John Mayer had only 100 days to learn 100 songs. But not just any songs: Grateful Dead songs.
That was back in 2015, when Dead guitarist Bob Weir invited the "Your Body Is a Wonderland" singer to form Dead & Company, an offshoot of the original band with new members. To further complicate things, much of the material was unfamiliar to the 38-year-old, who had been only marginally aware of the Grateful Dead until shortly before.
"I saw the kids in my high school coming back from shows with Grateful Dead shirts," Mayer tells SF Weekly. "I wasn't a part of it, but it was always very exciting to hear about the shows."
Mayer's interest in the band developed in 2011, when he was listening to a station on Pandora that played Grateful Dead's lesser-known 1980 track "Althea." Though he had no idea who the artist was, he was drawn to the hypnotic guitar grooves and began devouring the Grateful Dead's catalog.
The Grateful Dead — consisting of guitarists Jerry Garcia and Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, drummer Bill Kreutzmann, and multi-instrumentalist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan — formed in Palo Alto in 1965 as part of the Bay Area's early psychedelic-rock movement. Over its 30-year career, which ended with Garcia's passing in 1995, the band released more than 20 albums, amassing a legion of diehard devotees known as Deadheads, who continue to follow the Grateful Dead's many offshoot bands, including RatDog, The Other Ones, Phil Lesh & Friends, The Dead, Rhythm Devils, Furthur, and now Dead & Company.
Four years after Mayer discovered the band, he was asked to take on temporary hosting duties of CBS's The Late Late Show for three nights. He invited Weir to join him for a couple of musical performances on the show, and on Feb. 5, the two performed "Althea" and "Truckin'" from the Grateful Dead's 1970 album, American Beauty.
"I had never experienced anything like that musically," Mayer recalls.
Weir, 68, felt similarly and began chatting with Mayer about the possibility of forming Dead & Company after the original band embarked on its 50th anniversary tour.
"Obviously, John's pretty accomplished at what he does," Weir says. "When John plays blues, you can hear what sub-genre he's going for, whether it's country or classic rock 'n' roll. That's what we've always been going for. So it was a no-brainer for me to hook up with him and chase this muse."
While the Grateful Dead toured, Mayer spent time learning material from the band's extensive catalog, even putting his upcoming solo album on hold. But he struggled with more than just learning the vocals and chords to the songs: He had to figure out what his role was as Garcia's replacement, too.
"It was a lot of really trying to get the combination right," Mayer says. "In what ways would I be doing the music and myself a disservice by trying to emulate [Garcia]? So what was almost harder than learning the songs was figuring out what to reproduce and ... the way that I wanted to go about playing the music."
When the Grateful Dead's anniversary tour ended in July 2015, Dead & Company was finally able to start practicing. In addition to Weir and Mayer, the band, which plays only Grateful Dead songs, includes Dead drummers Mickey Hart and Kreutzmann, RatDog keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, and Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge.
In the fall of that year, Dead & Company embarked on a 22-date nationwide tour, and it was during the middle of one set that Weir experienced what he calls a "vision" or "flash" that affirmed his decision to invite Mayer to join the band's ranks.
"Suddenly, I was viewing this from about 20 feet behind my head," Weir says. "I looked over at John from that point of view, and it was 20 years later. John's hair was almost gray. Then that same vision came back to me later that night in a dream. It changed my whole view of what we're up to."
With talks of more shows and a potential album down the road, Mayer knows that this is just the beginning.
"I will never close the door on Dead & Company," he says. "To play 'Brokedown Palace' at the end of the night and see what it does to people in the crowd, I just really experience the full circle-ness of it all. I can go, 'Wow, I remember when I was in high school. This was really cool, and I didn't understand it.' And now I understand it, and I'm helping provide it.'"