Blair's Golden Road Blog-Bob Weir at 65: An Appreciation
“Nooooooooooo!” I can hear my cry in a very hazy memory. April 2, 1973. The house lights dim, a roar builds steadily in the crowd and grows to a deafening din as the band members amble onto the stage at the Boston Garden. As the spotlights brighten, I squint from my perch near the top of the upper level of the enormous arena. Something doesn't look right onstage. “What the-?” Oh, my God, Bob Weir's ponytail is gone! Jeez, you don't see the band for eight months and all hell breaks loose.
Did it matter? Of course not! I'm mostly kidding, but in some way, the disappearance of that ponytail, which cascaded so elegantly down the middle of his back, felt like another sign that the band was leaving its hippie past behind and that young Bob, just 25 at the time, was—gasp!—growing up. I was about to turn 20 and wanted to be Bob Weir—not that I had an ounce of musical talent. But I dug the look and I loved what he brought to the Grateful Dead's unique chemistry. To me, he was the essence of hippie cool. My first Bob was the Cosmic Cowboy one; I'd missed the beautiful young androgyne by a couple of years.
Bob was the Wild One. He was the rock 'n' roller, but also the confident, smooth-voiced narrator on all those dramatic country-rock numbers about desperados and fugitives; a perfect fit for those tunes. He was the guy who would screech and scream himself hoarse at the end of the show, whipping us into a dancing frenzy. He was the droll, wise-cracking emcee informing us that the band would resume playing after technical gremlins had been extinguished and everything was “just exactly perfect.” In the early days, he even told a few bad jokes. What a prankster. Seems as though he was never far from a smile or a smirk.
Except sometimes when he was playing—then he'd often have that look of intense, focused concentration, as he conjured endless creative guitar lines that provided an ever-moving rhythmic center in the heart of the group's sound. Labeling him a “rhythm guitarist” always felt horribly inadequate, because he wasn't some guy just chopping out simple chords in a conventional pop music way. Rather, he used an immense musical vocabulary and deft touch to construct sophisticated parts that were both rhythmically assured and amazingly nuanced.
I have this picture in my head of him standing in a semicircle with Phil and Jerry in the early '70s blasting through the nether regions of “Dark Star,” or maybe “Playing in the Band,” and he's hunched over his big Gibson, his whole body in fluid motion, and you can practically see how the parts all fall together organically. One moment he's grinning at some miraculous turn the jam has taken, the next he shakes his head, flips the hair out of his eyes and looks up into the lights as if he's wondering where it can go next. I get excited just thinking about that dynamic interplay—that's what turned me into a Dead Head in 1970, at the age of 16, and what has nourished my soul ever since.
Of course there were also the songs, and Bob co-wrote many of my favorites from my first years seeing band—“The Other One,” “Jack Straw,” “Truckin',” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Playing in the Band,” “Greatest Story Ever Told,” “Mexicali Blues,” “Weather Report Suite”—all completely different one to the next, each a glimpse into a different world. Later, I was knocked out by “The Music Never Stopped” and “Estimated Prophet,” “Feel Like a Stranger” and the still-amazing combo of “Lost Sailor” and “Saint of Circumstance.” I got my early education in country music listening to Bob sing “El Paso,” “Mama Tried,” “Dark Hollow,” “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” “The Race Is On” and “Big River,” and as time went on he provided new windows through which to view Dylan classics, old blues and so much more.
Basically, I'll follow him anywhere. I haven't loved every band he's been in or every song he's written. But he's earned my eternal respect and admiration for continually pushing boundaries and moving forward in a way that is so idiosyncratic—so … Bob!—that I want to be a part of and support whatever it is.
I first interviewed Bob for The Golden Road in the late '80s and instantly learned that what everyone in the Dead scene had told me through the years was true: he's a sweetheart! (It's a word you hear applied to him by both men and women.) He's warm, friendly, thoughtful, possesses a dry wit and has a surprisingly good and detailed memory (a boon to those of us who pester him with historical questions). I've never seen him be anything but polite to those around him, and in the dozen or so interviews I've done with him in the past 20 years—some on the phone, most in person—he has never really spoken ill of anyone. Which is not to say he lacks opinions or is uncritical. But he tends to give people the benefit of the doubt and he seems to have an inherent faith that things can and perhaps will work out for the best. His track record for giving his time unselfishly for benefits speaks for itself—and to his optimism.
On his most recent birthday, October 16, Bob hit 65, retirement age for many. His bushy grey-white prospector's beard almost makes him look his age for the first time (when The Warlocks started, he was 17 and looked about 14; in his early 40s, he looked 10 years younger), but fortunately for all of us he has not slowed down one bit. Maybe he's just trying to keep up with his GD elders—that indefatigable wonder of nature Phil (72), Mickey (69) and Bill (66). Nah, he just loves his job. Playing music is what musicians do. Age is just number (says the writer, pushing 60).
Look at just some of the great work Bob has done the past couple of years: Multiple tours with Furthur; his extraordinary collaboration with the Marin Symphony; a handful of shows with RatDog (here's hoping for a RatDog tour in 2013!) and Scaring the Children (with Rob Wasserman and Jay Lane); fine music from his acoustic trio with Chris Robinson and Jackie Greene; a bunch o' solo shows, plus appearances with Bruce Hornsby and Branford Marsalis; and sit-ins with such disparate acts as 7 Walkers, Jackie Greene, Slightly Stoopid, The National and God Street Wine. Those last few were at Bob's magnificent high-def audio-video facility in San Rafael, Calif., TRI Studios. Bob has been extremely generous in sharing TRI with a broad spectrum of different artists, and is helping to pioneer a new era of high-quality music distribution over the Internet.
So here's a virtual toast to Bob on this auspicious occasion. You've done more for us than you'll ever know, and we're all counting on being able to celebrate 70, 75 and beyond with you! I know this song, it ain't never gonna end!
Care to share some nice thoughts/memories about Bob Weir?
Sublime vocal phrasing. Superb slide guitar playing. Thank you, Bobby, for the infinite musical joy that you have given over the decades,
only those who risk going too far possibly know how far one can go-t.s. eliot - happy birthday bob!!!
I don't have the skill or the knowledge to say it as well as Blair does. Perhaps it's found as the Band lifts off during a 73 Playing jam, or when Bob steers the ship from Dark Star into Sugar Mag in 72. That unmistakable glint of gold in the miner's pan. Or maybe it's found as he's breathing new life into a Dylan tune, or escaping through the lily fields. My favorite Bob moments- Pick any show and you'll find them.
Bob's hands and mind have been sculpting time into pleasing portions for as long as I've been aware of him. I never get tired of hearing him play and join Blair Jackson in hoping he stays at it for many more years.
Back in the early 1970's, on the roof of the gym at Bethesda, MD's Walt Whitman High School, someone painted "I love Bob Weir." You don't see that kind of graffiti much anymore, but there are many thousands of us out here who deeply appreciate a characteristic once summed up by Steve Kimock (in, as it happens, Blair's blog "Steve Kimock to the Rescue! A Few Minutes with the Master Guitarist"):
"There’s so much cool stuff that guy plays! Most of the time when Garcia was singing, he was just playing the chords under it—first position stuff—but then there’s all this hip shit that Weir was playing. I’m like, “Good grief, how does he come up with this stuff?”
Best regards to you Bob--you seem always to have known that you get back what you give, and you have given tons.
Not enough can be said about Bob's ability on the guitar! Most of us who fool around from time to time on the 6 string and are drawn to the music of the Grateful Dead tend to settle into a comfortable progression of chords and a few Identifiable "licks" that were supplied by Jerry. But as I play more and get into the music even deeper, the contributions from Bobby become even more apparent. His chord voicing's and fretwork have opened up a whole new can of worms on how the guitar can be played! Thanks Bob for showing me the possibilities beyond the normal.