Bobby Weir
Photo: Todd Michalek / Sacks & Co.

Bob Weir & Wolf Bros Walk the Golden Road at the Guild Theater

There’s a historic vibe in the air of going down the “Golden Road” to the origins of the Grateful Dead in Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros Trio’s show in San Francisco.

It’s a Saturday night in the South Bay, and historic vibes are in the air. Bob Weir & Wolf Bros Trio are set to conclude a week-long residency with their fifth show in six nights at the intimate and stylish Guild Theater in Menlo Park on 8 April. When Weir and his Wolf Bros last appeared in the Bay area in October, they played a three-night run with their expanded Wolfpack lineup at the much larger Warfield Theater in San Francisco to celebrate the Grateful Dead icon’s 75th Earth birthday. It was a celebratory weekend of big fun, and local fans didn’t figure they’d see the Wolf Bros again so soon.

This run following the Wolf Bros’ national spring tour came as something of a surprise, but Weirwolf fans eagerly bought up the tickets in short order. The Guild Theater holds no more than 500 people and feels even smaller due to the compact design that puts everyone up close and personal with the performers. In a refreshing change of pace, the Guild is also a 501(c)(3) non-profit venue. One of the benefits of this rare configuration is at the bar, which features a wide array of California craft brews instead of the small choice of corporate beer offered at most venues in the Bay Area, including the Warfield and the Fillmore.

There’s also a historic vibe in the air of going back down the “Golden Road” to the origins of the Grateful Dead since the Guild is just around the corner from the location where Weir and the original members of the Dead played their first gigs as the Warlocks in a weekly residency of gigs at Magoo’s Pizza Parlor in May of 1965. Magoo’s is long gone, and 639 Santa Cruz Avenue is currently vacant, though fans can still get some pizza across the street from the Guild Theater at Mountain Mike’s Pizza. 

Weir also turns the clock back by returning to the trio format with incomparable bassist Don Was and rock-steady drummer Jay Lane. It’s a flashback to the cosmic cowboy origins of the Wolf Bros in 2018-2019, with Weir ever aiming to mix things up. Yet the trio has hosted a handful of special guests during the week, so there’s still a sense of mystery in wondering who might show up on any given night.

Fiddle player Ketch Secor from Old Crow Medicine Show and singer/guitarist Molly Tuttle both popped up during the first set of the third show on Wednesday night, adding to splendid versions of the bluesy “West LA Fadeaway” and the traditional “Peggy-O”. Weir noted that the latter song dated back about 400 years, which makes it easy to imagine a number of Grateful Dead classics enduring centuries into the future. Weir’s longtime compadre Ramblin’ Jack Elliott also appeared to sing Bob Dylan‘s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”. 

The Wolf Bros trio closed the set with a magnificent performance of Weir’s classic “Lost Sailor/Saint of Circumstance” combo, with an energetic vibe demonstrating that the 75-year-old trailblazer isn’t close to slowing down yet. While there are times when his vocals naturally start to reflect his elder status, Weir’s voice still maintains the youthful vigor that has marked his career, as seen on the ever-inspiring chorus where he sings, “Sure don’t know what I’m going for, but I’m gonna go for it, it’s for sure.”

Playing with the Wolf Bros seems to have energized Weir with some metaphysical recharge over the past five years, allowing him to let these beloved songs shine in a stripped-down format that also opens up the tonal spaces between to reveal fresh sonic landscapes. Wednesday’s show also saw guitarist/songwriter J.D. Souther (renowned for co-writing a number of hits by the Eagles, not to mention dating both Linda Rondstadt and Stevie Nicks in the 1970s) appear with Weir for the third consecutive night to open the second set as an acoustic duo in songwriter’s workshop mode. 

The duo continued to work on writing a new song they had started on Monday, as they tried different riffs and chord changes. There were a couple of moments where it wasn’t clear if it was coming together, and Weir admitted he didn’t think they had it nailed down yet. But a magic moment of sonic alchemy occurred when he signaled Lane and Was to return, and they helped kickstart the song into gear by providing a tight rhythm section behind the guitars. 

This led to a jam that featured a special treat when Lane asked the audience if they’d like to hear a song of his and delivered a verse of his rare underground classic “Ancient Astronauts”. Clearly influenced by an affinity for the History Channel’s famous TV show Ancient Aliens, Lane impressed fellow aficionados in the audience with lyrics like, “If you look at all the theories, not just the nearest, you’ll find out that shit is true, according to ancient astronaut theorists.” It was another moment of big fun and a courageous risk from Weir ty balance on a tightrope without a net, while he and Souther were searching for the sound. 

The Wolf Bros would get down to business with a hot take on “Althea”, a scintillating performance of Dylan’s ever-zeitgeisty “All Along the Watchtower” that had the audience howling, and a majestic take on the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence”. Souther would rejoin the band for a raucous bust out of Chuck Berry’s “Nadine”, and it’s always fun and heartwarming to see Bobby Weir doing Chuck Berry. An always special “Ripple” encore with Secor and Tuttle helped cap off the first three nights of the run in style, before a bonus double encore with Souther on the Eagles’ “Best of My Love” before the band took a well-earned day off on Thursday.

Many who missed the Friday show felt the instant pangs of remorse from seeing a setlist that indicates a heater of a show, plus special guest Steve Kimock on lead guitar. Would the Wolf Bros be able to rally again on Saturday to close the run with a big finish? 

Kimock is back for more when the band hits the stage, along with fiddle player Mads Tolling from Weir’s Wolfpack unit. A classic “Jack Straw” opener is a welcome slice of vintage early 1970s Dead, tailor-made for the Wolf Bros’ old-time western vibe. An “Ashes & Glass”/” Don’t Let Go” combo feels like it never really ignites, making “Row Jimmy” feel like an odd choice to play next as momentum wanes. But the vibe turns around with Dylan’s “Queen Jane” because there’s just something soul-soothing in the air whenever Bobby Weir sings Bobby Dylan. Merle Haggard‘s “Mama Tried” also hits the mark, another staple that Weir has long made his own.

A high-energy performance of the classic “Turn on Your Lovelight” brings the set to a rousing conclusion, conjuring visions of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who perhaps sang the tune at one of those Warlocks gigs around the corner at Magoo’s Pizza Parlor in 1965. It’s been a relatively shorter set but it makes it feel like big things must still be on deck.

Weir raises the vibe at the start of the second set with “Me and Bobby McGee”, which has become an essential Wolf Bros number. They play it with a relatively mellow arrangement, but there’s a sonic and thematic gravitas that grabs the audience every time as Weir’s shimmering acoustic guitar chords and heartfelt vocals resonate across the decades. “Greatest Story Ever Told” is a rarity in the Wolf Bros repertoire and hits the spot here during the Passover/Easter season. Kimock is back on lead guitar, as is Tolling with some nifty wah-wah-sounding fiddle, mirroring Jerry Garcia’s rocking  leads on the song in the early 1970s  

A welcome bust out of the Beatles’ “Come Together” raises the vibe higher as the Wolf Bros keep the crowd-pleasing curveballs coming after Friday’s more anthemic show. There’s some excellent interplay here amongst what has been a quintet for most of the evening, as the guitars and fiddle riff over the deep groove, including a sweet “Eleanor Rigby” sequence tucked into the jam. 

The band turns on a dime into another California classic with Weir’s “Estimated Prophet”, as the set elevates with a stronger flow. It takes a tight rhythm section to segue smoothly from one song to another like this, with Was and Lane serving as tone scientists. Tolling adds more of the tasty envelope filter fiddle to invoke that mystical Garcia effect again, with Kimock content to play a more textured role. It’s an inspiring sequence as Weir leads the posse in knocking on that “golden door”. Weir’s “in no hurry”, because he knows “where to go”, which now seems like a metaphor for his maestro-like leadership of the Wolf Bros with a Willie Nelson kind of approach that aims to make every note count.

Then just when the audience might think the set is peaking out, the Wolf Bros move into a splendiferous “Eyes of the World” that really hits the sweet spot. The “Estimated>Eyes” pairing has been a classic GD combo since the 1970s, and it elevates the show to yet another higher level as the Wolf Bros groove out on the spiritual vibes. It’s one of those quintessential songs with a universal message that continues to resonate through the decades as this world gone mad remains ever in need of higher consciousness.

“Looks Like Rain” brings things back down a notch in the ballad slot, but it gets a great arrangement as Kimock and Tolling team on liquid melodies to make the music feel like a cleansing sonic rain. This pays off with a majestic reading of “The Wheel”, another one of those quintessential Garcia songs for spiritual empowerment that sure sounds great here with the Wolf Bros spinning that wheel round and round. A “U.S. Blues” closer rocks out to end the set, followed by a “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” encore that feels like blues church. Bobby Weir and Wolf Bros have delivered another fulfilling sonic sermon tonight. 

Weir will now move on to Dead & Company’s final tour this summer, but not before promising that the Wolf Bros will be back on the scene in September. Onward, Wolf Bros!