For Deadheads who enjoy Dead & Company, John Mayer has certainly earned his seat at the family table. Over the course of five tours with the band—each one better than the last—the hardworking guitar-slinger has embraced Jerry Garcia’s tone, devoted himself wholly to one of rock’s largest repertoires, and engaged his strong blues background in his distinctive interpretations of the music.
While his presence on the scene has certainly attracted a new wave of participants to the Grateful Dead experience, longtime Dead fans may be excited to find that Mayer’s own music is more accessible than they might believe from reading the tabloids. He discovered the Dead in 2011 (after hearing “Althea” on Pandora Radio, incidentally), and much of his music since then has borne their influence. Still, some of Mayer’s earlier work also has something to offer even the staunchest classic rock fans. Here, in no particular order, are ten songs from John Mayer’s solo repertoire for curious Deadheads to dip their feet into:
“Queen of California”
From Mayer’s first Grateful Dead-influenced album, Born and Raised (2012), this easy-going acoustic guitar-driven track feels at home with the folksy tunes that abound on Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty (both released in 1970). The song opens up further in its outro, with ornamentation from a pedal steel featuring prominently as Mayer weaves through the mix with a thumb-and-fingerstyle electric guitar picking technique that Dead & Company fans will find familiar. In recent solo performances, Mayer has taken to segueing from “Queen of California” into the Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain”, which shares a similarly laid-back groove.
“Emoji of a Wave”
If Deadheads can get past the new-school name, they’ll find that this tune is a work of lyrical honesty polished with softly fingerpicked acoustic guitar, orchestral strings, and dynamic vocal melodies. From John Mayer’s most recent album, The Search for Everything (2017), “Emoji of a Wave” echoes the sound of some of the Dead’s most iconic folk arrangements like “Peggy-O” and “Oh, Babe It Ain’t No Lie” and channels the sentiments of moving Garcia/Hunter ballads like “To Lay Me Down”.
A funky, driving, instantly catchy guitar riff lies at the core of this one. Mayer’s self-reported preference for R&B-leaning songs like “Althea” and “They Love Each Other” reveals an attachment to fingerpicked, syncopated electric guitar riffs which he shows in his own solo work. One of the earliest examples of that affinity, “Neon” is a standout track from 2002’s Room for Squares, an album that contained some of his most enduring hits. Take a listen to the version from the live album Where the Light Is: John Mayer Live in Los Angeles for a taste of the jamming Deadheads would come to love.
“Waiting on the World to Change”
One of Mayer’s biggest hits from 2006’s Continuum, an album often acknowledged as his best to date, the song “Waiting On the World to Change” typifies his distinct brand of pop-rock with well-placed offbeat snare hits and a funky instrumental breakdown in the bridge. Thanks to the tune’s high register, Mayer leaves his breathy voice behind in favor of the clearer tone he demonstrates on such Dead & Company renditions as “Brown Eyed Women” and “Franklin’s Tower”.
“In The Blood”
Deadheads, listen with an open heart, for “In the Blood” is one of Mayer’s most intensely personal compositions from The Search for Everything. Backed by vocals from Sheryl Crow, he reflects on how his family and background have shaped him, and whether there is much anybody can do to grow and change independently of their upbringing and parentage. Sonically and sentimentally reminiscent of “Standing on the Moon”, Mayer’s tone of honest contemplation shines brilliantly through an intuitive vocal melody, ensuring that listeners can easily recall the lyrics to ponder for themselves long after the song has ended.
“Born and Raised” [and “Born and Raised (Reprise)”]
The title track of the first album Mayer wrote after listening to the Dead for the first time, “Born and Raised” is a beautifully composed (and typically reflective) Bob Dylan-esque tune centered upon acoustic guitar and harmonica and colored by an organ. Notably, David Crosby and Graham Nash lend their voices to the harmonies which drive the song’s chorus. The two-minute reprise, which completes the album, employs more vocal harmony and a light shuffle to evoke the sound of Grateful Dead tunes like “Uncle John’s Band” and popular covers like “The Weight”. Together, the two parts of “Born and Raised” clearly show the influence of Dylan, the Dead, The Band, and others on Mayer’s recent songwriting and composition projects.
“Slow Dancing in a Burning Room”
If there is a quintessential John Mayer song, this is it, and this blues-powered breakup ballad from Continuum remains one of his concert staples. “Slow Dancing” uses a simple, evocative arrangement and melancholy lyrics to create an atmosphere reminiscent of Grateful Dead tunes like “Lady With a Fan” and “He’s Gone”. The performance from Where the Light Is is miles ahead of the studio version and features soulful backup singing and a masterful, expressive guitar solo outro.
“Roll It On Home”
The most obvious nod to the Grateful Dead on The Search for Everything, “Roll It On Home” shows off Mayer’s distinct flavor of country rock. The lazy shuffle, pedal steel licks, and easy-going vocals provide the perfect conduit for a song about leaving the bar so late that “tonight’s already yesterday.” With this track, John Mayer channels the feeling of Dead tunes like “Dire Wolf” and others from Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty to ground the album in a more Bakersfield and Laurel Canyon-inspired sound.
Perhaps the most emotionally affecting track on Paradise Valley (2013), “Dear Marie” tells of Mayer’s hopeless attempts to track down his childhood love. Sung over a stripped-down acoustic blues arrangement for most of the song, poignant parallel-structure lyrics tug at the heartstrings in much the same way as ballads like “High Time” and “Morning Dew”. After singing the last of the verses, Mayer orchestrates an evolution in the tone, leading the band up into a major chord romp and leaving the heavy-hearted reflection in the rearview.
John Mayer has a rich history of performing and recording rock and blues covers that began long before his involvement with Dead & Company. Remarkable examples include Jimi Hendrix classics “Bold As Love” and “Wait Until Tomorrow” (from Continuum and Try!, respectively), Ray Charles’ “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” (Where the Light Is: John Mayer Live in Los Angeles), as well as a laid-back take on J.J. Cale’s “Call Me The Breeze” (Paradise Valley). Happy listening!