The music never stops for the iconic co-founder of The Grateful Dead
Bob Weir will be spending Oct. 16 just as he should. It’s his 75th birthday and he’ll be on stage, performing with his band, the Wolf Bros, at the soldout Warfield Theatre in San Francisco.
A couple days off and then on the 19th, they’re in Reno at the Grand Sierra Resort. Then, further on down the road.
Weir is working. Again.
Best known, of course, as the co-founding singer-guitarist of the Grateful Dead, Weir is a road dog. For this stretch, he’s mostly on the West Coast and Western United States.
The Wolf Bros was originally a trio had Weir formed in 2018 with bassist Don Was and drummer Jay Lane. (I’m thinking the moniker of Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros, might possibly be a nod to the Grateful Dead’s 1970 song “Dire Wolf.”) They later added keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, who naturally enough, has deep ties to bands who have operated in Dead-land. Chimenti has performed with Bob Weir & RatDog, The Dead and Furthur and Dead & Company since that band’s formation in 2015. That’s the current mothership, with Weir, the drums/percussion tag team of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreitzmann and guitarist John Mayer.
This little jaunt is a 13-date run that began on the East Coast, namely with shows at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. as the band was joined by the National Symphony Orchestra.
Dead and Company say next spring they’ll embark upon what they swear is their “final tour,” starting May 19 in Los Angeles and ending at their home base of San Francisco July 15. (Tickets went on sale Oct. 14.)
VIDEO: Dead & Co. performs “St. Stephen” in Bethel, NY 8/23/21
So, is it … final? I have no insight but as so many have said before them … Hello, The Who! Hello, David Bowie! Hello, Cher!
Some of the comments on the Dead’s Facebook announcement are pretty amusing: “Final tour? Really …” “They need a dictionary,” “Love ‘em but hard not to be skeptical” and “I remember a final tour in 1981.”
Frankly, I don’t believe the Grateful Dead or some permutation of the Grateful Dead, under whatever name they go out under, will ever truly die. Keyboardist Pigpen’s death didn’t slow ‘em down; nor did the deaths of subsequent keyboardists Brent Mydland or Vince Welnick. Or lyricists Robert Hunter and John Barlow. And, really, though Dead fans mourned this most, neither did guitarist Jerry Garcia’s, the band’s de facto leader, in 1995.
I come to you as neither fan nor foe of the Grateful Dead. Certainly not the foe I was in the mid-late ‘70s when hard rock and speed were my twin guideposts and the Dead provided neither. Bruce, my hippie-from-New Jersey college roommate at the University of Maine, had the triple-live LP Europe ’72 constantly on our dorm room reel-to-reel tape deck. At least until I gained control and blasted Blue Oyster Cult’s Secret Treaties. If you’re old enough to remember the old Sominex jingle – “Take Sominex tonight and sleep” – that’s what this Dead tape was for me.
And there was, of course, the punk world that came-a-callin’ shortly thereafter, one that I connected with personally and professionally. Let’s face it: There was a divide and the Grateful Dead were anathema to punks, every bit as much as disco.
Let’s go back to 1979. I was interviewing Johnny Ramone and Dee Dee Ramone pre-show at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston. I was good-naturedly peppering them with questions about favorite/most hated this and that like TV shows and cartoons.
Me: Let’s go for rock bands. I’ll start with the Grateful Dead.
Dee Dee: I guess we feel sorry for them.
Johnny: I think they did too much LSD. I’ve heard “Truckin’” or something like that.
Dee Dee: I never had any interest. I saw some pictures of them when I was a kid and they looked so awful. They had that Pigpen – I didn’t want to listen to a group that had a guy named Pigpen.
Johnny: Didn’t he die?
Dee Dee: I like nice clean-looking rock stars.
VIDEO: The Grateful Dead “Touch of Grey”
Then, around 1990, for some reason, I brought up the Grateful Dead while talking with David Bowie. I confessed I was a bit miffed by it all, the mystique, the meandering, the jamming, the lack of urgency and edge.
“As an outsider,” he admitted, “it’s something I don’t completely get. But I do see the insistence of a family bond that has permeated the whole feeling of what they’ve done over the last almost 30 years. There’s something very Boy Scout-ish about it. I know what it reminds me of also. It’s like the inverse of Lord of the Flies – these schoolboys marooned on an island and they have to fend for themselves. They’ve become this ramshackle, pioneering, fending-for-themselves bunch and it’s turned to peace and love as opposed to violence and crime.”
“Is that terribly off the mark?” Bowie asked.
Dead on, I said. (Couldn’t help self.) And I came to that view as well.
Say this about the Grateful Dead: No band has spawned as many offshoot projects or tributaries.
In 1982, I spoke with Weir, who has contributed staples such as “Truckin’,” “Sugar Magnolia,” and “Cassidy” to the Dead’s massive catalog. Weir was then on tour with Bobby and the Midnites, which featured ace jazz fusion drummer Billy Cobham.
“It’s a meaningful alternative [to the Dead],” Weir told me. “For me, right now, Bobby and the Midnites is more fun.”
“The Grateful Dead” – Weir paused and chuckled – “is serious work and on a good night there’s a sense of achievement. Bobby and the Midnites may develop into that, but for the time being it’s a release for me.” (There was one more B & M record, Where the Beat Meets the Street, in 1984.)
“The Dead have a wonderful thing worked out with marriages,” Weir continued. “It’s more or less expected the gentleman in the house will probably have a mistress somewhere across town. And when he’s gone, there’s no secret where he’s gone. The wife will probably have a lover or two that she sees. The end effect is it tends to keep the marriage fresh in perpetuity.”
The first of those offshoots for Weir was Kingfish in 1973. There have also been three solo studio albums and two RatDog albums, alongside the 13 Grateful Dead studio albums and zillions of live Dead albums. He has toured, but not recorded, with The Other Ones.
A bit of backstory: Weir, born in 1947, was adopted by a wealthy California engineer. As a teen, he secured his spot as one of the youngest members of the burgeoning folk scene that centered on a Palo Alto club called the Tangent—home to Garcia, Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and Janis Joplin. In 1964, at the age of 17, Weir spent the majority of his time at a Palo Alto music store where Garcia taught guitar lessons. It wasn’t long before Weir and Garcia, along with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, formed a blues and folk outfit. Originally called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, the band was later renamed The Warlocks—adding Phil Lesh and Kreutzmann to the lineup.
When we spoke in ‘82, Bobby and the Midnites had just released its eponymous first album, a more broad-based pop, R&B and reggae record than what the Dead tended to offer. More structured. I thought – heaven forbid – that it might sell more than the usual Dead albums – the Dead noted for live gigs, but not noted at the time for great albums or sales of albums (yes, there was Workingman’s Dead) and/or radio airplay. Thus, commercial potential, perhaps?
“No,” said Weir. “The music is a little simpler and for that reason people may call it more commercial, but really that’s not the thrust of the organization.”
Weir did add this group was tighter, did not ramble the way the Dead did in concert. “There’s quite a bit of improvisation, but there’s also quite a bit of structure. One of the things I like to do with this band, because they’re so competent is to come up with fairly structured material within which there’s flexibility.”
Up to that point, Weir had released two other solo albums, but not done lyric writing, leaving that task to John Barlow. This time, Weir took upon himself, dropping a jacket sleeve credit to Barlow for “lyric supervision.” Weir said, “John was very busy, but I could take everything I’d written, run it by him and submit it for criticism. He’d grade it and send it back.”
Weir thought his lyric writing was less prosaic and less allegorical than the Dead’s main word guy, Robert Hunter. The illusion of having fun is what hits you as you dropped the needle, the first two tracks, “Haze” and “Too Many Losers.”
The former was an elegy to a friend who died after 40 years of hard and fast living; the latter a warning to a woman playing dangerous cocaine games. “But,” Weir noted, “in the third verse, you can see I’m involved in that tailspin as well. It’s to anybody who cares to listen, including myself.”
Skipping ahead to the present, the Weir & the Wolf Bros are touring behind their just-out Live in Colorado Vol. 2, the second album recorded at Red Rocks. Long may they run.
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