It’s hard not to hear the latest Bob Weir and Wolf Bros. release as a salve. A few weeks ago, Dead & Company, Weir’s outfit with Grateful Dead drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, alongside Oteil Burbridge, John Mayer, and Jeff Chimenti, announced that they will hang it up after next year’s summer tour. Weir assured fans that the original Grateful Dead members would be “out there in one form or another until [they] drop,” and this release from Weir’s Wolf Bros. outfit reassures us of that fact. Even though Dead & Co. is no more, Weir is still out there, and the magic of the Grateful Dead will live another day.
If anyone was wondering whether this pared-down outfit could sustain that magic, one need only listen to “Terrapin Station Suite” and hear the crowd’s roar throughout the “Inspiration, move me brightly” section. It sends shivers down the spine like any other modern Grateful Dead iteration, on record or live. So yes, the spirit is still there.
It’s important and obvious that this is not the Grateful Dead. While Weir has had many post-Dead bands (RatDog, Furthur, the Other Ones, the Dead, Dead & Co.), many were trying to continue and recreate the sound of the original group. Those bands were also not the Grateful Dead, but this Wolf Bros. is unique because they’re not trying to replicate the original band’s aesthetic. Even RatDog, which had original songs, featured notable Jerry Garcia soundalike Steve Kimock on lead guitar.
To the uninitiated, Live in Colorado Vol. 2 is not exactly where to start your Grateful Dead journey. If you’re asking me, that would be, in this order, To Terrapin, One From the Vault, and then for the truly adventurous, Live/Dead. Even so, these interpretations of Grateful Dead standards appeal to a general audience, even if they don’t serve as a gateway to the rest of the material.
Live in Colorado 2 is accessible because it has a defined aesthetic structure; it feels like a professional band on a quiet night singing and playing standards that they love. Because, well, that’s what it is (even though it was recorded over four nights). It feels focused and well-built. This record is intelligible because it’s not trying to be the Grateful Dead by any stretch of the imagination.
The casual listener might brush up against Weir’s vocals, ravaged by time and done no favors as he takes on vocal parts that used to belong to Jerry Garcia, who had a substantially higher range. (The “since the end” bridge in “Terrapin Station” is particularly shoddy.) But, such a listener might find enjoyable the lack of chaos in these arrangements and, especially, the intentionality lent to them by a slowed-down tempo.
Weir has been dragging the tempos on Grateful Dead songs for years, sometimes to the chagrin of Grateful Dead fans who (justifiably) want tracks like “Deal” to singe their eyebrows. But in the Wolf Bros. format, the slowed-down sound works; we’re working with a band built to suit. Don Was, on upright bass, is a funk player who luxuriates in the slower, groovier sound, eschewing the melodic lines of Phil Lesh’s approach to the catalog in favor of something more loping.
The slowed-down tempo also makes one of Live in Colorado Vol. 2’s bigger treats possible: a seamless (pre-meditated) sandwich of Dead classic “Eyes of the World” with Marvin Gaye‘s “What’s Goin’ On?” The two songs would be unfeasible together at their original speeds, but slowing down “Eyes” makes this rewarding (and brief) detour a reality. The slowed-down “Eyes” offers more space between the notes, offering Weir and the band to build new melodies within familiar confines – and nothing is more Grateful Dead than that.
The Wolf Bros. lend valuable perspective to many of the numbers on Live in Colorado Vol. 2. “Mama Tried” feels much more country than it ever did when the Dead played it, thanks to Greg Leisz’s excellent work on pedal steel. “Brokedown Palace” and “Days Between” are also given majestic treatment thanks to the band’s tightness.
This volume does not offer the full-blown improvisational freakout that one comes to expect from a Grateful Dead (adjacent) live release. While “Eyes” and “Terrapin Station” boast long runtimes, the record’s expanded instrumentation keeps Weir and company from straying too far from the path. Only “The Other One” threatens to get adrift, but drummer Jay Lanenever lets the band color too far outside the lines. The group trades intentionality for adventure, and I don’t necessarily blame them. So many Grateful Dead recordings and outfits are adventure-drenched that hearing a new angle is nice from time to time.
Those well-structured solo sections are luxurious. The horn and string section trade twos to delightful effect in “Eyes of the World”, building methodically and patiently atop one another in ways the original Grateful Dead may not have had the discipline to do.
The point is that yes: Dead & Company are done, just like Furthur, the Other Ones, and all of those other bands came and went. While some of those outfits were legacy projects, Wolf Bros. are something else altogether. They are a new framework for interpreting the Grateful Dead, one less interested in replicating the original experience and more interested in the true essence of the music: reinventing it every time.