Although he will forever be known as “The Kid”, even at an athletically wise 74 years old, Bobby Weir, rhythm guitarist and stalwart leader of all things Grateful Dead, still continues to own all things live music along with most recently, earning adoring admiration from the burgeoning Americana scene.
The desire to continually perform was in full swing with his most recent band Wolf Bros, supplemented by a five-piece string and a brass section titled the “Wolfpack” entered show five of a 13 date tour in historic Kansas City MO at the Midland Theatre on March 15th.
As Weir, Don Was (bass), Jay Lane (drums), Jeff Chimenti, and pedal-steel virtuoso Greg Leisz took the stage the masses at the Midland Theatre were buzzing with wonder about what might be in store via the adventurous setlists risen on the first few shows. These anticipatory speculations were wholly justified as a full “Weather Report Suite” appeared in Memphis and a full “Terrapin Station” suite appeared just the previous evening in Wichita.
Show opener “Hell in A Bucket ” was an immediate showcase for Leisz’ pedal steel prowess. The session ace’s solo spot was a chance to shine before the horns and strings appeared later in the set. A much slower and more deliberately plodding “Bertha” took the second position. This pacing allowed for Chimenti, Leisz, and Weir to trade bars of lead solos back and forth. This was one of the few missteps of the evening as the band struggled to find that rhythmic pocket that this tune sorely needs.
As Bertha segued into the very familiar waltz tempo of “El Paso”, it became apparent that these songs were deliberately being chosen to show off Leisz’ thoughtful guitar chops. For this type of presentation of the vast Grateful Dead songbook, matching old cowboy songs with a new musical instrument not found in Dead and Company or even The Grateful Dead’s live catalog (aside from Jerry Garcia’s studio work) was an ideal musical match.
After the first real sing-along of the evening during “Loser”, which featured many of Chimenti’s trademark grand piano “Trills’ ‘, the other members of this current ensemble made their appearance on a platform, stage right. The Wolfpack: Alex Kelly (cello), Brian Switzer (trumpet), Mads Tolling (violin), Adam Theis (trombone), and Sheldon Brown (sax, clarinet, flute) are bringing a special progressive flavor to the songbook that has been reinterpreted countless times by different musicians and ensembles.
The first song the entire group tackled was a very funky and rhythmic “Corrina” – one that was last played by Weir on 3/11/20 right before Covid took over our world.” Ashes and Glass” a Ratdog era song with ominous lyrics that parrot the state of the world today. “What if all tomorrow brings is ashes and glass/And I can’t tell you child, ‘this too shall pass'” was sung with fragile intent about a sort of apocalyptic scene that one can imagine in their darkest moments. To finish off the set, a rather straightforward Casey Jones rounds out a somewhat somber and downbeat first set.
During the longer than expected set break, this writer attempted to make sense of the program of music that was presented. Where does this incarnation of the songbook stand along with others like Dead & Company, Ratdog or The Other Ones, or even the big mothership itself- The Grateful Dead? This “Bobby Weir and Wolf Bros featuring Wolf Pack” version can bring a more 21st-century nuance to these often played yet timeless pieces, adding elements of jazz and modern rock which attract a more diverse type of music fan outside the Dead inner circle.
Set two started off with a very rousing “Iko Iko,” taking full advantage of squeaking horns and groovy piano interludes by Chimenti. After the slight downbeat first half, this song in particular was the first step toward injecting the perfect amount of Zing that this evening needed.
“Looks Like Rain” gave Leisz yet another moment to shine and Weir let out some of his most poignant and urgent vocals of the evening – as usually surmounts when this classic love song appears. Anyone who has seen the Dead in any incarnation knows that the second set three songs in is where things can really pick up momentum and the “Shakedown Street” that the Wolf ensemble drop on The Midland was worth the price of admission: the space that it was given allowed the song to swell, build, crash and restart seemingly over and over.
After what seemed like four or five false stops of “Shakedown,” the Pack soft segued into another classic epic twosome, “China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider.” With great thunder and aplomb, Bobby confidently flubbed the “I wish I was a headlight” line, accidentally saying it a few bars early but catching himself. This elicited a little levity from the crowd but did nothing to diminish the rapturous outpouring of emotion when that line ..”On a Northbound Train” was dropped. The outro was a chance for each of the five Wolfpack players to hammer down crowd-pleasing solo spots and for a few minutes, every person around me seemed to be dancing in unison.
As the set winded down with a Beatles Cover (“Dear Prudence”), a Buddy Holly Cover (“Not Fade Away”), and finally the always encore welcomed “Brokedown Palace,” one is reminded how we are still very much living in Weir’s world. Judging by how he is the total and complete conductor, ringmaster, and general of this outfit we must remember that he is still to excuse the overused Dead cliche – “letting there be songs to fill the air,” for longer than we could have ever hoped.
When Weir says goodnight or just drops his guitar and walks offstage please remember that there will someday be a time when he will not be around anymore to give these performances. For now, enjoy and cherish the national treasure that is Bob Weir and his ever-evolving musical interpretations of the Grateful Dead songbook.