For the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, ‘Retirement Is Not an Option’
For the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, ‘Retirement Is Not an Option’
At 74, the guitar legend has a new band, with a stage musical and an orchestral concert in the works.
Bob Weir on stage at a music festival in Virginia, August 2019. JAY BLAKESBERG
By Alan Paul
March 25, 2022 12:28 pm ET
Bob Weir says that he has always had “horrendous stage fright.” It’s a startling thing to hear, because he has performed thousands of shows in front of millions of people since 1965, when he became a founding member of the Grateful Dead at just 17 years old. “Those last few steps onto stage are like walking into a torture chamber every single time,” he says.
At 74, Mr. Weir still overcomes his fear the same way he always has: leaving his ego behind and giving himself over to the songs he plays and sings. “The music gets me past myself as soon as it starts, because what I’m doing is not about me; it is about the characters that have found their way into our world through me,” he says. “I give my body to those characters so that they can tell their stories. The more I give myself to them, the less I’m there to experience the stage fright, and it goes away.”
It all seems to work, because Mr. Weir is busier now than he has ever been, juggling multiple projects including a memoir, an opera and a stage musical about Negro League baseball icon Satchel Paige. He is currently on the road with Bobby Weir and Wolf Bros, a group that began in 2018 when he had a dream that he should form a band with drummer Jay Lane and bassist Don Was. The name Wolf Bros appeared in the same dream.
‘I take my dreams seriously so I rolled over in bed in the morning, called Don and asked him if he’d like to form this band.’
“I take my dreams seriously so I rolled over in bed in the morning, called Don and asked him if he’d like to form this band,” says Mr. Weir. The group has expanded into a 10-piece juggernaut and recently released their first album, “Live in Colorado.” It features intriguing arrangements of Grateful Dead classics and other songs Mr. Weir has written and performed. The band will be playing April 2 and 3 at New York’s Radio City Music Hall for two special shows celebrating the 50th anniversary of Mr. Weir’s debut solo album, “Ace.”
Mr. Was, who fronted the band Was (Not Was), is probably best known as a producer for the likes of the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan. He says that playing with Mr. Weir has been a singular musical adventure. “I wish we played 350 shows a year because being in a band with Bob has been tremendous,” says Mr. Was. “There is not another guitarist in the world who plays like him. He never plays the same thing remotely the same way twice in a row and will alternate between being as raw as John Lee Hooker to as sophisticated as Andres Segovia from one phrase to another.”
Rock guitarists often view being a soloist as the pinnacle of their profession, but Mr. Weir has dedicated his musical life to the craft of rhythm playing, which he describes as “putting my shoulder to the wheel.” Rather than using consistent, repetitive chords to build a groove, his style is based on counterpoint and riffs. The approach was profoundly influenced by jazz pianists, particularly McCoy Tyner of the John Coltrane quartet, and it became essential to the Grateful Dead’s sound, helping lead guitarist Jerry Garcia reach flights of fretboard fancy.
Mr. Weir’s quirky approach to guitar extends to his songwriting. He wrote “Sugar Magnolia,” one of the Grateful Dead’s most accessible and popular songs, but many of his other compositions, like “The Other One,” employ time signatures that are unusual in Western music. Mr. Weir says he took inspiration from the “explosion of Northern Indian classical music in American popular culture” in the 1960s, after the Beatles studied with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of Transcendental Meditation.
Other musicians followed suit, including the Grateful Dead. Mr. Weir not only got the meditation mantra he’s used ever since from an aide to the Maharishi, he also immersed himself in the music of Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar. “To even begin to appreciate their music, you have to be able to count in their time signatures,” he says.
Beyond the Wolf Bros, Mr. Weir tours stadiums in the summer with Dead and Company, featuring Grateful Dead drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart and guitarist John Mayer. He has also discovered a new passion for “painting” on his computer, which he attributes to the influence of his close friend Robert Rauschenberg, the late Pop artist. “Covid forced me to settle down and withdraw from performing for a couple of years, and I disappeared into Photoshop,” says Mr. Weir. “I spent a bunch of time in my middle years dealing with Robert and I can’t help but think that somehow he imparted to me some sort of vision.”
In October Mr. Weir will try another kind of experiment, when the Wolf Bros perform a concert of mostly Grateful Dead music with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. “We’re taking music drawn from the folk traditions and bringing them to full classical orchestration,” he says. “Bach was famous for making enormous classical pieces out of folk tunes, which is more or less what we’re up to with Grateful Dead songs.” The band is currently trying out this ambitious fusion of classical and improvisational traditions with a small string section on the road.
Mr. Weir keeps himself fit and sharp with daily workouts and meditation. He’s always considered himself an athlete and fondly recalls his days playing high-school football and his many years mountain-biking around the Marin headlands near his home. He’s now become an unlikely workout icon, posting his daily exercise routines on social media.
‘It all boils down to how much gas I will have left in the tank after playing for three hours.’
“It all boils down to how much gas I will have left in the tank after playing for three hours,” he says. “I need to work out because my job demands it. It really serves the music and that’s what I’m here for. I don’t do much in the way of social media, but I hire people to do that and they’ve been documenting me staying fit. I don’t have time for it.”
Time, Mr. Weir notes, is now his most precious commodity. “After putting in a lifetime of work, stuff is opening up to me that I just can’t walk away from,” he says. “Opportunities are arriving that make life worth living so I got to go for them. Retiring is not an option.”
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Appeared in the March 26, 2022, print edition as 'Bob Weir.'
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