Events

Bob Weir and Wolf Bros Mine for Sonic Gold in California

Photo: Todd Michalek / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir and his trio Wolf Bros close out the summer with a festive blast in Napa and Santa Cruz.

It's the last weekend of summer, but the season closes in style in California as Bob Weir and Wolf Bros embark on a four-night run across the Golden State. The trio featuring the youngest member of the Grateful Dead (still going strong in his early 70s) hit San Diego and Ventura first, then headed north for a Saturday night blowout in Napa followed by a Sunday fun day set to close out the Santa Cruz Mountain Sol Festival on September 22.

The Deadheads are out in force on Saturday night in Napa at the Oxbow RiverStage, a new venue hosting just its second performance. Many fans have made the trip out from the Bay Area, with regulars from Weir's Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley and Phil Lesh's Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael sighted throughout the audience. Weir could easily be chilling at home after another big summer tour with Dead & Company, but the man who has spent more time on stage in his life then probably anyone else alive still lives for playing in the band.

The weather is perfect, with the warm sun still shining as showtime nears if only the beer selection were the same. Sure Napa is known as wine country, but the rock 'n' roll crowd needs cold beer for summertime shows. The Bottlerock Napa Valley Festival knows this well, serving up a diverse craft beer bar every Memorial Day weekend. Yet here, patrons are offered a disappointingly limited choice of Heineken, Corona, and Lagunitas IPA.

The sound is much better, however, clear and crisp from the start as the Wolf Bros launch the show with the classic "Jack Straw". Staple covers of Johnny Cash's "Big River" and Bob Dylan's "Queen Jane Approximately" sound great during the Napa twilight, as Weir leads the trio in exploring the artful songcraft of the influential music legends. Some persnickety critics don't seem to get what Weir and his Wolf Bros are going for here, often complaining on social media that songs are played too slow or that Weir shouldn't try to play lead guitar. But these critics miss the forest for the trees.

Bassist Don Was and drummer Jay Lane are superb tone scientists who have quickly developed strong chemistry playing together over the past year. And Weir isn't soloing so much as he is using the space of the trio format to extend his unique rhythm guitar stylings by mixing in melody lines that let the songs breathe refreshingly. The Wolf Bros explore a bluesy, jazzy sonic landscape that enables Weir to shine like a timeless troubadour while exploring these classic tunes in a fresh light. It doesn't necessarily work on every song every time, but when the vibes click, the magic is very much still there.

The Wolf Bros formula works like a charm as the first set comes to a soaring conclusion with "Weather Report Suite>Let It Grow", one of Weir's most ambitious compositions. Here the trio delivers a majestic sonic journey that peaks with some vibrant jamming on the "Let It Grow" outro.

"This is the greatest thing I've ever been involved in. I feel like I was born to do this. I wish it could go on forever," Was confided to GQ for their profile on Weir earlier this year.

"I'm looking for the most possible harmonic content from the string," Weir told GQ about his current approach. "To get that, you have to be able to hang a note and let it change colors for you because it will if you let it."

The second set opens with Weir's shimmering arrangement of "Me and Bobby McGee", a tune he sang with the Dead in the early 1970s before it was shelved for decades. It's become a true gem in the Wolf Bros repertoire, as Weir provides sparkling guitar stylings and heartfelt vocals that make the classic tune soar once more. An artful exploration of "He's Gone" gives way to a majestic take on the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows", igniting the Napa night with the timeless psychedelic magic that helped catalyze the American rock n' roll counterculture.

Photo: Jay Blakesburg / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

"The Beatles were why we turned from a jug band into a rock and roll band," Weir once reportedly said, describing a pivotal moment in the evolution of rock history.

The dazzling melodies conjure elated shouts of joy from the audience on multiple occasions, with the jam then segueing into the Dead's "Estimated Prophet" as the trio doubles down on the psychedelia. If you've been going through some personal frustration yet still feel you're on the verge of great things, this combo is like the Wolf Bros reading your soul. Weir propels a gloriously extended jam here with his inventive melodic playing, again blending chords with melodic accents for a panorama of sonic colors as the trio delivers a magic carpet ride for those who can bend their ear to hear the tune.

The jam ultimately moves into Weir's proto-psych rock classic "The Other One", the historical tale of his evolution in the 1960s involving a ride on Neal Cassady's bus and getting busted for smiling on a cloudy day after a water balloon incident with a San Francisco cop. A balladic breather on "Days Between" prefaces a rousing finish with a "Casey Jones" set closer and "One More Saturday Night" encore", as Weir sings of humanity's origins. "Then God way up in heaven, for whatever it was worth, Thought He'd have a big old party, thought He'd call it planet Earth."

It's been a great party here in Napa, yet fans have a chance to double down by making the journey about two hours drive south where Sunday fun day awaits as Weir and Wolf Bros are set to headline the last day of the Santa Cruz Mountain Sol Festival in Felton.

Wolf Bro Jay Lane pulls admirable double duty here, playing a 2:00 pm set as a member of the Golden Gate Wingmen. The spirit of the Dead is strong with this quartet featuring John Kadlecik on guitar (who played with Weir and Lesh in Furthur for four years), Jeff Chimenti on keys (a current member of Dead & Company and a Weir cohort for the better part of two decades) and Reed Mathis on bass (who has toured with Mickey Hart.)

The Golden Gate Wingmen's set steams toward a big finish with a vibrant take on the Dead's classic "Help on the Way", one of those special songs where you can just feel the spirit of Jerry Garcia and recently departed lyricist Robert Hunter in the air (especially on a sunny day in the Santa Cruz mountains like this one.) But Kadlecik plays a delightful trick card when he takes the "Slipknot" jam into John Lennon's "Nobody Told Me", rather than the Dead's typical "Franklin's Tower" pairing. The summer of 2019 has been a time of "strange days indeed", with Kadlecik adding some crowd-pleasing local flavor when he ad-libs, "There's UFOs over Felton and I ain't too surprised…" There's one more big treat as Bob Weir joins the quartet on guitar and lead vocal for a climactic "Terrapin Station", helping the Wingmen close the set with a majestic blast of inspiration.

Bluegrass phenom Billy Strings delivers an entertaining set in the 3 o'clock hour on the second stage, before Bob Weir and Wolf Bros return to the main stage to close out the festival. The audience here seems a little more diverse than the previous night in Napa, with a wide range of fans from grey-haired old-timers to kids who look like they could be current students at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Weir and Wolf Bros are in fine form on the final date of their four-show run, opening with a high energy combo of "Not Fade Away" into "Bertha". Lane puts a pep in everyone's step with a snappy beat on "Bertha" as Weir delivers a heartfelt vocal on a tune that always seems to foreshadow a strong show. "Peggy-O" and Dylan's "She Belongs to Me" find Weir continuing to deliver exquisite sonic colors before the set really ramps up with a rocking combo of "Samson and Delilah" and "Eyes of the World".

The trio gets into a deeply groovy exploration on "Eyes", where the Wolf Bros chemistry gels in a compelling fashion. Lane and Was conjure an extended free-flowing groove that finds the audience getting down on the good foot on the timeless summer jam, while Weir takes delight exploring the song's uplifting harmonic landscape. When the trio carries that energy into a funky jam on "Shakedown Street", it becomes clear that this will be one long festival set with no break, and the vibe grows higher still. "Standing on the Moon" fills the ballad slot in ever poignant fashion, as the Garca/Hunter lament for a potential nuclear apocalypse rings ever true with the Trump regime cranking up America's nuclear arsenal amidst a reckless new Cold War.

The classic "China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider" combo brings the set to a fantastic finish with the trio firing on all cylinders for a big dance party. In the end, it's clear to see that there's something about this trio format that highlights the vibrant harmonics that make these songs such timeless classics. It's clear to see that both the band and the audience are having a blast exploring Grateful Dead music in this unique way that is both fresh and retro at the same time.

From Your Site Articles
Related Articles Around the Web
Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Film

The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.

Music

July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.

Music

With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.

Film

Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.

Music

MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.

Books

Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.

Film

Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.

Music

John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."

Books

'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Film

It's a Helluva of a World in Alain Corneau's 'Série Noire'

Alain Corneau's Série Noire is like a documentary of squalid desperation, albeit a slightly heightened and sardonic one.

Music

The 15 Best Americana Albums of 2015

From the old guard reaffirming its status to upstarts asserting their prowess, personal tales voiced by true artists connected on an emotional level in the best Americana music of 2015.

Music

Dizzy's Katie Munshaw Keeps Home Fires Burning with 'The Sun and Her Scorch'

In a world turned upside down, it might be the perfect time to take a new album spin with Canadian dream-pop band Dizzy and lead singer-songwriter Katie Munshaw, who supplies enough emotional electricity to jump-start a broken heart.

Music

Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers Bring Summery Highlife to 'Ozobia Special'

Summery synths bring highlife of the 1980s on a reissue of Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers' innovative Ozobia Special.

Music

'The Upward Spiral' Is Nicolas Bougaïeff's Layered and Unique Approach to Techno

On his debut album for Mute, Berlin-based producer Nicolas Bougaïeff applies meticulous care and a deft, trained ear to each track, and the results are marvelous.

Music

How BTS Always Leave You Wanting More

K-pop boy band BTS are masterful at creating a separation between their public personas and their private lives. This mythology leaves a void that fans willingly fill.

Music

The Psychedelic Furs' 'Made of Rain' Is Their First Album in Nearly 30 Years

The first album in three decades from the Psychedelic Furs beats expectations just one track in with "The Boy That Invented Rock and Roll".

Music

Fontaines D.C. Abandon the Familiar on 'A Hero's Death'

Fontaines D.C.'s A Hero's Death is the follow-up to the acclaimed Dogrel, and it features some of their best work -- alongside some of their most generic.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.