“Never miss a Sunday show.”
It’s a phrase that Deadheads, Phish Phans, and the like have been saying for decades. Ironically, Bob Weir and Wolf Bros only Sunday gig for this Fall tour was their first night at the Beacon, but by the end of the night it was apparent why the phrase has stuck around.
Shortly before 7:30, Weir, drummer Jay Lane, and bassist Don Was opened with “Jack Straw.” From the get-go, the crowd was immediately engaged, giving a loud chorus of “woooo!”’s during the opening line. Weir then showed some of his slide guitar prowess on “Maggie’s Farm,” a Dylan song he’s been covering since the original Grateful Dead days. He switched to his acoustic for “Looks Like Rain,” which, along with “Loser,” were arguably the highlights of the first set. “Rain” started as a slow burner but eventually gained steam, with Weir stressing the “Rain rain, go away…” line and getting one of the biggest crowd responses of the night. “Loser” is a Dead song (actually released on Jerry Garcia’s solo record, Garcia) that continually grows on you the more you hear it. Like other Dead songs from this era, it’s quintessential Dead Americana, focusing on the outlaws or fringe members of society—in this case, a down and out gambler, presumably in or near the small town of Abilene. It was also one of the main songs in the first set that they really stretched out, with Weir switching from acoustic to electric guitar midway through the song. The set ended on a high note with “Throwing Stones,” with the crowd emphatically singing along to the nursey rhyme-esque refrain of “Ashes, ashes, all fall down.”
As with other Dead shows, the first set was more “song based,” while the second set allowed for more extended jams and improvisation. One of the main jams of the night was “Dark Star.” It was easily the most compelling song of the night–Weir again swapped his acoustic for a Strat midway though, leading to a spaced out, funky jam. He’s done “Dark Star” in a similar stripped down fashion earlier this year on the Bobby and Phil tour, but I was still in awe of how well he’s translated this Dead staple in a trio setting. This eventually segued into another Dylan classic, “All Along the Watchtower,” venturing into a reggae based groove during the jam section. The home stretch of the performance featured a captivating “Wharf Rat,” with Weir quoting the main “Dark Star” melody. It was followed by “China Cat Sunflower,” which then went into (you guessed it) “I Know You Rider.” They encored with “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” this time teasing the main line from “China Cat” with most of the audience up on their feet, dancing and singing along to the chorus.
Lane’s drums were dynamic throughout—at times bombastic, echoing the vigorous power trio drummers of the 60s, other times scaling back to a more finessed, jazzy style. It was also a treat to hear how Was’ standup bass worked within the arrangements. As any Deadhead will tell you, Phil Lesh’s original bass lines are anything but ordinary, often playing outside the box and at times acting like another lead instrument. Was didn’t try to emulate this, but he was able to create some deep, in the pocket grooves with Lane’s bass drum, and the standup bass inherently gave the songs some added girth and depth.
Obviously, most of the audience’s attention was focused on Weir. His voice still sounds authoritative and powerful—from “Jack Straw” all the way through the encore. Most importantly, the trio setting allowed him to let his guitar playing truly shine. No one plays like Weir; anyone who remotely sounds like him is probably trying to emulate his style. He consistently blurs the line between rhythm and lead, and it’s uncommon for him to play open “cowboy chords.” Unlike more standard blues or rock and roll players, he rarely bends notes, and instead lets his fingers dance and skip across the fretboard, much like a jazz pianist–he’s stated before that he is heavily influenced by Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner, pianists of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, respectively. This technique, combined with his own instinctive way of attacking the guitar, creates a sharp, crystalline sound that I haven’t heard many players successfully replicate.
By the end of the night, I was so thrilled to hear new interpretations of these songs, some of which are 30-40 years old. What other bands are able to do that? And what other bands have so many musical offshoots (currently–Dead and Company, Phil Lesh and Friends), some of which don’t even have any original Dead members (namely, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead), yet still sell out theaters and stadiums year round? It’s a testament to the Dead’s catalogue, and the openness of their fan base to just “enjoy the ride.” Look for more info, here: https://bobweir.net/#!/