It’s been another great “Rock-tober” in the Bay Area, but the fun’s not over yet, as Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros featuring the Wolf Pack are set to collaborate with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra at the Frost Amphitheater on the Stanford campus here on this Sunday evening of 29 October. The performance is the West Coast premiere of Weir’s symphony project that adds orchestral backing to Grateful Dead classics, making this show a special event with fans traveling in from around the region.
The Grateful Dead co-founder celebrated his 75th circle around the sun last October with a memorable three-night fiesta with the Wolf Bros and Wolfpack at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater, and he’s had another big year in 2023, sandwiching spring and fall tours with the Wolf Bros around Dead & Company’s acclaimed final tour this past summer. Seeing Bob Weir lead Dead & Company through three sensational stadium shows at Oracle Park in San Francisco this past July revealed a rock ‘n’ roll bandleader who remains at the top of his game. Yet Weir is still searching for fresh ways to find new sounds.
Weir launched the Wolf Bros as a trio in 2018 with bassist Don Was and drummer Jay Lane, delivering a stripped-down version of Grateful Dead music that seemed like what it might have been like if he’d been playing Old West saloons a century earlier. He expanded the cosmic cowboy band with a pedal steel guitarist (first Greg Leisz, now Barry Sless), then by adding longtime compadre Jeff Chimenti on keyboards, and further still with the string and brass quintet of the Wolfpack in 2021 (comprised of Alex Kelly on cello, Brian Switzer on trumpet, Adam Theis on trombone, Mads Tolling on violin, and Sheldon Brown on sax.) The lineup expansion generated exciting new interpretations of old favorites, with the horns and strings playing lead melodies in the sonic space traditionally filled by a lead guitarist.
The Wolf Bros’ intrepid explorations have won acclaim not just with older Deadheads but also by influencing the next generation of rising musicians, such as angelic harpist Mikaela Davis. “It wasn’t until I sat in with Bob Weir & Wolf Bros. in 2018 that I started seriously improvising,” Davis recently told Relix. “My band had always encouraged me—and I did it a little bit at shows—but when I sat in with Bob, I just threw myself into it.” This was evident when Davis and her band Southern Star jammed out on the Dead’s “Here Comes Sunshine” the previous weekend at the Back Room in Berkeley on 21 October.
Meanwhile, Bob Weir has taken the Wolfpack concept to another level with orchestral backing, such as last year’s performance with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. This time, it’s with the next generation in the form of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, composed of current Stanford music students. An overture from the orchestra opens the show and teases Weir’s “The Other One” before the Wolf Bros come out for “Jack Straw” and “Playin’ in the Band”. Saxophonist Sheldon Brown shines on big solos here to add a jazzy flair. The strings step up on “Uncle John’s Band”, as the music takes on a heartwarming and soul-stirring quality with the orchestral backing.
Conductor Paul Phillips takes a moment to note that the project has been about a decade in the making and that the show is a benefit for the student orchestra. The Wolf Bros proceed with Weir’s classic combo of the bluesy ballad “Lost Sailor” into the energetic rocker “Saint of Circumstance”, with great fanfare. “Lost Sailor” takes on a cinematic dimension, with all the strings making the song feel like a soundtrack to a big adventure film. Sless’ pedal steel shines like the Dog Star that the song’s sailor protagonist is searching for, and trombonist Adam Theis gets in an adventurous solo, too. Theis has become a notable jazzman about town himself, gigging with his Jazz Mafia outfit in various formats ranging from free sidewalk shows in San Francisco’s Mission District to gigs at the classy Black Cat Jazz Supper Club.
The Wolf Bros soar through the transition into “Saint of Circumstance”, with the orchestra elevating the band’s sound toward a cinematic grandeur. Was and Lane make a dynamic duo here, laying down a big groove as the foundation for the larger sonic landscape. The jam at the end features an extra orchestral sequence that seems like it was written for this occasion, as it heightens the sonic tension leading into the song’s ever-triumphant outro chorus section. It all makes for big fun with most of the crowd dancing rather than staying in their seats, as some feared might be the case.
The “Sailor” and “Saint” combo often functions as a climactic first set closer. But Weir and the Wolf Bros double down for the occasion here by following with a complete “Weather Report Suite”, a sequence from 1973’s Wake of the Flood album that provided a template for an elaborate soul-searching ballad leading into a big rocking conclusion with “Let It Grow”. This sequence has become Wolf Bros’ version of Masterpiece Theater over the past few years, with the Wolfpack adding a spaghetti western vibe that surges even higher with a full orchestra. Weir is at the peak of his powers here, singing with a youthful vigor that belies his elder status as he leads a Jedi Master class in sonic alchemy with the blend of rock, jazz, and classical soundscapes.
The horn section gets a big crowd-pleasing solo section before the Wolf Bros pull back to let the orchestra take the spotlight as the sonic journey moves toward the dramatic jam at the song’s end. The jam swirls from the full-tilt rocker, with the Wolf Bros powering one of the Dead’s heavier grooves to the orchestra taking the baton in the cinematic direction. The Wolfpack take the jam in a jazzier direction with Theis starring on a big trombone solo that brings visions of the angels standing on a pin that Weir sings of in the song. It’s a downright majestic performance by the entire ensemble to close the set and is truly glorious.
As fans socialize during the set break, the performance brings to mind the recently released 50th-anniversary edition of Wake of the Flood and the Angel’s Share edition that includes outtakes, alternate versions, and in-studio conversations that put listeners in a fly-on-the-wall position for the evolution of the songs. This makes tonight’s grand performance of “Weather Report Suite” feel like it was 50 years in the making.
The ensemble go large to open the second set with a dazzling performance of 1978’s funky “Shakedown Street”. The Wolf Bros core quintet shines on the groovy jam with Weir and Sless digging into some hot bluesy riffage, but the strings and other orchestral accompaniment make this a “Shakedown” unlike any other. The “China Cat Sunflower” that follows is another treat, with the psychedelic rock classic from the late 1960s providing a unique syncopation for the orchestra’s enhancement. This includes taking over the transition jam into “I Know You Rider”, where it feels like the orchestra is even providing some improv.
It’s one triumph after another as the prototype psychedelic space jam of “Dark Star” follows, with the orchestra again providing an extra level of grandeur that opens up new psychedelia in the spaces between spaces. When “Dark Star” concludes, the band step back to give the orchestra the lead again on the intro to “The Other One”, which was teased earlier. When the Wolf Bros come back in, it’s like a magical circuit has been activated, which ingeniously seems to approximate that moment when the LSD kicks in on an acid trip, and one can suddenly sense a multi-dimensional point of view (which is partly what the song is about.)
Yet another ovation follows in what has been a flawless evening so far. Bob Weir talks about how the project came about, saying he was asked years ago about doing a benefit show for the orchestra. He was amenable to the idea but also wanted to play with the orchestra. He notes that all the orchestration was written here at the music school, “and really, that last tune we did was written not far from here; it’s all local stuff”, winning another big cheer. Weir then ups the ante as only such a pioneering trailblazer can.
“This is an ongoing project. We’re going to be at this for a long time. And some of the things that we’re going to try to be doing – like getting entire symphony orchestras to improvise – every section, each section of one voice, it’s not possible to do. But we’re going to do it, and it’s going to happen here because these kids don’t know what can’t be done,” Weir proclaims, winning still more enthusiastic applause for what sounds like may become an annual event here at the Frost.
Then it’s just Weir by himself in front of the orchestra, singing the early 1990s Garcia/Hunter ballad “The Days Between” with just the orchestra backing him. The somber tune is not what most would call a fan favorite, but it takes on a particularly poignant vibe with this arrangement. The fun’s not over yet, though, as the Wolf Bros then return to lead the orchestra through a truly epic rendition of the full “Terrapin Station Suite”, perhaps the Grateful Dead’s most elaborately orchestrated composition and, therefore, a fitting closer here. The following 26 minutes are a majestic triumph, including a tremendous jazzy horn-led jam toward the end.
“Terrapin” could easily have concluded the show, but no, the orchestra leads the Wolf Bros into a crowd-pleasing reprise sequence back into “Dark Star”, which then segues masterfully back into the previously unfinished “Uncle John’s Band”, then back into Bob Weir’s signature “Playin’ in the Band” reprise for a genuinely grand conclusion. The hero’s applause goes on for quite some time and is well-earned, for this night defies expectations of what can or can’t be done.