CLEVELAND, Ohio — When you talk about long and sometimes strange trips, Bobby Weir has been enjoying the ride.
Being part of the front line of the Grateful Dead since its inception would be enough to insure an enduring musical legacy, of course. But Weir, now 74, has long reached outside of the band with solo albums and other groups, ranging from Kingfish and Bobby and the Midnites to RatdDog, and, of course, the current Dead & Company. Weir has also had a stage musical about baseball Negro League icon Satchel Paige in long development, as well as an opera, a memoir, and a concerto of mostly Grateful Dead music that will premiere during October with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC
Weir’s other major concern is Wolf Bros, which has just released its first album, “Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros: Live in Colorado.” Started during 2018, it’s a trio with Grammy Award-winning producer and Blue Note Records chief Don Was on bass and longtime Weir collaborator Jay Lane on drums. The core also makes room for other players, particularly Jeff Chimenti on keyboards. And on parts of “Live in Colorado,” recorded during the summer of 2021, it’s joined by pedal steel player Greg Leisz and the Wolfpack, a horns and string ensemble of musicians who are helping Weir with the concerto.
The Wolf Bros return to the road in March, but for Weir any down time is a chance to do more work — interrupted, of course, by the occasional interview…
Because you’ve always been more of a live player than a studio rat, it seems appropriate that the first release by Wolf Bros is a concert set.
Weir: Yeah, yeah. Basically, we have fun, and we haven’t had time to get into the studio and actually get serious about making a record. And making records is kind of what Don does all the time, so we figured, “OK, let’s do THIS…”
How did Wolf Bros come to be?
Weir: It came to me out of a dream, actually. A lot of things come to me in dreams; They’re every bit as real when you’re there as when you’re here, and if something strikes you in a dream, I think it’s kind of your duty to act on it, and act on it now. I dreamed I was playing in a trio with Don and Jay, and then I woke up and I just rolled over and picked up the phone and asked Don if he wanted to do that, and he said “yeah.”
Did you have a clear vision for what the group would sound like from the get-go?
Weir: It became clear to me as I was on the phone with Don what the group could be. We’d be a trio, I’d have a lot of room to play guitar, but we could add people, too. The whole idea is that it should be…I want to say mutable. The core of the group is a trio and we’ve toured together and all that kind of stuff, and we can have Jeff on piano and Barry Sless or Greg on pedal steel, and then the Wolfpack. All those guys are real good, so we can take anything, any song, for a little walk in the woods.
What do you think differentiates Wolf Bros from the other bands you’re in or have been in?
Weir: It’s got Don on bass, and he’s a fairly singular bass player. He has more of a traditional, shall we say, or fundamental view of what the bass is all about and what he should be supplying with that instrument. He colors the songs differently than a lot of other guys who like to play more. He likes to play without a lot of embellishment, and that simplifies the songs, and it simplifies my approach to the song. That sort of gets me playing simpler, and the songs, I think, are benefitting from it. There’s a lot of power in simplicity.
Does the Wolf Bros format allow you to pull out particular songs you don’t get a chance to play, or to play other songs differently than you would with Dead & Company?
Weir: That’s an interesting question, but I have an answer. (laughs) It’s nothing I think I could put into words. It’s just a simple matter of what would be a good tune to do with this band, this ensemble with its instrumentation – and also fun, what would be a fun song to kick around? For instance, our rendition of “Lost Sailor”/”Saint of Circumstances” is more complete than any of the other bands that I’ve been in. The clarity that comes with our rendition of it is starting to lead through to DeadCo. What I’m really saying there, I guess, is that Wolf Bros is my workshop for stuff that I’m gonna take to the rest of the world.
Do you intend to make new music with Wolf Bros?
Weir: We’re working on that, yeah. I do writing sessions for that. I think there might be some (songs) lying around, I think there are some (Robert) Hunter lyrics I might take a peek at. I think somebody has discovered some (John Perry) Barlow lyrics that I might take a peek at. Some stuff I work on is gonna be better with the thunderous band (Dead & Company) and some stuff is gonna be better with the light-on-its-feet band (Wolf Bros). You sniff a song and it’ll tell you where it wants to go, and some stuff I’ll do with both bands.
You have an opera in the works. Where’s that at right now?
Weir: Well, I don’t really know. I’d say I’m about three-quarters through the story; I have to finish that up and then I have to arrange events, I suppose, make a sort of chain of events, from beginning to end. I have a lot of music written; I just need to figure out what of the story needs to be covered in each of the songs. I’ll know after my next trip to Nashville — that’s where the music got written. I might also start over with the music. So… it’s in progress. I’ve learned how to be patient and let stuff tell me what to do on its own. If I try to force the issue, that never works.
And a memory?
Weir: Yeah, I’m writing a book. Right now, it’s on the back burner, but as soon as I get the concerto on the boards, I’ll dive back into that. I haven’t read any (other) memoirs. I don’t want to be affected by them. I understand there are good ones out, but I don’t want to see how anyone does it until I’m done with mine.
What’s the story with this concerto you’ll be doing during October in DC?
Weir: I’ve orchestrated a couple dozen Dead tunes, and we might do a Dylan tune or two. It’s a full orchestration — we’re talking 90 pieces or something. But one of the things we want to do…It’s long been a thought that I’ve had in my head, it’d be nice if we could actually get a symphony orchestra to improvise. We have numerous pieces where we have an indeterminate length of verses, or repeats of a given pattern, and we’re going to have the various sections improvise over them. That way a song will never be the same way twice. And the Wolfpack, each of these guys will be embedded in the (orchestra) sections and be kind of the section improv leaders and they’ll be leading the charge.
Leave it to someone from the Grateful Dead to teach an entire orchestra how to improvise, eh?
Weir: (laughs) It’s a little out there on the daring side, shall we say, but that’s where we go to find the fun. And it may be that once the orchestra develops that ability and see that they have the ability to take (music) to other places, who knows what might happen. This type of technique would work with Beethoven or with Mahler as well. Who knows what will happen? I’m just trying to make the stuff I do meaningful.