The Member Of Phish That Was Almost In Dead & Company
“It was the biggest dream going that I’ve ever had to say no to.”
Back in April 2015, reports surfaced about the pending establishment of the band that would become known as Dead & Company. In late June and early July 2015, Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio participated in the Grateful Dead 50th anniversary “Fare Thee Well” concerts with surviving “core four” members of the legendary band, bassist Phil Lesh, guitarist Bob Weir and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart.
The new band would include Weir, Kreutzmann and Hart, along with keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, who was part of the “Fare The Well” band. The role Anastasio played at “Fare The Well” went to guitarist John Mayer in Dead & Company. Despite Anastasio’s absence, there was still a Phish connection to Dead & Company’s initial formation.
Anastasio’s Phish bandmate, bassist Mike Gordon was the initial choice to play bass for Dead & Company. Gordon went so far as to participate in several days’ worth of rehearsals, but his commitments with Phish and his solo work led to him ultimately bowing out of Dead & Company. Kreutzmann suggested Oteil Burbridge and the bass player role ultimately went to the former Aquarium Rescue Unit/The Allman Brothers Band bassist.
“It’s such a dream gig,” Gordon told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in June 2016 about playing with Dead & Co. “I went for a week of rehearsals. I was flattered they wanted me as the first choice for bass. The prospect of doing it was exciting. I love the Grateful Dead. It was the biggest dream going that I’ve ever had to say no to. Phish has made a career out of saying no to things. We’re trying to stay on our own personal paths of integrity.”
In January 2016, Gordon talked to Relix about his decision to forgo membership in Dead & Company.
“One of the main reasons I didn’t do the John Mayer/ Grateful Dead tour [Dead & Company] was because what I want to be doing with my time at 50 is writing and recording, and the Dead tour didn’t leave enough time for it,” Gordon told Relix. “I hope I get to play with all of those guys again—and I hope they aren’t mad at me—because I have so much respect for them. But it seemed like the right decision because that’s what I have been doing.
In April 2017, Weir talked to Relix about Gordon’s short stint with the band. Weir also talked about the decision to go with Burbridge and his impact on the music.
“Mike gave it a shot and it worked out pretty well, but then he decided he had too much on his plate, so we kept looking and we ended up with Oteil,” Weir said, “And I’m glad that happened because Oteil is just a different style of bass player, so we can take the songs places that they don’t particularly go when we have a lead instrumentalist on the bass. It showcases the songs a little more and showcases the playing a little less.”
In April 2023, Gordon made an appearance on guitarist Cory Wong’s Wong Notes podcast. Dead & Company rehearsals came up during Gordon’s discussion with Wong. When discussing Gordon’s use of a pick while playing bass, he shared an anecdote about Burbridge contacting him for advice.
“I was the first bass player to do rehearsals for what became Dead Company,” Gordon told Wong. “Then I had to do other things, so they got him [Burbridge]. A few years into it, he gave me a call and he said, ‘How do you EQ for a pick? How do you – what’s your strategy for getting the sound right with a pick?’
“For him to ask me anything about bass is a big honor because I just love his playing so much. He said there’s just certain songs in the repertoire that seem to really need it. His example was ‘Bertha,’ which is bouncy, so maybe it has to do with that. I told him some tricks that I had learned in the war zone of playing with a pick and I don’t know that he ever… Last time I Googled him playing, it was no pick.”
Gordon went even deeper into his experience at the early Dead & Company rehearsals during his Wong Notes interview. An exercise Weir tasked the band with had a profound affect on Gordon, so much so that he brought it to both his solo band and Phish. An excerpt of the transcript follows:
“I’ve talked about it before, but this thing about nonvarying versus varying – when I was in that week of rehearsals for what became Dead & Company, standing next to John Mayer and we were all playing a lot of notes.
“And four days in, Bobby [Weir] said, ‘Can we do an experiment?’ He said, ‘Let’s just stay on one chord. We can play the song, but not with singing, and not with any embellishing, and not with any chord changes. In fact, nothing’s gonna change. Just get on the chord and play that pattern for 20 or 30 minutes.’
“Which is basically forever for musicians who are used to getting into this noodling business, which can sometimes be cool and sometimes can be the death of – I mean… I hate jam bands. Jam band is a terrible world word because so much of the time it is that noodling. There’s no connection. It doesn’t feel like there’s connection and power, but to have that and then transcend it in ways that people who would never think to listen to a jam band would, I guess would happen.
“It is even more beautiful than knowing how to do it in the first place. Like a band that doesn’t play in 4/4 for 10 years and then starts, it’s even more rewarding.
“But Bobby had us playing whatever song, I don’t know, several songs. All day, half an hour each, without varying and it sounded more like a peak religious experience from when I used to see the Dead with Jerry Garcia still alive.
“It was more of a peak experience with the air around me crystallizing in this groove than any of the stuff where we were playing a million notes. That was life-changing. And with my band, we started doing this thing at almost every soundcheck called the nonvarying exercise. I even brought it to Phish at one point.
“We pick a groove, we pick a pattern, and we – Phish used to do these listening exercises, so it’s related to that, but it’s not the same – because all we do is once we pick it, we don’t change for 10 minutes and it’s amazing. It’s a peak experience.”
While the next non-touring chapter of Dead & Company unfolds, it is an interesting thought experiment to think about what might have been the band’s future had Gordon stuck with it. There’s also no denying that Burbridge’s outstanding contributions to Dead & Company are some of the group’s most impactful characteristics. Though, hearing Gordon sing “High Time” would be rather sweet.
Gordon’s primary concern, Phish, performs tonight with the first of two shows in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania. The bassist’s latest solo album, Flying Games, came out earlier this year.
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