Bob Weir is more than the guardian of the Grateful Dead

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If you listen to the hundreds of bootlegged recordings of Grateful Dead broadcasts, one of the few constants you’ll find is the onstage banter of rhythm guitarist Bob Weir. With a slight drawl, he’ll announce a break, crack a joke, or famously tell everyone to “step back.” And another step back! Although his contributions to the band’s sound were not as universally visible as Jerry Garcia’s, he was always a central conduit between the Dead and the Heads, the affable counterpoint to Garcia’s status as a mystical figurehead of the band.

This divine reverence fans have projected on Garcia is something Weir flatly rejects. “I won’t have it,” he recently said over the phone from a print studio in California. “The deification that these people made of Jerry is basically what killed him,” Weir said. “It disgusted him, and rightly so.” When asked if he himself has experienced this type of idolatry, he dismisses the idea: “I have seen where it leads. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way, losing a friend. Hero worship would be an awkward fit for Weir anyway.

Yet in the nearly 30 years since Garcia’s death, Weir, who recently turned 75, has taken it upon himself to guide the Grateful Dead’s music and fanbase into the 21st century — just on his own terms and in his own way. Along with John Mayer, plus original drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, he fronts Dead & Company, the stadium-filling band that picks up where the Grateful Dead left off in 1995 in terms of psychedelic bombast and extensive group improvisation. . In 2018, Weir founded Wolf Bros, a nimble quartet with keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, bassist/producer Don Was, and drummer Jay Lane that functions as a band of country pickups with the sensibilities of a jazz combo. But what seems most exciting for Weir is a collaboration with composer/arranger Giancarlo Aquilanti to orchestrate the music of the Grateful Dead, which made its October debut at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra.

“It really completes the picture,” says Weir. “You can listen to a song from its jug band roots and then pass it on to a full orchestra. You can’t understand everything at once, but if you know the music, and a lot of our fans know it, people react. Rather than having the orchestra simply add color to Weir and his band, Aquilanti instead strove to put together arrangements that would fully integrate the two elements, including having the members of the band improvise. orchestra. There are sections of the score that are changed until Weir indicates to the conductor that he is ready to continue, and other passages that present orchestral players with chord boxes that they can interpret as they please. Elsewhere, Aquilanti bends in nuggets of harmony and melody from live recordings Weir passed to the composer, subtle renditions of Garcia’s solos or Phil Lesh’s basslines. “I took the souls of the Grateful Dead and spread them throughout the orchestra,” says Aquilanti, comparing the process to the work of Béla Bartók who collects Hungarian folk tunes and composes around them. “That’s why the orchestra can’t be next door. He must be on the front line. »

Weir took the stage at the Kennedy Center on Oct. 5 in a baggy tuxedo, his bow tie slightly askew. As fans began to gather in the aisles to dance to “China Cat Sunflower”, agitated ushers tried to coax them back to their seats to no avail; sometimes there is a period of struggle with each other when institutions like the NSO and the Deadheads, each with their ingrained rules and rituals, come together. Weir positioned himself so that he and the conductor, Steven Reineke, could communicate constantly, with the Wolf Bros not far behind him. It was a new environment for the music and the community and it was like that, with all the roughness and the electricity that these situations can produce. “When the orchestra comes in behind you, it’s like catching a monster wave,” Weir posted on Instagram the next day. Judging by the audience reaction, they felt it too.

Halfway through the second set, Weir put down his guitar and the orchestra slipped in with the opener to “Days Between,” a song Garcia wrote and debuted in 1993, two years before his death. . Weir has made it his own over the past decade, having played it far more times than Garcia ever, slowing it down and leaning into the feeling of nostalgia at the heart of the song. With just the orchestra behind him, Weir sang about the poetic nature of growing old; it was the only time the whole house became silent. “The simpler my offering of this song, the more powerful it is,” he explained. “So I just focused on that one, getting rid of the hell out of it and letting the character pass.” He feels there is a great mystery in this character, which frames even the youthful exuberance “with the wisdom of years”.

In his book “Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music“, Guitarist Derek Bailey writes that The Grateful Dead is unique among rock bands in that its “reputation is based on the expectation of change”. 1974’s revered Grateful Dead sounds drastically different than it would three years later in 1977, and even now fans continue to follow along, cataloging the changes and embracing each new milestone. It works well for Weir, who has the freedom to experiment with projects like orchestral presentations and follow his muse minute by minute. “If we were to go out and try to do a set by heart, the same thing night after night like some outfits do, I’d maybe do two or three shows and then I’d go absolutely crazy,” he says. “Sometimes repeating myself would be a good idea, but it’s not something that comes particularly easily to me.”

The centrality of change and evolution to Weir’s ethos allows him to think about how it fits into the larger framework of history – something that takes on a greater sense of urgency to as he ages. “I try to assimilate what I understand, which is that time is a human construct, a marker that we put on things that don’t necessarily exist,” he explains. He thinks about the next tour, but also about how his music will be remembered and kept alive by people who are not yet born. “With the Grateful Dead, if done right, there’s a chance they’ll be part of the conversation two to three hundred years from now. So that’s my consideration when I have to make decisions – what to do with a melody or a beat, or what to do on the business side. What will it look like then? »

The more immediate future probably holds some surprises. Next year, Dead & Company will play their last summer tour before disbanding, which Weir says will allow them to “party a little with the presentation.” There will be performances of the orchestral arrangements with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in February with the potential for more in the future, which Weir says will incorporate more new elements, and possibly even more new songs. After a recent Wolf Bros sit-in by former Miles Davis Quintet bassist Ron Carter, he looks forward to more encounters of this nature and says, “I think we can bring that element of jazz back to music. country, and I think I might be the guy to do it.

During rehearsals with the NSO for recent shows at the Kennedy Center, Weir found that the orchestra provided all the color and complexity he sought in his guitar playing throughout his years with the Grateful Dead. . “It’s both interesting and empowering to take a step back from that mindset and just offer the simplest, so the woodwinds, brass and strings can carry what I was alluding to. ” After a pause, he adds, “Well, that’s a metaphor for life, I guess.”

Handing over space and creative agency to an orchestra is a new challenge for Weir, but it’s certainly in the tradition he and his comrades have established over the past 60 years. The cycles of renewal and rebirth that have characterized the Grateful Dead throughout its existence, and which Weir has pursued in the years since, stem from understanding the eternally new contexts in which music exists and from creating something new to adapt to. As Weir eagerly awaits what’s next – the next jam, the next project, the next phase of the music he’s devoted his life to – he operates like any good improviser: mostly on faith. “I’m not younger than before,” he says. “So I will have to take it step by step. As I say, my steps will take me where I am going. I know that.”

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