The Grateful Dead always had a connection to the old American west. Songs like “Deal”, “Loser”, “Jack Straw” and “El Paso” are set in the in desert and tell tales of deception, deals gone wrong and games of chance that could only take place in the old West. As the frontman Bob Weir was always the Dead’s default cowboy and now at the age of 69 Weir continues that role with his new solo band.
When “The Campfire Tour” was announced I immediately marked the two shows at Kings Theater in Flatbush, Brooklyn on my calendar. Having just played huge stadium gigs with the more nostalgic and traditional Grateful Dead band, Dead and Company, I looked forward to catching Weir doing his own thing at a much smaller venue. The new solo album, “Blue Mountain,” is the perfect kind of project for Bob Weir to be doing at this point in his career. His aged and grizzled voice suits the kind of old fashioned Americana music Blue Mountain captures perfectly.
While the two shows at Kings Theater were a departure from the recent Dead and Company tour there were still the trappings of Grateful Dead culture you would expect. There would be two sets each show, many people were going both nights and some were even following the band on tour – of course. At eight o’clock sharp on Friday night, Bob Weir walked onstage with just an acoustic guitar and began the show with solo renditions of “Easy To Slip” and “Loose Lucy” before diving into the Blue Mountain material with his backing band. There was certainly a portion of the crowd disappointed we were not getting a standard set of Grateful Dead music but the majority listened intently to Bob Weir’s new project and the group brought the sound of the album to life on stage. Weir’s new backing band is made up of members from the Brooklyn based indie band The National as well as Blue Mountain producer Josh Kaufman and longtime Bob Weir collaborator Steve Kimock. The music sounded like it belongs on the Westworld soundtrack and the beautiful imagery of deserts landscapes projected behind the band really hammered down the old west Americana vibe.
To wrap up the first set Weir led his band through a rousing “Big River” that got the crowd on its feet and energized for the first time. After intermission the band was back at it with a set of mostly Grateful Dead songs that featured an awesome version of “Brown Eyed Women” that really got the place going followed by a spaced out “Cassidy”. “Cassidy” will always be one of my favorite Weir tunes and in Brooklyn it gave the group a chance to really stretch out and show off their improvisational chops. Things wrapped up with a high energy “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad”, a classic that always gets everyone singing along.
On my way out of the show Friday night I overheard a woman complaining that Bobby didn’t play any of the Grateful Dead cowboy songs like “El Paso” or “Me and My Uncle”. Well, I sure hope she went back Saturday night because on night two Weir and his band played both of those and even threw in “Jack Straw” in case that wasn’t enough old west dead for the heads in crowd. Things got started in much the same way, with two solo acoustic songs, this time it was “Hell In A Bucket” (kind of bizarre as an acoustic song I got to say) and “Corrina”.
On this night the new material really shined. The lead single “Only A River” was played in the first set and the songs open lyrics “I was born up in the mountains/raised up in a desert town” is just the kind of start I would hope for out of a Bob Weir song. It also features an impressive reverb heavy guitar solo from Josh Kaufman.“Gonesville” closed out the set and and was the first time I heard the audience singing along to one of the new songs. The uptempo sing along got the crowd moving before set break much like “Big River” did the night before.
During set two the band’s time to shine occurred during the Garcia penned, “Bird Song”. “Bird Song” was always a jam vehicle for the Dead and this version stayed true to format and lifted off into outer space. One thing I enjoy about this new band is they do not sound like a copy of the Grateful Dead. Guitarist Josh Kaufman has his own style and tone though he still plays the music with respect to its Godfather, Jerry Garcia. There were moments I felt the band had a late sixties Grateful Dead sound, most clearly during a song from that era “The Other One”, but this is band is clearly searching for their own sound and not just paying tribute.
Towards the end of set two Weir slowed things down with a ballad. Hearing Bobby sing “Stella Blue”, one of Garcia’s best ballads, is truly special. You can tell he’s singing it for his best bud who I’m sure is listening with approval somewhere. There was no “One More Saturday Night” this time around (They actually played it on Sunday night at the Capitol Theater oddly enough) but instead Bob Weir and his band left the joyful crowd buzzing with an upbeat “I Know You Rider” that sent everyone walking out of the Kings Theater feeling good.
Who know’s what’s next for Bob Weir. That’s one of the things deadheads appreciate the most. One things for sure and that’s getting to hear this legend perform is still a treat and we should all enjoy this long strange trip wherever it’s going to take us.
Photos by Mike Renzetti