Back when I was coming of age in the late seventies, the argument wasn’t Beatles versus Stones for rock supremacy; it was the Grateful Dead versus the Stones. The Beatles had long broken up, and the Dead were a touring machine. Plus for many of us in the throws of psychedelic exploration, the Dead were the band most tuned in to that consciousness.
So allow me a moment of grateful nostalgia to have attended recent back-to-back shows of the Stones and the Dead’s latest incarnation, Dead & Company. Ahh, live music again, from the most prolific touring bands in rock history. I love living in Southern California!
The Dead now features teen heartthrob John Mayer on lead guitar, filling the gargantuan shoes of Dead founder Jerry Garcia. That move alone turned off a lot of purists. But so be it. The king is dead and the show must go on. And, though many will claim heresy, Mayer is the better guitarist. No knock on Jerry’s singular musicianship, high, nasally singing voice, and unbelievably prolific songwriting skills. He was the heart and soul of the band. It’s just that Mayer is the more versatile virtuoso. He can emulate Jerry’s sound and take you into the vortex of the Dead’s distinctive oeuvre, but he delivers so much more as a stylist capable of jazz, blues and even classical runs in the improvisational jams. Together with keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and bassist Oteil Burbridge, they took the music in sonic directions not heard before. And yes, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir still propels the music forward with his singular lyrical style and walrus-like appearance, but the band is clearly energized by this new cadre of players willing to work and re-work classics into new directions.
All the accouterments of a Dead show were there: the long sets, improvisational jams, space drum interlude, and unexpected medleys that included the trippy “Dark Star” into the country “El Paso”, and then somehow back to “Dark Star”. Plus the twirling, patchouli-wearing younger girls clogging the walkways in singular abandon. Yes, Dead and Company continues to put on an extraordinary show all these years later, with an amazing array of age groups signifying that great jam music defies demographics.
Speaking of never aging, a week later there was Mick Jagger and Keith Richards still rocking in Las Vegas at the only job they have ever known since 1962—nearly 60 years ago. The band still puts out an aura of the danger that led them to multiple drug arrests in the 60’s and 70’s, but the soon-to-be octogenarians seem to have weathered well, despite Richards’ well-documented past heroin addiction, and Jagger’s recent heart surgery. There was Mick ecstatically dancing and running a marathon on stage, and Richards’ broad smile and surprise at, well, being there at all. The Stones were back after cancelling their 2019 tour, and showing the kids how to be rock stars.
Running though hit after hit, it came flooding back just how many great songs they’ve written in a staggering variety of idioms over the years. And how this is a true guitar band, with Richards iconic rhythm riffs that are so instantly recognizable, and Ronnie Wood’s inimitable leads. You can understand why they still feel the need to do it. They don’t need the money, but nothing could possibly feel better than trading licks with each other while Jagger handles the showmanship. My ears and body were exhausted after this three-hour sonic assault. But the band looked like they could have played another set.
So who is better—Stones or the Dead? Don’t even start. They’re alive, and all I care about is that I can still take a trip down memory lane to the soundtrack of my life. The Stones have the swagger. But I liked the musical direction the Dead have taken in stretching their material in new directions, with new time signatures and phrasing. They’ve done these songs thousands of times, why not go somewhere new? And as far as stamina is concerned, yes the Stones are more physical on stage, but they take four or five days in between every show to recover. Not the Dead. They did three consecutive 3-and-a-half-hour shows over Halloween and barely left two days in between shows on a tour that started in August. Did I mention they were a touring machine?”
But I’m not choosing because, as the Stones know all too well, “Oh no, it’s only rock and roll, and I like it, I like it, yes I do.”
Billy can be reached at [email protected]