Tripping with Bob Weir and the Wolf Brothers
Bob Weir at the Sylvee
Weir’s sold-out show at the Sylvee triggered some serious flashbacks.
My experience with Deadheads has been spotty at best Having worked in album rock radio, the Grateful Dead were always an anomaly on the playlist. "Truckin’", "Sugar Magnolia", "Casey Jones" were standards, "Alabama Getaway" a little bit later on. They never “tested well” with the research-oriented radio consultants who doubted the band’s incredible ability to attract a loyal underground audience. It wasn’t until “Touch of Gray” broke through in 1987 that the Dead had their one and only top-ten single that doubled their already fanatical fan base. The Dead were never about hit singles.
My one experience seeing the band at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, WI was a bonding experience with a new boss. We made the trip in my '78 Ford Thunderbird that guzzled gas like a drunken sailor. The upside was that it didn’t require a monthly car payment. The stroll into the amphitheater, through the gypsy-like caravan of merchants and hangers-on, known as Shakedown Street was almost as memorable as the show.
The Arista Records promo rep faced the anti-establishment aura of the band when he couldn’t convince them to do “Touch of Gray” in the evening’s set when every radio station in the country was playing the song in high rotation. My boss and I watched the hippie bodega from our seats and about three quarters of the way through the show he leaned over and said “This is the same set they did in 1974 when I last saw them.” There’s nothing quite like a Dead show!
The Grateful Dead’s connection with the ‘60s and the creation of the jam band mystique, spirited by improvisational live sets and a blending of music genres, doesn’t stop original member Bob Weir from seeking new horizons with the Wolf Brothers. Weir and his nine-piece band that included at times a horn and string section, all shared the spotlight at the Sylvee, keeping a communal ethos intact that harkened back to hippiedom.
Opening with “Hell in a Bucket,” Weir kept the crowd engaged with the majority of the two-set evening consisting of Dead covers and a few choice solo offerings. “Mexicali Blues” and “Greatest Story Ever Told” were a few of the gems from Weir’s storied solo past. A new more compact approach to Dead songs with the ten-piece ensemble bringing a refreshing layered texture to the show. The core rhythm secretion of bassist Don Was, drummer Jay Lane and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti kept a tighter grip on arrangements that complemented Weir's improvisational prowess.
While the diverse crowd, sported a sliver of tie-die and twirling free-spirit dancers, the Deadheads in attendance tended to be older with enough disposable income to buy the fifty-dollar t-shirts at the merchandise table and keep the overpriced alcohol flowing from the cashless bars. Yep, all Deadheads require a credit card now. I spent the first few songs near the soundboard, with the requisite microphones taping the nights proceedings piercing my view of the stage, before moving on through the tightly-packed crowd.
No opening act for the show with Weir and company playing over three hours via two sets with a 30-minute intermission. As I stood in line to get a hard cider, I struck up a conversation with John from Chicago who made the trip to Wisconsin on a Tuesday night "to see Bob Weir in a smaller venue" and because "Madison was a cool city.” John explained, "I like to attend as many Dead solo projects as possible." Weir and the Wolf Brothers didn't have a Windy City date this time around.
Leave it to Live Nation and the Sylvee to maximize the revenue stream with video ads on large flat screens during the break. Alcohol and local law firm adverts flashing like a bad acid trip. I made an off-handed comment to a group within shouting distance joking about the lawyer advertisements. I caught myself in mid-sentence saying "I hope your not lawyers." Woops. Insert foot in mouth. They were all lawyers. I thought this was supposed to be a counterculture event? Excuse me for living in the past. It's been a long strange trip since the "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test".
As the second set commenced, more classic Dead covers including "Me and My Uncle" written by the late John Phillips of Mama's and Papas fame. "Dark Star" and a surprising cover of "Milestones" from Miles Davis.
The fans around me got excited as Weir and crew went for a unicorn finale; the band played the entire “Terrapin Station” suite, with full orchestral arrangements. Something that never happened back in the day according to an ecstatic Deadhead standing next to me. I was standing in the back of the ADA section and people in wheelchairs were literally trying to stand during this suite. As the band exited the stage, the cries went out for one more song.
Coming back for an encore Bob Weir and the Wolfpack finished the night with “Touch of Gray.” The Grateful Dead's only top-ten single. You could say that makes them the biggest one-hit wonder in rock 'n' roll history. There really is nothing like a Dead inspired show. especially from original member Bob Weir. As an added bonus, you might also be able to find a good lawyer in the crowd.