It’s a Saturday night in the People’s Republic of Berkeley, and there’s a buzz in the air, the likes of which haven’t been felt in two years. Bob Weir & Wolf Bros are here on 24 July to re-open the Berkeley Greek Theater with the legendary outdoor venue’s first show since 2019, which represents a big step forward for the Bay Area music scene.
With a capacity in the 8,500 range, this is the largest show in the region since the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down last year. The Greek is checking all ticket holders at the gates for proof of vaccination or a recent negative test and it’s a safety measure that helps music fans feel better about attending a show of this size. It’s also one of the biggest shows that Weir & Wolf Bros have played to date, as the group’s sonic evolution propels them from theaters to larger venues.
Launched in 2018 as a trio with bassist Don Was and drummer Jay Lane, Weir has utilized the trio format to explore Grateful Dead music in a more stripped-down form. That has enabled him to put a fresh spin on the Dead’s timeless songbook, as the trio conjures a cosmic cowboy sound that makes it feel sort of like traveling back in time to see Weir as a troubadour at a Wild West saloon in a bygone era.
Weir first burst onto the San Francisco scene in 1965 as the wide-eyed youngest member of the Grateful Dead, representing the youthful ideals of the ‘60s rock counterculture. The 21st century has seen him aging gracefully to take on the elder role that bandmate Jerry Garcia vacated upon his untimely departure from the Earth in 1995. The Wolf Bros also bring an extra level of charm to the stage that comes from watching Jay Lane play a drum kit lined with faux fur, while Don Was holds down the low end on upright bass grinning like an amiable pirate who’s stumbled onto a treasure chest of sonic goodies.
And while a few outliers have been unable to bend their ear to hear the tune in this format, the Wolf Bros’ bluesy vibe has proven increasingly popular with the fan base. There’s even a sector of fans who have suggested they’ve been digging Weir & Wolf Bros more than Weir’s ongoing larger-scale efforts with Dead & Company. The appeal of the Wolf Bros project has only grown further in 2021, with Weir expanding the band’s lineup in a monthly webcast series that started on New Year’s Eve.
The trio’s sound has evolved with the addition of pedal steel ace Greg Leisz, longtime compadre Jeff Chimenti on piano, and the Wolfpack Horns with Alex Kelly, Brian Switzer, Adam Theis, Mads Tolling and Sheldon Brown. The extra layers of instrumentation have helped Weir & Wolf Bros take their sound to a higher level, with a multidimensional flavor that enhances the core trio without overwhelming their cowboy trio vibe. The band made their 2021 debut to a live audience about six weeks earlier with a four-show run in Colorado, and now Bay Area music fans are salivating for their taste of the enhanced Wolf Bros lineup.
As showtime nears, some attendees are still feeling a bit anxious about being back in this large of a crowd setting. But with general admission seating in effect, there’s still a sense of some loose social distancing. The Greek looks pretty full, but it doesn’t feel packed. When Weir and his bandmates hit the stage in high energy fashion with the anthemic classic “Not Fade Away”, the crowd comes alive in the collective recall of a feeling that has felt forgotten. There’s an instantly triumphant sense of returning to a world where live rock ‘n’ roll music brings the local community together in a way that nothing else can.
The band doesn’t wait long to get into some genuine sonic alchemy with “Cassidy”, Weir’s 1972 classic about letting your life proceed by its own design. The Wolfpack horns shine here as they will throughout the night, first enhancing the verse melodies before also providing the lead melodies on a soaring jam over a deep groove from the Wolf Bros rhythm section that gets the audience hooting with approval early on.
Another peak moment in the first set occurs with a combo that sees Garcia’s “Friend of the Devil” lead into Weir’s “Black-Throated Wind”. Weir’s heartfelt vocals stand out on both of the mid-tempo gems, while pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz shows why he’s worth his weight in sonic gold. The shimmery pedal steel melodies add an extra dimension of sweet bluesy tone science to the Wolf Bros sound here that dazzles the senses. The “drink all day, rock all night” line from “Tennessee Jed” wins a big cheer, while Leisz again boosts the song with some twangy fills. The big fun continues as the band welcomes Ramblin’ Jack Elliott to the stage for “Muleskinner Blues”, a Jimmy Reed tune with a bluesy honky-tonk flavor reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm”.
Weir ups the ante on the set closer with a magnificent performance of “Weather Report Suite>Let it Grow”, one of his most ambitious song combos. The intro with the pedal steel and Wolfpack Horns takes the “Weather Report” to a gorgeous level of sonic elegance, as Weir sings of the cycle of seasons here on the third stone from the sun. The energy level at the Greek soars as the band picks up the tempo when they move into “Let It Grow”, enhanced still further with the horns adding some spaghetti western-style melodies that lift the song to new heights.
Here we see Weir’s skills as a bandleader evolving to the Jedi Master level. He could easily get away with playing these songs the same way as he has in the past, but the expanded band lineup pays off with a jackpot of sonic riches as fans hear these classic songs in a new light. In this way, Weir shows he’s still devoted to seeking new ground, ever the trailblazer for the psychedelic rock counterculture since co-founding the Grateful Dead at age 16. The jam pushes the envelope, with Weir & Wolf Bros laying down a deep groove around the song’s signature riff while the horns solo on top in a way that recalls the best of the collaborations between the Grateful Dead and renowned saxman Branford Marsalis.
The vibe at the Greek deepens as night falls for the second set, allowing the light show to shine. Fan favorite “Scarlet Begonias” is an early highlight, conjuring a joyous singalong with a festive audience that is clearly feeling it. The song doesn’t receive the deeper jam treatment that “Let It Grow” did, but serves as a stepping stone to some dynamic explorations in a classic “Playin’ in the Band / Uncle John’s Band / Playin’ in the Band” jam sandwich.
Letting the horns fill the space traditionally occupied by a lead guitarist again enables a familiar tune like “Playin’” to find new territory for another crowd-pleasing jam. The horns also allow the band to get into some jazzier territory, as with a brief jam on Miles Davis’ “So What” before segueing into “Uncle John’s”. When the Wolf Bros move back into “Playin’” with the horns leading the way, there’s a vibe that feels kind of like a mariachi cantina band celebrating the triumphant return of a hometown hero and so it is here with Bobby Weir.
Then just when fans might think the band has provided the centerpiece of the set, Weir steps it up again as the music turns on a dime into another classic with “Estimated Prophet”. The reggae-tinged intro sounds excellent here in the Berkeley night before the song builds to the triumphant chorus, as Weir sings out the seeker’s ode to rising up to paradise while “knocking on the golden door” right here in California. Weir again employs the horns for some jazzy improv as he adds his own dynamic accents on rhythm guitar to propel the uplifting jam.
Another smooth segue moves the set into the prototype ‘60s psychedelia of “The Other One”, which features some great sounds from the Wolfpack horns that lend the song a cinematic vibe. This in turn leads to the ever poignant Garcia ballad “Standing on the Moon”, which sounds even richer with that sweet pedal steel . Weir strikes a notable chord with the local audience as the melancholy protagonist on the moon sings of how he’d rather be “somewhere in San Francisco on a back porch in July”. The set wraps with Weir’s own Chuck Berry style rocker “One More Saturday Night”, re-invoking a raucous dance party vibe as this classic trio of songs makes it feel almost like a Grateful Dead show in the early ‘90s.
“Thank you, you’re too kind”, Weir says to the adoring audience when the band returns for another singalong with a “Ripple” encore. A “Not Fade Away” reprise makes an emphatic statement, as Weir & Wolf Bros rev up the audience one more time in the same way they started the show. The Buddy Holly classic has long since transcended the song’s original theme of romantic love, having come to represent the passion between the Grateful Dead and their ever devoted fanbase. It’s a relationship that hit its golden anniversary with the Fare Thee Well stadium shows in 2015 and the mood here at the Greek tonight has shown that this love affair still shows no sign of fading.