An Energetic, Eternally Relevant New Live Album by a Jamband Icon
“One way or another, this darkness has got to give.”
Jerry Garcia led that singalong in concert for the first time in 1970. Working-class Americans were still coming home from Vietnam in body bags, napalm and Agent Orange were being dropped on civilians there, and the violence of the 1968 inner-city riots and the Altamont concert a year later were still fresh in the American consciousness. Garcia’s longtime sparring partner Bob Weir opens with that song on his new vinyl album Live In Colorado with his most recent post-Grateful Dead project, the Wolf Bros., streaming at Soundcloud.
More than half a century later, is there anything left in the tank? On the mic, Weir stretches grittily into a range that Garcia’s tenor reached easily. On the frets, Weir is every bit the magician than he was in the Dead. To call him a rhythm guitarist doesn’t do justice to his distinctive blend of sinewy leads, chordlets and basslines: remember, in the Dead, half of the time Phil Lesh was bounding around way up on his G string.
The band ease their way into the song, New Speedway Boogie. The idea of the Dead with a horn section might strike a lot of people as wretched excess, but the intriguingly assembled quintet of cellist Alex Kelly, trumpeter Brian Switzer, trombonist Adam Theis, violinist Mads Tolling and saxophonist Sheldon Brown supply tight harmonies as pedal steel player Greg Leisz sails overhead, sometimes playing through an icy chorus pedal. Jeff Chimenti shifts from terse, bluesy piano to organ and then back – he’s the Pigpen the Dead never had. Meanwhile, drummer Jay Lane and bassist Don Was maintain a low-key sway while Weir is at his flintiest and most incisive,
The second song is an extended take of Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, another number with immense relevance to 2022. Chimenti and Leisz punch in and out, but the rest of the band chill and let Weir deliver one grim reality after another.
What is the next song, my blue-eyed son? If you dial up this album, try not to cheat and look at the tracklist: it’s impossible to tell. Is it going to be Minglewood, or Brown-Eyed Women? It’s the Dead’s favorite Johnny Cash cover, Big River, Weir taking spiky leads every bit as biting as the ones on hundreds of field recordings. Turning centerstage over to Leisz for some western swing is a perfectly obvious move.
With chorus full on, his chilly, tremoloing lines bring the menace in a slow, utterly noir version of West LA Fadeaway to a blue-neon intensity: this could be the Dream Syndicate. Weir updates a slow, slinky take of the (relatively) rare Dead tune My Brother Esau with a current-day environmentalist reference, then takes his time with the only one of his solo releases here, Only a River, a Shenandoah paraphrase.
The end of the album is where the test of time is most telling. Looks Like Rain was inevitably a high point whenever the Dead played it; this version is surprisingly fast and has neither stormy duel nor picturesque poignancy. The group wind up the album with an equally iconic interlude. Sailor/Saint, in Deadspeak, was the last in a long series of famous diptychs. Part one, Lost Sailor also seems on the fast, uptight side, but the orchestra – if you want to call them that – elevate this brooding tale into fullblown art-rock territory. They do the same, briefly, with Saint of Circumstance: afterward, we get Bobby telling the crowd that they’ll be back for the second set. But these were second-set tunes! Even if you think the Dead died with Jerry – and they did – this is as close to the real thing, in all their shambling glory, as the generation afterward will ever be able to see. Assuming concert restrictions go the way of the dinosaur, as they should, you’ll be able to see Weir on tour later this year.