Photo: Jay Blakesberg / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

Bob Weir and Wolf Bros Rock the Zeitgeist in Santa Barbara

There's a certain sonic gravitas in hearing Bob Weir's guitar in the trio format, and when he sings, "you can buy a whole god damn government today", he's reporting more truth than any corporate news media outlet dares.

It’s a balmy Saturday evening in majestic Santa Barbara here on October 20 where the historic Arlington Theater is buzzing with music fans, with Bob Weir and Wolf Bros in town during what is still the first week of their inaugural tour. Weir could easily rest on his laurels after a big summer tour with Dead & Company, but the Grateful Dead co-founder’s muse is ever calling for more musical exploration. The “Weirwolf” — as he’s affectionately become known by fans in recent years — is, therefore, hitting the road again for a fall tour with a new trio format featuring longtime cohort Jay Lane on drums and burgeoning compadre Don Was on upright bass.

“The notion for this trio [Wolf Bros] came to me out of a dream I had about playing with Don not long ago. So we tried playing together with Jay Lane, and it worked well,” said Weir of the band’s downright mystical origins in a recent interview with Relix. Whether Weir also envisioned Lane’s fur covered drum kit or Lane conjured it while smoking a “Jeffrey” and dreaming of a show at the LA Greek Theater is unknown, but it certainly enhances the unique Wolf Bros vibe.

Weir is greeted like a conquering hero when he and the Wolf Bros hit the stage just after 8:00 pm, leading the trio into the Dead’s defiant “Hell in a Bucket”. When he sings, “I may be going to hell in a bucket, but at least I’m enjoying the ride”, the crowd hoots in appreciation at what seems a most fitting sentiment for this turbulent year of 2018. “Mama Tried” and “Tennessee Jed” find the adoring audience singing along in faithful fashion and the show starts to take on a charming vibe that recalls recordings of Jerry Garcia Band acoustic shows. “If you change your mind about the way a song goes, you’ve got a whole lot less guys to convince of that,” Weir says wryly of the trio format at the end of “Jed”.

The set dips into Weir’s Ratdog catalog with “Even So”, a bluesy gem that finds the trio gelling as Was powers a fat groove that really makes Weir’s guitar parts stand out in crisp fashion. The song provides some great crowd interaction when Weir sings lines like “Midnight perdition, bad news, the wolfman’s at the door”, spurring the audience to howl in delightful response. As the show progresses, it becomes evident that there’s a certain sonic gravitas in hearing Weir’s guitar in the trio format against the rhythm section of Was’ warm upright bass and Lane’s dynamic percussion.

A gorgeous rendition of Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” is a fitting selection here in the Arlington Theater’s cinematic interior with faux-Spanish villas under a starry sky ceiling as Weir sings of “seeing double on a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs”. Jerry Garcia’s “Deal” brings the first to a rousing conclusion, followed by a pleasant set break where fans have a chance to step outside and mingle in the balmy evening air thanks to the theater’s open-air foyer.

The second set kicks off with a raucous blast from the Grateful Dead’s early days with “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”, a showcase tune for late great Grateful Dead keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan in the ’60s. There’s a truly festive vibe here that ignites the night, followed by a surprise bust out of Donovan’s 1966 hit, “Sunshine Superman” with Weir on acoustic guitar. The sonic gravitas of the Wolf Bros sparkles again here on the psychedelic folk classic and that vibe deepens further still when Weir follows by leading the trio into the seminal psychedelia of fan favorite “Dark Star”. Weir’s unique rhythm guitar stylings really sparkle here, still wielding the acoustic guitar and exploring the spaces between in the classic psychedelic jam in a new way since there’s more space to explore in the trio format.

Was and Lane provide stellar accents of their own on the “Dark Star” jam as the set now seems to be building into an instant classic performance. The jam segues into one of Ratdog’s best tunes with “Two Djinn”, a groovy number which sounds great here with the extra sonic spacing. Was and Lane are all smiles all night as it’s clear the Wolf Bros are having a blast and the highlights just keep coming as the trio moves into Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”. The audience roars in mass approval and the energy grows higher still as surprise guest bassist Tal Wilkenfeld from Jeff Beck’s band is pulled out of the audience to sit in.

Few classic rock songs tap deeper into the current zeitgeist as Weir sings “There’s too much confusion here, I can’t get no relief”, with the audience cheering on the band throughout the song. Was and Wilkenfeld dig deep into the groove with Wilkenfeld adding jazzier flavors while Weir and Lane spur them on. Weir directs the last verse into the reggae/ska style arrangement that Ratdog has frequently employed over the years, with the song’s final line”Two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl” conjuring another huge howl of appreciation from the adoring audience.

Just when it seems the energy in the room can’t go any higher, Weir makes it so by leading a segue into “Throwing Stones”. The Grateful Dead’s most political song has only grown in resonance over the past few years, from the epic jam during the “Fare Thee Well” finale with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 2015 to how the song speaks truth to power more than ever in the current era of Donald Trump’s foul domain of greed and avarice. When Weir sings “You can buy a whole god damn government today,” he’s reporting more truth than any corporate news media outlet dares. The “Watchtower>Throwing Stones” combo here might be the zeitgeist pairing of 2018 with the audience singing out loud on the “Ashes ashes all fall down” chorus and the Wolf Bros jamming the groove extra deep with Was throwing in a tease of “Standing on Shaky Ground” that feels aimed at the Trump regime.

“The Days Between” brings things way down in the ballad slot, but it’s the only song of the set that has provided any kind of breather. It’s a fleeting pause though as it leads back into a raucous version of “Not Fade Away” to close the set vibrantly. Wilkenfeld is then called back into service for the encore on Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” that ends the night on just the right note. Finding new sonic territory to explore after more than 50 years on the “Golden Road” to unlimited musical devotion is a tall order, but Bob Weir is doing it again with his Wolf Bros.