When Grateful Dead founder/guitarist/Americana-Jam icon Bob Weir laid down for the night in his Mill Valley, CA home in early 2018, he had no idea that he would awaken the following morning with the inspiration to collaborate with renowned musician and producer, Don Was.
Was, who helmed the 80’s pop-rock group Was (Not Was) and has produced countless records for legendary artists including the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan & Bonnie Raitt, never really ventured too deep into the world of the Grateful Dead, despite first being introduced to Weir in 1993 and performing with him a handful of times at various one-off events, including 2016’s “Dear Jerry” festival at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland. He also facilitated a now-infamous meeting between John Mayer, Weir and Dead percussionist Mickey Hart that led to the formation of Dead & Company. However, that all changed thanks to Weir’s night of surreal fever dreams in which he vividly envisioned playing with Was on bass and long-time accomplice Jay Lane on drums in a stripped-down trio sporting the moniker “Wolf Bros”.
Weir’s vision was so strong that within a few months, the band already had a formidable repertoire of more than seventy songs under their collective belts and there was an extensive fall tour scheduled with over twenty dates at theatres nationwide. Since then, Wolf Bros have gone on to perform nearly eighty shows and have seen their catalog rapidly grow as they continually find ways to reinvent the timeless material of the Grateful Dead in a unique stripped-down fashion that offers up a welcome counterpoint to the bells & whistles that accompany Weir’s main project, Dead & Company.
After almost exclusively performing as the triumvirate of Weir, Was & Lane through 2020, Bobby, as he’s known to do, unexpectedly decided to spice things up for their New Year’s Eve virtual show at the guitarist’s TRI Studios in San Rafael, CA. The ageless wonder Weir added several musicians to the mix, including Dead & Company pianist, and fan-favorite, Jeff Chimenti, pedal steel guitar virtuoso Greg Leisz and an orchestral quintet affectionately referred to as “The Wolfpack”. Consisting of Sheldon Brown (clarinet, sax, flute), Alex Kelley (cello), Brian Switzer (trumpet), Adam Theis (trombone) and Mads Tolling (violin), this new edition, along with Chimenti and Leisz, instantly resulted in a rich and nuanced sonic tapestry that has propelled Wolf Bros’ sound progressively forward since their arrival. Weir was so taken with their impact that all seven of the new members have performed at every Wolf Bros show since 12/31/20 and now appear to be a semi-permanent fixture going forward.
Weir explains, “I’ve been workin’ in my spare time on expanding the sonic coloration of the songs I do. The Wolfpack is basically a step toward full orchestration – and further, I gotta say, these guys are game.”
Despite the pandemic-related closure of venues nationwide in early 2021, Wolf Bros still managed to sneak in a few more virtual shows at TRI Studios that spring before Weir received some encouraging news from Colorado. “We worked on the arrangements a bit but eventually we needed to trot it all out and play it for folks – and right at that moment, the folks in Colorado reached out and told us they were gonna open up. Holy Shit, WTF? Let’s Go.”
The resulting four-night run, consisting of two nights each at the fabled Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison and Vail’s Gerald R. Ford Amphitheatre, features some of the Wolf Bros strongest performances to-date and selections of which were included in the group’s debut release Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros: Live in Colorado. (Out 2/18)
The album, which clocks in at just over eighty minutes, features a track-list chock full of Grateful Dead classics, including a pair of cherished Garcia/Hunter songs, as well as a few familiar covers and even a track from Weir’s well-received 2016 solo effort, Blue Mountain.
Starting things off is “New Speedway Boogie”, a counterculture anthem written by Dead lyricist Robert Hunter about the disastrous Altamont Speedway Free Festival in 1969 whose vocal refrain of “One way or another, this darkness got to give” still resonates as strongly today as it did over half a century ago. This version, which includes the Wolfpack – the quintet typically sits out a majority of the opening set before joining for the duration of the closing stanza – sets the tone for the rest of the LP with an extended romp that stretches past the ten-minute mark and manages to keep things interesting throughout, despite the lack of a lead guitar and the sometimes-languid pace that Weir is infamously known for with his various post-Garcia projects.
In fact, Leisz does an admirable job over the course of the album on pedal steel as he subtly recreates some of Garcia’s most recognizable licks and drives many of the group’s jams with an authentic country & western vibe. The veteran does so without ever really taking over as the lead instrumentalist, a key factor in developing the band’s group-oriented sound.
Up next is Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, a song that has become a favorite of Weir’s in recent years, and features a dramatic vocal delivery from Weir that perfectly accentuates the palpable tension created by Dylan’s masterful lyrics.
“Big River”, the Johnny Cash special that Weir made his own during his time with the Dead starts off with a gentle shuffle fromLane but eventually transforms into a countrified stomper thanks to a rollicking piano solo from Chimenti, who is arguably the unsung hero amongst the post-Garcia Grateful Dead world thanks to his phenomenal chops on piano & organ in nearly every Dead-related project including The Other Ones, Ratdog, Furthur and Dead & Company, among others.
A lengthy take on the Garcia/Hunter fan-favorite “West L.A. Fadeaway” clocks in at nearly thirteen minutes, allowing each member to stretch their legs as they slowly and methodically explore every nook and cranny the song has to offer before giving way to Weir’s relatively obscure “My Brother Esau”.
“Only A River” ends up being a natural selection for this group as its relatively mellow delivery lends itself well to the stripped-down acoustic-laden format that Wolf Bros adheres to.
The album comes to a satisfying conclusion with a pair of Weir powerhouses, “Looks Like Rain” and “Lost Sailor”. The two tracks combined run almost thirty minutes, with “Lost Sailor” alone stretching well past the eighteen-minute mark. And while there certainly are moments where the music meanders a bit as the members seem to get lost in the mix, a majority of the playing remains focused and with a sense of purpose & determination, in true Grateful Dead fashion.
While their laidback style may not be for everyone, Wolf Bros has already proven to be a formidable addition to the Grateful Dead family. More importantly, this project joins an incredibly extensive list of reasons why the Dead’s music is timeless and will continue to thrive in nearly any format for years to come, especially as long as Bob Weir’s dreams have something to do with it.