The Weirwolf Revisits Cowboy Roots in Marin County with Explosive Results
The new album is truly a throwback to Bob Weir’s roots, making “The Campfire Tour” a rare and special chance to see a rock legend turn the clock back to show his fans how it all started.
It’s another beautiful early fall evening in sunny San Rafael, where Indian Summer is par for the course. But there’s an unusual special event taking place on this Friday evening. The local music action generally occurs two miles down the highway at Terrapin Crossroads, where Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh has built a mecca for music fans. But Lesh’s “prodigal brother” Bob Weir is in the spotlight tonight at the old Veterans Auditorium as the Dead’s rhythm guitarist launches a two week solo tour in support of his new album Blue Mountain.
No one’s quite sure what kind of show to expect, though. Will it lean solo acoustic or tilt more toward a fully electrified band? Will it focus on the new album or mix in Grateful Dead classics? Will Weir play in a straight-forward style or with more improvisational energy? His post-GD career didn’t get off to the best start with the Ratdog tours that took place in the mid-to-late ‘90s, leaning much more on blues and less on the exploratory rock that made Weir famous. But Weir has really evolved his approach over the past 15 years, taking a cue from Lesh and digging back into the musically adventurous realm that the GD was known for.
The “Weirwolf” (as he’s been affectionately known in these parts since growing out a beard and thick mustache in recent years that contrasts with his formerly boyish appearance) receives a hero’s welcome as he comes out on stage, almost as if he'd been away for some time. The audience rises from their seats for a thunderous standing ovation, no surprise really considering what a lengthy and influential career Weir has had. There’s even a Facebook tribute group named “God Bless the Weirwolf”, a sentiment that underlies Weir’s status as genuine counterculture icon.
“Fifty some years ago, a fifteen-year-old kid thought it would be a fun thing to do to run away one summer and be a cowboy… so that’s what he did. This is a tune he heard that summer”, Weir says, noting that “Blue Mountain” probably goes back to the '20s. As he delivers the old time song with a solo acoustic guitar performance, one can’t help but note the gravitas in his voice. This used to be the territory of Weir’s friend and mentor Jerry Garcia. Weir has slowly but surely grown into the role of elder statesman over the past two decades since Garcia’s passing in 1995 though and it now seems a natural fit.
Weir’s bandmates join him on the second song “Only a River”, adding great sonic texture with atmospheric backing that gives the tune a cinematic flavor. The unit features Bryan Devendorf (drums) and Scott Devendorf (bass) from The National, with Josh Kaufman and Steve Kimock on guitars, and multi-instrumentalist Jon Shaw. A backdrop shows a brokedown log cabin in the rolling green hills of Wyoming, with Weir commenting that at such an elevation of around 8,000 feet, there’s no bugs up there to eat it and the edifice will petrify.
“That thing’s gonna be there for thousands of years just like that… when people stumble across this thing, they’re gonna scratch their heads,” Weir notes jovially, conjuring the playful mood from old Grateful Dead recordings where he’d tell jokes to kill time when the band was tuning. “Lay My Lilly Down” takes on a bluesier flavor yet also with an atmospheric spacey quality, a captivating combo that suits Weir so well.
“Ghost Towns” is another gem, as the band offers a shimmering shuffle with Weir narrating like an Old West troubadour. The Grateful Dead’s “He’s Gone” is performed with a similar rustic style, much to the delight of all. The song has gone through thematic shift over the years, evolving into a lament for the dearly departed Garcia. A brief jam makes a strategic segue into the new “Gonesville”, as the band picks up the tempo while Weir sings of a split from stagnant circumstances to close the first set in upbeat style.
The bar scene at setbreak is a nightmare as a massive line forms for drinks that patrons can’t even take into the seats anyway due to antiquated venue rules. But fans are allowed to roam free outside for a puff or fresh air, which many do since the auditorium is located in a scenic spot along a small pond with winding pathway. But while it’s not a great place to get a drink, the Marin Veterans Auditorium does have fantastic acoustics so it’s still a quality place to catch a show.
Weir rewards the fans’ faith and patience with the new material by delivering a full second set of Grateful Dead classics. “Althea” gets things rocking before giving way to “Me and My Uncle”, a Denver cowboy classic that fits the mood of the evening perfectly. Weir’s anthemic “Playing in the Band” is another upbeat crowd pleaser, but the high point of the night occurs on the song that follows.
Most of the audience has remained seated during the show as it’s an older leaning crowd due to Marin County demographics and since the theater’s tiered seating lends itself to theatrical viewing. But as the band dips into a spacey prelude, a sonic energy starts to build. Weir and his cohorts are now shamanic tone scientists experimenting with flammable elements. The cosmic power of the Grateful Dead suddenly bursts through almost out of nowhere as a sonic bomb explodes to announce the appearance of Weir’s seminal psyche rock classic, “The Other One”. It’s like a wizard has summoned an elemental from another dimension as a shock wave of psychedelic rock power blast over the Shire. A chain reaction occurs as the front rows start to rise and then each row thereafter, with the whole auditorium soon on their feet rocking out.
This is the type of magic that was absent from Weir’s Ratdog shows in the late ‘90s when he was trying to distance himself a bit from the Dead’s immense legacy. He’s fully embraced that legacy in recent years however, touring as Furthur with Lesh from 2009-13 and now in the wake of the GD’s 50th anniversary Fare Thee Well shows in 2015 and Dead & Company tours with Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart and John Mayer. What a transformative journey it’s been for Weir, from the fresh-faced boy wonder of 50 years ago, maturing through the decades as a rock and roll warrior of love and light to the wizardly elder status he’s now embraced.
The triple encore encompasses this journey as Weir opens solo acoustic again for the new album’s “Ki-Yi Bossie” before bringing the band back for Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried”, a long time GD staple that soars with anthemic quality here. Weir then caps the show with Garcia’s mystical ballad “Ripple” for a climactic conclusion. It may have taken Weir a few years to find his footing again after Garcia’s untimely passing, but he’s reached Jedi Master status now. Whether he continues with Dead & Company or goes his own way, the Weirwolf’s journey promises to captivate for he walks a unique trail that no one else ever has.