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Cultural Shorts

Fearless, Present: Don Was talks about life with Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros

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Todd Michalek
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Producer and musician Don Was has worked with a wide range of artists throughout his career, including the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.

But he says there's nothing quite like his current gig with Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir.

Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros featuring the Wolfpack perform at Wichita’s Orpheum Theatre tonight, March 14.

Formed in 2018, the Wolf Bros brings together Grateful Dead co-founder Weir with veteran musician/producer Don Was, who has helmed albums from Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones, John Mayer and drummer Jay Lane (RatDog, Primus).

The group embarked on a 2020 tour that was cancelled in the wake of COVID-19, then returned to the stage the following year for a series of gigs in Colorado, including two nights at the famed Red Rocks Ampitheatre in Morrison and two nights at the Gerald Ford Amphitheater in Vail.

Material from those shows comprises the outfit’s new LP, “Live In Colorado.” Slated as a two-volume set, the second collection should arrive by late summer or early fall.

The release draws upon Weir’s rich output with the Dead as well as covers from the Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan songbooks and one that initially appeared on Weir’s 2016 “Blue Mountain” recording. At a time when live records are largely tour souvenirs, featuring sometimes updated versions of old favorites with the odd deep cut thrown in for good measure, “Live In Colorado” stands as a declarative statement of the band’s identity and a statement about the nature of the world in 2021 (and 2022).

Six of the album’s 10 songs are anchored by references to water, whether a revelatory reading of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Cash’s “Big River” or The Dead’s “Looks Like Rain.” Taken alongside other Dead material from the release, including “New Speedway Boogie” and “West L.A. Fadeaway,” there are signs that Weir and band were contemplating a world adrift.

“New Speedway Boogie,” which opens the set, first appeared on the Grateful Dead’s “Workingman’s Dead,” one of two seminal sets the San Francisco outfit released in 1970.

Inspired by the hippie refuse and violence that announced the death rattle of the 1960s via the tragic events at California’s Altamont Speedway in December of 1969, “New Speedway Boogie” reveals that dreams of idealism had long held deeper, uglier truths. It was proof that dreams untethered to reality cannot sustain themselves. What’s remarkable about the events at Altamont as is how accurately they documented ugly truths teeming beneath the surface of the dream.

In the middle of a highly anticipated American tour and aware they’d missed out on the Woodstock Festival in August 1969, the Rolling Stones announced that they would perform a free concert in the San Francisco area. For a moment, the promise of a West Coast Woodstock and the seemingly inevitable good vibes that would buoy a generation into a new decade were enough to energize the plan.

But the gig was shrouded by darkness from the start: The British band couldn’t find an adequate venue and the decision to hire Hell’s Angels as security hinted at a disaster in waiting. The group secured a last-minute location, the Altamont Speedway, that was, by all accounts, inadequate.

The 1970 documentary film “Gimme Shelter,” directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, documents the hellish nature of the Altamont gig. The Hell’s Angels ran riot among the concertgoers; Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin was knocked unconscious by the bikers; virtually everyone involved reported “bad vibes.” The Grateful Dead themselves beat a hasty retreat back to San Francisco, missing further violence, which culminated in the stabbing of a fan while the Stones performed.

“New Speedway Boogie’s” refrain of “One way or another/this darkness got to give” on “Workingman’s Dead” can be heard as an acknowledgement that there hadn’t been a dream after all. The peace and love rhetoric behind the Summer of Love and the subsequent idealized colors with which it’s been painted hid and hide deeper realities. Aimless youths had flooded San Francisco without jobs and frequently with darker intentions than wearing a flower in their hair. Veterans returned from Vietnam burdened with drug addiction and the trauma of battle.

The Grateful Dead wasn’t known for protest anthems but it was documenting, in that song and elsewhere, a cultural shift.

Hearing the lyrics in 2022, it’s evident that they’re still relevant. The culture is once again teeming with unrest. The realities that bred the January 6 insurrection, that transformed COVID-19 from a health issue into a political one, and the sense that the global stage is once again set for a large scale war, all breathe new urgency into the lyrics.

Weir, now deep in his 70s, sounds less like a veteran musician leading a rock band through a familiar tune than a voice of reason, one that acknowledges, as the song goes, that even in the heat of the sun people still die of cold.

When the band launches into Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a tune which its author once described as “One long funeral song,” the album’s intentions sharpen. Weir sings the nearly 60-year-old song with an urgency and commitment that displays not only Dylan’s gifts as a lyricist but the power behind the words themselves.

Throughout the album, Weir remains in fine voice. Though the Grateful Dead never rivaled contemporaries such as Crosby, Stills, and Nash in the vocal department, there has always been something authentic and powerful about the words conveyed in their songs.

The playing, too, is remarkable. For all the complexities heard in the music that Weir has created since co-founding the Dead at age 16, there has always been a part of him that knows the power of making people dance. That’s on full display via a particularly potent rendition of “Big River,” wherein the rhythm section of Was and Lane, pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti prove that they could win over the most skeptical soul arriving at a roadside honky-tonk, eager for some good-time, down-home music.

The ensemble’s musical breadth is, of course, one of its most captivating features. The fourth side of “Live In Colorado” features an 18-minute sojourn with “Lost Sailor/Saint of Circumstance.” There, Weir’s appreciation for jazz and the ensemble’s ability to reach majestic musical heights — particularly via Leisz’s soulful, understated pedal steel work.

The horns of the Wolfpack take the tune to further heights, at times recalling the unthinkable beauty Frank Zappa’s 1988 big band reached at times. But whereas Zappa was prone to falling back on jokes even at the peak of musical power, Weir and band give us a contemplative dose of music that stands as the album’s greatest single achievement and takes Weir to a new artistic high.

Weir’s appreciation for jazz pianists such as McCoy Tyner is well documented and Was, of course, now heads the venerable jazz imprint Blue Note.

The group’s current tour spans 13 cities and will include a two-night stint at Radio City Music Hall in celebration of the half century anniversary for Weir’s solo album “Ace.” The group, with Barry Sless replacing Leisz on pedal steel, will also join the National Symphony Orchestra for four shows at the Kennedy Center.

Speaking with KMUW on the eve of the band’s current tour, Was provided some insights on working with Weir, the release of “Live In Colorado” and more.

Interview Highlights

Tell me about how you came together with Bob

I got a call from him, I guess probably four, five years ago. He said, “I had a dream [about late bassist Rob Wasserman].” Rob had introduced Bobby and I in the early ’90s. Bobby said, “In the dream, Wasserman said that he introduced us because you were supposed to take his place when he was gone. So, you want to play upright [bass] and start a trio with Jay?” I said, “Heck, yeah!” So he gave me some songs to work on. I practiced and went up [to Northern California] and, of course, he didn’t play any of the songs he told me to rehearse.

[Laughs.]

But there was something there. I could tell, after about 20 minutes, that we felt the beat in the same place, and it was grooving, even though we hadn't played together before. And that was it. After about 20 minutes, he called his manager and said, “Book the band.” And we were off.

I’m guessing that, in the world Bob occupies and the world that you come from as well, the less spoken about your intentions, the better.

It’s like [jazz saxophonist] Wayne Shorter says, “How can you rehearse the unknown?” The only thing that’s certain is that you’re not supposed to play it the same way you did last time. It’s definitely not going to be like that. [A song gets] called off at different tempos and mainly with a different groove underneath every night. And you just sort of see where it heads.

You were ramping things up and then COVID struck and things got called off.

We were actually in middle of a tour, and we had to stop. We had to cancel three weeks of shows, so it’s good to finally be getting back to it.

You did do some live streams during the height of the pandemic.

We just didn't want to stop playing. I was driving; I got an RV so I didn't have to go into truck stops. I drove up there every other weekend. We would just play and then we thought, “Well, we might as well be streaming.” We started inviting friends. We invited Greg Leisz to come and play and it was awesome to have the pedal steel in there. Jeff Chimenti, who plays with Dead and Company and played with Bobby for years in RatDog and Furthur, started playing with us. We started doing live streams and one thing led to another, and we added the two string players and the three horns. It was solid, man. We really enjoyed it and it gave us something to do, a purpose, something to work toward every month.

What was it like, then, to get out in front of an audience in 2021?

I’ll tell you the truth: It was pretty intense, and I didn’t see it coming. We walked out on the stage at Red Rocks last summer, and if we weren’t the first show back there we were certainly the first Dead-related show. It was the first gathering of Deadheads in a year-and-a-half. They came to this period that we all did of just not knowing whether you’re going to live or die, man. It was terrifying, right? So, when we walked out there, there was this sense of, “We survived.” And it was relief and elation. I hadn’t thought about it in advance but I was overcome by the feeling of the audience. It took off from there. It was incredible, real powerful, a powerful four nights, and I’m glad we recorded them.

The album, “Live In Colorado,” is really interesting because I think live albums are often just souvenirs of a tour. What I really love about this record is that there seems to be a lot of thematic connections between the material.

A lot of thought went into it. [This] is only part one, by the way. There’s a second part that’s coming in six months. It’s got the flow of a first set and a second set and there’s some real cool stuff on the second record. The setlist is never haphazard, let me put it that way. We know what we’re doing and for what reason.

The record opens with “New Speedway Boogie.” I was listening to it yesterday and I got chills. It was written in the wake of Altamont. It has a history but the refrain of, “One way or another/this darkness got to give” hit me. It was that moment of, “Everything that’s happened between 2020 and now is encapsulated in that song.”

That’s the beauty of the [late Robert] Hunter’s lyrics. It’s highly impressionistic poetry. No matter what’s going on, you can gather a stadium full of people with completely different lives and somewhere in those lyrics of Hunter’s or even John Barlow’s lyrics, there’s something you can hang your inner emotional life on. It’s different for every person but it’s all contained in those songs. And, to me, that’s great poetry. If you write really specific stuff, like, “I called this blonde girl that I knew from English class,” you really narrow things down to a small subset. Good poetry transcends fashion and trends and time.

Take “Gimme Shelter.” When I started working with the Stones, I didn’t really know what all the lyrics were, and I didn’t know what [the guys] had in mind. But certainly, everybody, no matter their situation, can relate to the need for shelter from something. I think that’s the kind of poetry you want to write. That’s what Bob Dylan writes and that’s what those Grateful Dead songs are. They mean so much to people. I really feel that when we’re out there, that’s the mission — to deliver those lyrics to the audience and help them feel good and make sense out of life.

Because life is life is crazy, man.

But, look, we're always living in crazy times. We don't know if we're gonna drop dead in the next 10 seconds. We don't know if we're gonna have a job tomorrow. We don't know if we're going to get divorced tomorrow. There’s so much uncertainty and great art, great songs, kind of center you. They make you feel like it’s gonna be OK and help you make sense out of your life. I think that’s what it’s all about.

So, there’s those songs and then Bobby delivers them from the heart. Every night. It’s about bringing a message of comfort and community to people.

“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is another one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that song or how many different versions I’ve heard. Everyone from Edie Brickell & New Bohemians to the Staple Singers.  But hearing the version on this album, it was like really hearing the song — and those words — for the first time.

Bob's a great interpreter of Bob Dylan songs. He's really good at it. He loves those songs, and he totally gets them. I love the way he delivers them. I did something with Bob Dylan a year ago. And he said, “Will you tell Bob Weir that I've written new lyrics to the bridge of ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece?’ I’d like him to do those.” So he sent a new bridge for Bob with some lyrics about Neil Young.

The album closes with “Lost Sailor/Saint of Circumstance” and you all play so beautifully on that.

Thank you.

Did you have a sense, on the night, that you were onto something?

Those are really difficult songs to learn. In fact, when Bobby said that he wanted to add that to what we're doing a couple of years ago I sat down to learn “Saint Of Circumstance” and I got mad at him for writing such a complex song. “This doesn’t have to be in 7/4!” But once you learn the song, it makes total sense. It’s a brilliant song. They’re really easy to play once you’re inside the song, then everything flows. So it’s superficially complex but it actually makes total sense, once you know the song, once you’ve internalized it.

I’m mentioning this mostly for the bass players in the audience. You have a different approach than Phil Lesh.

Yeah, I think everybody’s got a different approach than Phil. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

I think he's a genius, man. I think he's a great bass player. Don't get me wrong, but I have no idea how to play like Phil Lesh. I know how to play for the Grateful Dead, which is be yourself. That’s the idea no matter who’s playing. The worst thing you can do is imitate Phil or Jerry. Find your way into the songs. That’s what they did. Phil was like another guitar player. He and Jerry were kind of doing the same thing simultaneously and that’s not how I play it.

But there’s a different calling in this band. Oteil [Burbridge] in Dead and Company can play like that. He does a great job of capturing the essence of Phil and still be himself. I don’t have the choice. My brain doesn’t work that way. But I do know that it’s important to let Bobby phrase the songs and give him room. I’m trying to see how long I can hold one note and let it ring under while Bobby’s singing but not get rhythmically in the way of his phrasing. I don’t want to limit him in any way from delivering the lyrics of the song, which is what we’re all there for, I think. I try to keep it simpler.

For me, the Grateful Dead are kind of the anti-Beatles. If you ask most people about that band they’ll tell you, “I was watching in February ’64 and I fell in love with the music right away” or some version of that story. With the Grateful Dead it’s different. For most of the fans I know — and myself included — it was a case of hearing the music and thinking, “Man, I don’t know what to make of this. I don’t know if I can hang with that.” But then something happens and those of us who pass through the gate go in whole hog. What was  your experience?

I saw them in ’71 or ’72 in Detroit. I was listening more as a musician at that show. I was blown away. I thought, “These guys are basically like a jazz group but they’re playing different rhythms and maybe some different scales, but they’re also playing modes you can hear on a Coltrane record.” They were certainly aware of that music. So that’s what first got me. But I was not a Deadhead, man. I didn’t follow them around. I wasn’t part of that community. Now I get it. Having played in front of this audience now [I have to say] it’s an incredible audience because they all get to experience this kind of collective euphoria. You can feel the whole thing gel and when it connects with the band, the band and the audience become one thing and you can lift the roof off the theater. I’ve never experienced that playing in any other situation.

You’ve worked with a wide range of artists — from Dylan and the Stones to Bonnie Raitt and Paul Westerberg, and I’m guessing there’s nothing quite like this.

There is nothing else quite like it. The way we approach the music, it has all kinds of practical applications in life; if you're just present and, and interacting with your surroundings, you're going to live a little bit differently. I think probably better, hopefully. That's the truth man. When Bobby called me, part of the allure wasn’t just to go out and play the bass. I was hungry to learn about how to drop even more self-consciousness and just be present. I couldn’t think of a band that was any more spontaneous than the Grateful Dead and their offshoots.

Part of it was just to learn how to be a little more fearless, be present and react.