Bob Weir
Photo: Todd Michalek / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

Bob Weir & Wolf Bros. Celebrate 75 Circles Around the Sun in San Francisco

Grateful Dead icon Bob Weir celebrates his 75th birthday with three jam-packed nights at the Warfield Theater with his cosmic cowboy band the Wolf Bros.

Market Street outside the Warfield Theater in downtown San Francisco is buzzing with activity, and it’s no wonder since hometown hero Bobby Weir is holding court to celebrate 75 circles around the sun on Sunday, 16 October. But Weir & Wolf Bros. featuring the Wolfpack are also playing shows on Friday and Saturday, so it’s a weekend-long fiesta that has the Deadhead community hyped up. Fans aren’t just coming from around the Bay Area but from around the country to celebrate this auspicious occasion.

Weir’s good friend, mentor, and Grateful Dead co-founder Jerry Garcia departed the Earth at just 53 years of age in 1995 when there was grave doubt about the future of Grateful Dead music. It’s been inspiring to see Weir and the other surviving band members gather themselves after initial doubts and find new configurations for playing in the band to help keep the scene going well into the 21st century. The cultural impact of what this has meant to Deadheads, both old and new, is simply incalculable. 

The Weirwolf’s latest project launched in 2018 and finds him teaming up with drummer Jay Lane and bassist Don Was to form a cosmic cowboy trio of sorts, which feels like it approximates what it might have sounded like if Weir had been playing in saloons in the first half of the 20th century. Hitting the road without a lead guitarist was a potentially risky experiment, but it’s paid off in sonic gold. The Wolf Bros. format has enabled Weir to explore a different kind of sonic landscape that still fits his vibe so well as he’s matured into a true elder of the live music scene. 

The Wolf Bros. sound has continued to evolve, with Weir adding a horns and strings quintet (dubbed the Wolfpack), a pedal steel guitarist (Greg Leisz last year, Barry Sless this year), and longtime cohort Jeff Chimenti on keyboards in 2021 to expand the cosmic cowboy soundscape even further. Expansion of the band’s sound helped enable the Wolf Bros. to move up to larger venues, as they became the band to re-open both the Red Rocks Amphitheater near Denver and the Greek Theater across the Bay in Berkeley after the COVID-19 pandemic had shut the live music scene down in the godforsaken year of 2020. 

Those shows found the band in top form, leading to the recent release of two live albums Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros: Live in Colorado (featuring a masterful “Lost Sailor>Saint of Circumstance” combo) and Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros: Live in Colorado, Vol. 2 (featuring a truly exquisite “Eyes of the World> What’s Goin’ On” pairing.

Weir completed another extensive national tour with Dead & Company this summer, continuing to bring Grateful Dead music to large-scale venues in what was widely hailed as one of the band’s best tours. But it’s great to see him continuing to tour with Wolf Bros in smaller venues on spring and fall tours. As showtime nears on Friday night, it’s evident that the Warfield is packed in a way that hasn’t been seen in quite some time. Weir has built up the demand for the Wolf Bros., and it’s a special occasion, so this is just how it is.

“The Music Never Stopped” serves as a fitting opener for a hometown hero who’s probably spent more time on stage in his life than anyone else alive. The feel-good groove of “Bertha” is another energizer as it becomes evident that there will be a lot of big fun this weekend. Harmonica player Matt Kelly adds some bluesy flavor to “Big River”, bringing another welcome flavor to the stage throughout the weekend. 

Something that will tie the three shows together nicely is the momentous performances of notable fan favorites to close out each of the first sets. On Friday, it’s “Throwing Stones”, a latter-day Grateful Dead classic that grows more relevant with each passing year. The socio-political number gets a massive response when Weir sings, “You can buy a whole goddamn government today”, with the audience singing along in unison on the “Ashes ashes, all fall down” chorus. As Weir sings out the resurgent “We are on our own” lines, the band builds up the song in stellar fashion as the Wolfpack horns augment Weir’s vibrant chords over the big groove.

Weir dials it down to open the second set with an exquisite solo acoustic performance of Little Feat’s “Easy to Slip”. Ostensibly a song lamenting the end of a romance, it seemed to double for mourning the loss of Garcia when Weir’s Ratdog played it in the mid-1990s, such as a memorable performance in February 1996 at a Mardis Gras show in Oakland. It feels like that vibe is back here as Weir sings, “Well my whole world seems so cold today, All the magic’s gone away, And our time together melts away, Like the sad melody I play….” 

“The Winners” is one of the weekend’s best deep cuts, as Don Was powers a sharp groove while Weir conjures a mystical vibe with his edgy chords and lyrics from Rudyard Kipling about “he travels the fastest who travels alone”. A touching moment occurs when Weir picks up Garcia’s old Stratocaster “Alligator”, which has been making the rounds in the Bay Area in recent years. Weir notes the guitar belonged to an old friend and that the next couple of tunes featured the guitar on the original recordings. That leads to a rocking “Greatest Story” with the Wolfpack horns adding great accents, as well as on a delightfully jammed out “Scarlet Begonias”.

There’s some sensational ensemble playing in the “Scarlet” jam as Weir conducts the band like a maestro. This carries over into another big crowd-pleaser with “Uncle John’s Band”, which soars with the horn melodies. The horns fill the space of Garcia’s lead guitar in the jam section, and it works like magic.

Weir showcases his troubadour side on a cover of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” that shines like a diamond. With Weir’s heartfelt vocals, Barry Sless’ glistening pedal steel guitar, and the song’s heavy lyrics about the weight of the world, it feels like being in a gospel blues church. A rocking “Good Lovin'” and an upbeat “U.S. Blues” encore with the line about how “Summertime has come and gone” wraps the show, and it’s been a great opening night.

Bob Weir

Twenty-four hours later, the Warfield is jam-packed again for a Saturday night blowout. An acoustic “Friend of the Devil” gets things off to a great start. With Matt Kelly back on harmonica, it almost sounds like the Wolf Bros. are just kicking it around a campfire. “Bombs Away” provides a refreshing deep cut, especially for anyone who might have a new romance brewing. “Mission in the Rain” strikes a responsive local chord as a ballad about wandering contemplatively through a nearby part of town. The mid-tempo rock of “Brown-Eyed Women” fits the old-timey Wolf Bros. sound so well, with Sless and Chimenti contributing stellar solos to power the festive vibe higher. 

One of the weekend’s peak moments occurs on the climactic set closer as Weir leads a dazzling sonic journey through “Weather Report Suite” and “Let It Grow”. One of the more elaborate compositions in the Grateful Dead songbook, this combo is one that most benefits from the extra instrumentation of the Wolfpack. The lyrics about the changing of the seasons always hit emotionally before the song ignites on the transition into “Let It Grow”. The Wolfpack horns add a vibrant spaghetti Western vibe, where it feels like Weir and his Wolf Bros. are riding off into a thunderstorm in search of a mystical experience they can’t get hanging out at the saloon. The horns take a jazzy starring role here, as the entire ensemble gels with a magical sonic alchemy that is simply glorious.

Weir opens the second set in splendid acoustic fashion again with a great “Me and Bobby McGee”. Matt Kelly’s harmonica really enhances the song, while Lane and Was shine with their steady groove on a tune that’s become an essential Wolf Bros number in the Golden State with the line about “the California sun”. Rocking singalong fun ensues on “I Need a Miracle” and “Truckin'”, before a deep bluesy jam on “Smokestack Lightning”. Weir has become a master bluesman in his senior years, and the band sounds so good exploring blues classics like this.

The horns make “Corinna” sound funkier than it did with the Dead, but “All Along the Watchtower” really sends the set soaring. The Dylan classic has grown more and more meaningful over the years as the world descends further into dystopian chaos, lending an added zeitgeist when Weir sings, “There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief!” There’s some vibrant jamming between the verses as the Warfield rocks out, and a big audience responds after Weir sings, “Two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl!”

Turning on a dime into “Playing in the Band” makes for a great thematic combo when Weir sings, “Standing on a tower, world at my command, you just keep turning while I’m playing in the band….” First he was on the watchtower so he could warn about impending danger, then he’s up there just playing his guitar so everyone can cut loose. The best rock ‘n’ roll bands have always had both of these elements, and that tradition lives on with Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros. A strong theme continues with “Standing on the Moon”, a poignant Garcia ballad where the singer reflects on how the Earth might not look so good from space if humanity doesn’t cut it out with the wars and destruction. When Weir sings, “I’d rather be with you, somewhere in San Francisco,” it’s another great homecoming moment. 

A raucous “One More Saturday Night” finds the Wolf Bros rocking out in style again before Weir wraps the night with an ever-touching “Ripple” encore that caps this keeper of a show in style.  

Bob Weir

Sunday night arrives, and the vibe at the Warfield is lit – it’s Bobby’s birthday, and everyone wants to celebrate with this hero of the San Francisco music scene. A traditional Sunday “Sampson and Delilah” provides a rocking opener, while a Wolf Bros bust-out of “Big Boss Man” feels like a birthday treat from the blues.

Weir takes an opportunity to tell a story about sneaking into a Lightnin’ Hopkins show in Berkeley when he was 16 and couldn’t pass for 18 because he looked 13. But he had to see the blues legend who was a hero of his, so he snuck up a drain pipe to the roof, where he found a skylight into the dressing room. But he didn’t see that the opening act was in there packing up his guitar, and that was how he met Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who became a friend and now a Wolf Bros collaborator on the honky tonk rock of “Mule Skinner Blues”.

Other highlights include a rocking foray into the seminal psychedelia of “The Other One”, and it just feels like a special moment to see Bobby Weir playing this signature song on his 75th birthday. “Cassidy” keeps the weekend’s theme of big first-set closers going with a vibrant performance of another signature song, both lyrically and with his angular guitar chording. It’s also one of the tunes where the entire ensemble really shines with the jazzy piano and horn lines, the shimmery pedal steel, and a great groove from the rhythm section.

Hundreds of roses are passed out during the set break to the point where a large sector of the audience has them greet Weir with birthday wishes when the second set starts. The obligatory “Happy Birthday” singalong is followed with a sparkling “China Cat Sunflower”, one of those classic tunes that get everyone into an undeniable feel-good groove. It starts a bit tentative, but then it gets going to raise the energy level all the way up before the traditional segue into “I Know You Rider” for another big singalong. 

Weir shines like an old-timey troubadour on a gorgeous “Peggy-O” that features some sweet pedal steel from Sless, before the Wolf Bros crank it back up on a heavy-hitting “New Speedway Boogie” that gets the Warfield rocking. The bluesy “Eternity” that Weir co-wrote with Willie Dixon isn’t quite the “Dark Star” that many were looking for, but it gets into some spacey jamming that finds the band moving back into the unfinished “Other One” from the first set for another triumphant moment. When Weir sings, “The bus came by and I got on, that’s when it all began,” it feels like a triumphant flashback for everyone in the house that moment they first got turned on to the Grateful Dead.

The somber “Days Between” doesn’t feel like much of a celebratory number and seems to deflate the set momentarily. But it is a song that taps into aging and dealing with life’s existential quandaries. Weir cranks it back up on the anthemic “Not Fade Away” to close the set though, then doubles down with a funky “Shakedown Street” encore. Downtown San Francisco has suffered from a variety of issues post-pandemic, but hearing Bobby Weir sing, “Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart, you just gotta poke around” over the song’s dance party groove really hits the spot to close out this three-night fiesta. Long live the Weirwolf!

Bob Weir