Bob Weir was a newly minted septuagenarian when Dead & Company embarked on its 2017 fall tour. By then, the singer-guitarist had already spent more than half a century — almost three-quarters of his life, including his entire adulthood — performing on stages big and small, often to the tune of more than 75 shows per year. That legacy places the San Francisco native in rare company. Just 18 years old when he helped form the Grateful Dead, Weir has quite possibly played more shows than any rock ‘n’ roll musician on the planet.
For Weir, the music truly never stopped. After Grateful Dead figurehead Jerry Garcia passed away in August 1995, he pushed ahead, toiling in his own bands (RatDog, Bob Weir and the Wolf Bros) and a succession of Grateful Dead-related offshoots (Dead & Company being the latest). As the length of his non-Grateful Dead tenure approaches the 30-year run of his original collective, he only seems to get busier.
In 2016, on top of touring obligations, Weir collaborated with indie-rock sensations the National on a Grateful Dead tribute (“Day of the Dead”), started writing a still-unfinished book, worked on a television show and released a solo album (the outstanding “Blue Mountain”), his first LP in nearly four decades. The following year, he and Dead & Company tackled their most ambitious schedule yet: a 20-date summer jaunt bookended by 16 concerts in the fall. (Due to guitarist John Mayer requiring an emergency appendectomy, three shows on the latter trek were postponed.)
Though Weir will likely never match his longtime bandmate’s prolific output, his similarities to Garcia extend beyond the incessant itch to tour and create.
Weir’s restless ways and adoration for live performance mirror the passions of his former colleague and good friend, Garcia. When not preoccupied with the Grateful Dead, the downtime-averse Garcia spent his career playing on other artists’ records and teaming up with like-minded spirits in the studio and onstage. Though Weir will likely never match his longtime bandmate’s prolific output, his similarities to Garcia extend beyond the incessant itch to tour and create.
No longer the sun-dappled, short-shorts-wearing adonis who stood as the lone Grateful Dead member with overt sexuality, Weir has for the past decade adopted a grizzled mountaineer look: thick, bushy mustache; wild, salt-and-pepper hair; and white, whisker-heavy beard that bears more than a passing resemblance to Garcia’s visage in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In Dead & Company, he also embraces a role that brings his nascent relationship with Garcia full circle.
The little brother to Garcia, bassist Phil Lesh and everyone else in the Grateful Dead who looked out for him, Weir now serves as an elder statesman who watches after his own charges onstage — and in the audience, many of whom never saw his original band. Not that he was subordinate in the Grateful Dead.
Weir developed his distinctive guitar-playing methods — at once enigmatic and melodic, rhythmic and lead, harmonic and improvisational, counterpointed and complementary — in part due to standing beside the visionary Garcia and sharing the collective desire to innovate. In addition to shaping ideas that helped mold Garcia’s fills and solos, he and his fellow explorer traded vocal duties with unerring effectiveness. The approach lent balance and diversity, and cemented Weir’s association with cowboy music.
Indeed, for all the irreplaceable alchemy Garcia bestowed the Grateful Dead, Weir’s instrumental techniques and vocal phrasing proved equally inimitable. Flashes of those traits surface throughout the beautifully shot “Live in Austin 12/2/17,” which captures a 175-minute show that served as Dead & Company’s final outing of the year. The sextet enjoys the benefits of having established a strong bond over the course of the summer and fall. It also navigates a setlist Deadheads could only dream about after the early ‘70s passed.
Save for the 1978 ballad “If I Had the World to Give,” the newest material here stems from 1971. The presence of “Dark Star,” “The Other One,” “St. Stephen,” “Morning Dew” and “Next Time You See Me,” to say nothing of a “China Cat Sunflower”—>”I Know You Rider,” conjure reveries of the Grateful Dead’s vaunted 1971-72 tours. Of course, it’s not just about the songs; it’s how they’re played. Suffice it to say Dead & Company sounds like a completely different ensemble than the Grateful Dead of 1972 and, for that matter, the Grateful Dead of 1995.
Critical debates aside, the film reveals a band eager to cajole leisurely passages and in no hurry to reach a finish line. It grants behind-the-scenes-like views of the traditional “Drums”—>”Space” sequence anchored by percussionists Mickey Hart and Billy Kruetzmann. Assisted by bassist Otiel Burbridge, the rhythmic workout receives modern visual assists. Akin to the smarts Dead & Company displays when it comes to sense of place — the opening “Jack Straw” mentions Texas, as does the two-stepping “New Minglewood Blues” — the group seizes on the sensory-enhancement opportunities offered by high-tech, graphics-rich Grateful Dead artwork.
Above all, “Live in Austin 12/2/17,” provides a look at Weir’s evolution and intra-band dynamic. Untethered from the leads once instituted by Garcia and Lesh, and afforded a security blanket laid down by longtime mates Hart and Kreutzmann (plus tasteful keyboard accents from Jeff Chimenti), he remains free to roam. He is the Weirwolf: the alpha male, the pack leader, the drifter who decides where the group should go, how it can get there and what might happen along the way. Weir doesn’t act as a dictator or dominate; he guides by example, feel, aura, expertise.
When Mayer goes toe to toe with Weir, the sometimes pop-star gawks at the older musician with a look that suggests that of a student seeking the approval of a master. As if learning by example and soaking up knowledge, Mayer occasionally peers over Weir’s shoulder, mapping the positioning of Weir’s fingers and hands for clues to the next steps. Nestled in the background at far stage right, Burbridge — a picture of joy with swaying hips and crouching dance moves — primarily opts for an unobtrusive approach that follows Weir’s aural compass.
“We used to play for silver/Now we play for life,” Weir sings on “Jack Straw,” the mercenary words taking on extra resonance given his road-warrior history. Wearing a basic black T-shirt and prescription glasses, the hirsute Weir channels an unmistakable image of latter-day Garcia. Perhaps there’s truth to Weir’s claim about Garcia stepping into him during a dream he had the night Garcia died. In the mystical universe of the Grateful Dead, out-of-body experiences are standard currency.
Cold Rain and Snow
New Minglewood Blues
Next Time You See Me
Ramble on Rose
If I Had the World to Give
China Cat Sunflower —>
I Know You Rider
Dark Star —>
The Other One —>
Uncle John’s Band
One More Saturday Night