Bob Weir And Wolf Bros Rock A Grateful Ryman Auditorium
Videos of Bob Weir's workout depict a man more focused on flexibility, nimbleness, and longevity than muscle. We see a lean and wiry 75-year-old lunging while pulling weights on long straps, moving back and forth laterally against resistance, and swinging a weight on a rod, a mace basically that’s called a gada, in an ancient technique for developing balance. He’s focused, said a fitness expert, on “moving in multiple planes of motion.”
Could there be a better description of Weir’s musical life? While Bob Weir didn’t move around much on stage playing guitar with his late life project the Wolf Bros at the Ryman on Sunday night, the songs - mostly Grateful Dead but not entirely - moved in multiple planes of motion as they have in Bob’s hands and bands since he co-founded The Dead in the mid 1960s. It was the second of two back-to-back shows at the Mother Church that put a bow on Wolf Bros. winter tour. But it was also another reminder that while the sun is starting to set on the experience of seeing Dead shows with Dead members, Weir is still looking to the future. He’s been scaling his music up with symphonic arrangements and getting cool press coverage for doing so. The final iteration of the legendary band - Dead & Company featuring Weir with drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman (but not living bass player Phil Lesh) - will make its “Final Tour” this summer. But for a time, we put that out of our minds and enjoyed the moment as Weir sang well, played tasty lead and rhythm guitar, exchanged energy with a large, richly appointed band, and made it clear there’s no “fare you well” happening soon.
Wolf Bros formed in 2018 as a trio with big-time rock and jazz producer Don Was on upright acoustic bass and Jay Lane, an original member of Weir’s long-running RatDog band, on drums. Soon after, longtime Weir associate Jeff Chimenti came aboard on keys. He played acoustic pianos only - a baby grand and a Fender Rhodes on this weekend’s sets. That core quartet was fleshed out with players known collectively as The Wolfpack, with Barry Sless on pedal steel and a full string and brass quintet that flooded the music with dynamic surges and fine soloing.
With his white beard and mutton chops, not to mention his floppy hat, Weir looked a bit like a grizzled prospector, which also isn’t a bad metaphor for the panning for gold improvising artists do. Everything built around his riffs, which came into focus first with the descending scales of “Cassidy,” one of Weir’s best-loved songs. Wolf Bros play abundantly from the core catalog of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, but it’s great to hear a vehicle so attuned to the Weir repertoire, which might be said to be a bit earthier and less consciously cosmic than the Garcia/Hunter songs. On Sunday that included “Greatest Story Ever Told” with its bright funky brass leading into a mighty, conversational jam on Weir’s “Let It Grow.” Meanwhile the Weir ballad “Black Throated Wind” struck a pretty note early in the second set. Guest harmonica player Mickey Raphael of Willie Nelson Family Band fame stepped on and off the stage during the night, starting with Jimmy Reed’s blues standard “Big Boss Man” and coming on later for a delicious trip down “Shakedown Street,” which showcased the horns as well as anything.
Weir’s latter day bands have a reputation for playing its material downtempo, and for the first 30 minutes I thought I might have to adjust my expectations for a long, languorous night. But bass player Was and drummer Lane synced together so fluidly that even the slow stretches created a cozy, beautiful groove. And as the evening progressed, the tempos upshifted, the jams got more vigorous, and the music got more complex, culminating in the 20-minute suite of songs that makes up the entire second side of the 1977 album Terrapin Station. That big sendoff was followed by a one-song encore of “Brokedown Palace.”
The Ryman is a shrine where I’ve regularly seen great artists in their elder years over the past two decades, notably Doc Watson a couple of years before he passed away. Voices fray and fingers slow down a bit, but the heart and soul endures and the bond between artist and fan only grows stronger. I recently bought tickets to see Dead & Co. in mid June, nearly on my birthday, at Wrigley Field in Chicago - just to keep this particularly special trip going as long as it can.