garcia’s untimely 1995 death, the Dead’s influence is still enormous. From fashion to literature to a host of bands – not to mention original Dead bassist-led Phil Lesh and Friends, Kreutzmann’s Billy and the Kids, Hart’s Planet Drum and Weir’s Wolf Brothers project – the band’s deep-rooted family tree spreads far and wide.

Most surprising, though, is that the cultural and commercial influence is quantifiably bigger in the live space than ever before. Cahill says “Final Tour” merchandise sales have set records at virtually every tour stop, sometimes outpacing food and beverage per head, as was the case at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

“We were getting real-time numbers from our partner Bruce Fingeret at Merch Traffic,” Cahill said. “We broke every record that he was aware of.”

The Dead’s voluminous songbook, which includes Weir’s work with lyricist John Perry Barlow, will no doubt help propel the legacy, and there’s nothing like live Dead.

“Those songs need to live,” Weir told “CBS Sunday Morning”’s John Blackstone in November when talking about Dead & Co. and how his good friend Garcia comes to him in dreams to work on songs. 

“The characters need to live and breathe and grow,” he said of the likes of Jack Straw and August West. “They’re living critters.”

Mayer went into the project with an appropriate amount of respect for fans.  “I wanted to honorably introduce myself,” Mayer told Rolling Stone in 2016. “And I got the sense that as hard as they guard the gate on the way in, they defend you that hard once you’re through.” 

Millions of former skeptics, having witnessed his virtuosity are now converted Mayer fans. 

“He wasn’t trying to be Jerry,” says Steve Moir, who co-manages Mayer with Azoff, and also knew his client’s pairing with Weir and the rest of the band was a winner from the get-go. “They love each other, they play well together and they really enjoy it.”

Cahill had high praise for tour partner Live Nation, particularly CEO Michael Rapino and Ryan McElrath, SVP, N. American touring. “They supported us from the very beginning and got the vision from the very beginning, when we hadn’t even played a show yet,” he said. “We went through the pandemic with those guys. When we told them we needed half a million dollars to create health perimeters so that the tour could carry on, all Live Nation did was say yes.”

The band and Live Nation hired 400-plus people, who traveled from city to city along with the regular crew of around 120, to run health perimeters at venues.

“That was very expensive and there was an incredible amount of brain damage,” Cahill said. “I remember Ryan meeting at Citi Field at eight in the morning to do a walk-through to see how this would work. It had never been done before. The alternative was to cancel the tour and stay home like a lot of bands.”

“The Final Tour” was virtually sold out, but some tickets were available for under $100.

“Most final tours, you wouldn’t be able to get a ticket for less than $1,000,” Cahill said. “I feel very good about how it played out and where we landed.”

In some ways, an act like Dead & Co. sells itself, but Michele Bernstein, who has handled the band’s marketing since it formed, says there are golden opportunities in the Dead oeuvre. “You get to do a lot of things that are out of the box,” she said. “But you still have to work at it.”

Examples include themed baked goods sent to press, ski slope marketing, Dead & Co. night at baseball games and skydiving dancing bears.

Having seen Dead & Co. eight times, including the 46th anniversary benefit concert commemorating their famed Barton Hall show in Ithaca, New York, in 1977, it’s clear to this reporter, whose first show was in 1976, that the contemporary appeal of all things Dead remains potent. And while many top acts play strictly choreographed sets, Dead & Company offer plenty of surprises. 

The July 1-3 shows at the University of Colorado’s Folsom Field in Boulder, the only ones done by AEG Presents, included a drone display put together on relatively short notice, the same night that a lightning delay preceded a cameo by Dave Matthews.

“I got a call from Don (Strasburg, VP and senior talent buyer for AEG Live Rocky Mountains) who said we just did this with Illenium (at Denver’s Empower Field at Mile High) and I would love to do this as a send-off to the band as a thank you for their time performing in our stadium,” said Ryan Gottlieb, associate athletic director in charge of revenue generation. “We quickly got all the campus approvals to fly 650 drones.”

It’s par for the course when it comes to the Dead, always innovators in lights and sound. “From the beginning, having lived in San Francisco and seeing them when their first record came out, they’ve never done anything exactly the same,” Moir said. “That’s why their fans follow them everywhere they go.”

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PLAYING IN THE BAND: Dead & Co’s Oteil Burbridge, Bob Weir, John Mayer, Mickey Hart, Jeff Chimenti and Jay Lane are pictured at New Orleans’ Jazz Fest on May 6. Photo by Jay Blakesberg

With Dead & Company seeming to get better with each tour, some fans are wondering why it must come to an end or if this is truly it for Weir, Mayer and the rest.

“Touring is physically hard and nobody wants anybody to get really sick out there,” Azoff said. “Billy (Kreutzmann) got really sick last year, and I think that freaked Steve (Moir) and I and Bernie (Cahill) out. If it would have been this year, rather than last, you’d look at it and say, ‘Hey, maybe this shouldn’t be over, but look, Mickey is a wonderful soul and a lovely guy and he can say, ‘I can go forever,’ and Bob would say the same thing, but the rigors of 30-some nights with trucks and buses and airplanes and all the moving around, probably for both the quality of the music and the health/safety it was time to at least put an end to the touring.”

“These guys love each other and the music stands for itself,” Azoff continued. “The touring parts are over, but there are still special events I’m sure will get offered to them, and you never say never. I’ve learned from managing the Eagles all these years that you never ask that question while the tour is going on. You’ve got to let them finish it, get some rest and get back to their lives and the future will bring what it brings.”

Or to put it another way: Comes a time to go back home, sit down and patch those bones before even thinking about whether to get back truckin’ on