Is it really even New Year’s Eve without at least one member of the Grateful Dead performing somehow, somewhere? In a year of unabashed weirdness, who better than one Bob Weir and the Wolf Brothers to wrap things up and propel us into the fresh hope of 2021? I couldn’t think of anyone better to spend the evening with, and it proved to be a fun night for sure.
NYE within the Grateful Dead universe has always been a mixed bag in my opinion. Often, the pomp and circumstance of the night actually managed to dim the actual performance. More often, the previous night’s shows were more memorable musically. So much so, that even now, I rarely go back and listen to any of the NYE shows with any regularity. Though I sure wish I had actually made the effort to attend a couple. Still, even after Jerry Garcia’s 1995 death, I’ve never made that commitment with any of the post-incarnations. Just not meant to be I guess.
One thing’s for sure, it’s not a NYE broadcast with out a prankster. Legendary promoter Bill Graham was always Father Time during the Grateful Dead NYE runs, riding in at midnight atop things such as joints, mirror balls, mushrooms and more. When Graham died in a helicopter crash in 1991, in many ways the Dead NYE tradition died with him. Though, in later years many of the post-Garcia bands would revive it. As he’s done previously, NBA legend and avid Deadhead Bill Walton provided this evening’s merry prankster-isms, dressed as father time, and regaling the viewers with tales comprised nearly entirely of Dead lyrics. More fun than a frog in a glass of milk!
Performing from his own TRI Studios in San Rafael, CA, Weir was joined by the Wolf Brothers, Jay Lane on drums/percussion and Don Was on stand-up bass. Also, joining the band for the evening was Jeff Chimenti on keys and Greg Leisz on pedal steel. These two additions added tremendous depth to the Wolf Brothers more acoustic sound, and often their contributions really highlighted the songs. The performances were prerecorded, which sapped a bit of the magic, but they were engaging and captivating nonetheless. Kicking things off with the 2020 appropriate “New Speedway Boogie,” and its chorus of “One way or another, this darkness got to give,” which was delivered as an impassioned declaration rather than a mere suggestion. Next up, the band saddled up for “Jack Straw,” with Chimenti and Leisz’s contributions really shining throughout. Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and the Dead’s “Loser” followed and saw the band seemingly falling into a more cohesive groove as they got deeper into the evening’s setlist.
Not just, more cohesive, but as the night wore on and the rust fell away, we also saw the improvisation and song explorations intensify. Case in point, “Big River” was up next, with an intro that at least to me, sounded a lot like “West L.A. Fadeaway” at first. An odd combination of songs, that perhaps foretold the next duo. After the rollicking “Big River,” the band closed out their first set with the first real fireworks of the night, an unusual pairing of “The Music Never Stopped”> “Easy Answers”> “The Music Never Stopped.” Neither song are ones that I’d expect big things from, but I’ll be damned, the segment was one of my highlights of the night.
There was another Walton segment before the band returned to kick off their second set with “Friend of the Devil”, which was kind of a low speed train wreck. Thankfully, things quickly rebounded with a really special and fun rendition of “Mule Skinner Blues” with the legendary Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Thanks to the pandemic, I missed my annual small show with Jack this year, so this sit-in was really a welcome surprise. Next, Eternity>The Other One>Eternity really opened up the improvisation floodgates, with fiery, twisting runs that resembled a manner of organized chaos. One of my biggest take-a-ways to this point has been regarding Don Was. Here’s one of the best producers and musicians in the music world just doing his thing, no flash, no need for the spotlight. Was just subtlety lays down the notes and rhythm exactly where they need to be. A perfect combination with Weir’s abstract approach, alternating the notes between the notes. It caused me to think about how much I enjoyed and now miss Rob Wasserman’s musical excursions with Weir. That upright bass sound lends itself to Weir’s approach so well, and Was fits into that void exceptionally well. After the extended closing jam of the Eternity reprise, the band gave way once again for Father Time Walton’s NYE countdown before really digging in for a spacey 3rd set.
What better way to kick off 2021, than by connecting into that always present, ethereal music energy that is “Dark Star”, arguably the Dead’s most cherished exploration vehicle? Joining the ‘Wolfpack’ this evening was a concerto section, comprised of Alex Kelly (cello), Brian Switzer (trumpet), Adam Theis (trombone), Mads Tolling (violin) and Sheldon Brown (clarinet flute and sax). The horns and strings added an even richer depth, and as the song segued into a memorable “Cassidy” I was struck by the cool, lushness of the sound, somewhat reminiscent of that 70’s Nashville vibe and smoothness.
I often find GD related setlists carry with them, a of circle of life feel in their set progression. In this case, Weir passionately inserted the haunting “Days Between” before returning to the light with the boisterous set closing “Sugar Magnolia”. Following a full ‘Wolf Pack’ bow, the original quintet returned with an encore of the contemplative “Ripple” and a restorative “Touch of Grey.”
The Fans.Live stream was one of the best I’ve used. I had a few instances of buffering, but beyond that everything was just exactly perfect. I miss live shows, but these live streams have kind of softened the psyche blow, and definitely helped me through all this. But, I really miss physically going to a show. I definitely miss perusing down Shakedown Street, and all the sights and sounds that that involves. Hopefully sooner than later, Weir and the Wolf Brothers will head back out on the road. And if everything works out right and things really comes together, maybe a Dead and Company summer tour as well. Crazy Fingers (Walton would approve) crossed.
Get more information on Bob Weir and the Wolf Brothers here: https://www.bobweir.net/