We hope that some of you had the opportunity to tune in to the free webcast of Bob Weir and members of The National (and several other groups) live from Bob’s TRI Studios in San Rafael on March 24, because it was a special night of music from beginning to end. It was also promoting a good cause—HeadCount, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to registering people to vote (and educating them about the issues), primarily by doing outreach at concerts. Bob and his manager, Matt Busch, are on the Board of Directors of HeadCount, and Furthur, RatDog and The National have all been involved in previous fundraising efforts for the grassroots organization, which has been operating since 2004.
Dubbed “The Bridge Session,” the TRI event might have looked on paper like an unusual pairing—Bob joining forces with a young, moody, Brooklyn-based indie/Americana band and some of their friends—and until they hit the stage, we didn’t know what to expect. The National formed in 1999 and put out their eponymous first album in 2001. The group’s popularity has been increasing steadily since then, through a series of other acclaimed albums and numerous tours, festivals and benefit appearances. At TRI, three core members of the group—singer/guitarist Aaron Desner, drummer Bryan Devendorf and bassist Scott Devendorf—were joined by occasional National associates Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman) on keyboards and classically trained trumpeter Kyle Resnick, along with guitarist Josh Kaufman (of the band Rocketship Park), second drummer Conrad Doucette (of Takka Takka), guitarist Sam Cohen (of Yellowbirds) and organist Walter Martin (of The Walkmen). That’s a lot of folks onstage, but amazingly enough, the sound was not cluttered, just pleasantly full. And as we’ve come to expect from these TRI webcasts, every part was clearly discernable in the audio mix by Mike McGinn. Video director Justin Kreutzmann seems to get better with every TRI webcast and was really on top of his game all night.
The first numbers of the night showed that this group was serious: “Help on the Way” > “Slipknot!”—not exactly an easy entry into the Dead repertoire. Right away, it was clear that this cast of musicians with non-Grateful Dead backgrounds (though they were all fans to varying degrees) was going to shape the songs in different and unpredictable ways. Resnick’s trumpet frequently stood in for Garcia’s guitar lines, and the addition of mandolin (Desner) and the often abstract guitar figures of Cohen (was that a Fender Jaguar?) and the warmer, more melodious tones of Kaufman’s Guild axe, made for an interesting blend. The drummers mostly played with brushes or padded mallets, which helped them not overwhelm the others in the large ensemble.
After the “Slipknot!” ambled on a bit, the group went into a song by peripatetic indie darling Cass McCombs called “Love Thine Enemy” (from his 2011 album Humor Risk) with Bob on lead vocals again. This tune was propelled by Martin’s ultra-’60s-sounding Vox Continental organ—the same model Pigpen played for a couple of years; in fact, throughout the night that organ sound gave the songs an appealing retro quality. For the next couple of songs, Weir switched from his Gibson ES 335 to a gorgeous Alvarez-Yairi single-cutaway electric-acoustic. Bob sang “Looks Like Rain” with a wonderful delicacy (something the acoustically stunning room at TRI affords more than a standard rock ’n’ roll stage), and the accompaniment by the others had a nice country lilt—except for Resnick’s melodic, slightly Garcia-esque trumpet solo, which elicited a delighted smile from Weir. “El Paso” was slowed down a tad from the way Bob usually performs it, and this time the trumpet provided an appropriate Spanish accent for the Marty Robbins classic.
As we all know, it is federal law that “Friend of the Devil” must be performed at any gig featuring Grateful Dead music and more than three players not associated with the Dead (everybody knows it; everybody loves it!), and this version was sparkling all the way through. The jam in “Cassidy” went to some unusual places thanks to the combination of trumpet and electric lap steel guitar. Next, Bob sang a song by The National called “Daughters of the SoHo Riots” (from their 2005 album, Alligator), which featured tasteful accordion and reminded me musically a bit of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.” The first set ended with another surprise: “My Brother Esau,” sung by Bob for the first time since it fell out of the Dead’s repertoire in the fall of ’87. Bob explained that the song was a request by The National, and that he and lyricist John Barlow had been tinkering with it for a few days, revising the lyrics slightly and trimming it a bit. I always liked that song and was happy to hear it again—hopefully it will migrate to Furthur’s repertoire.
During the set break, HeadCount executive director Andy Bernstein moderated a panel discussion—also webcast—featuring presidential candidate Buddy Roemer of Louisiana, who’s angling to run as an independent outside the two major parties; Mark McKinnon, co-founder of the nonpartisan group No Labels; John Barlow, who besides writing lyrics for Weir for many years, is also the co-founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation; Jessy Tolkan, executive director of the Citizen Engagement Lab; and Weir. Topics of discussion included personal freedom, money and politics, and the 2012 election.
Set Two opened with a deliberately paced “Me and My Uncle,” made even more effective with the addition of some twangy Western gee-tar. “Fake Empire” is another song by The National (from their 2007 opus, Boxer), and was very cool—propulsive and lyrically opaque, it was the only song of the night not sung by Weir; Doveman ably handled the lead on that one. One of my personal highlights of the evening followed—Bob’s superb rendition of Dylan’s “Most of the Time” (originally on the 1989 Daniel Lanois-produced gem Oh Mercy). It was great hearing Bob tackle a more contemporary Dylan tune for a change, and it worked perfectly with these musicians.
A solid “Brown-Eyed Women” went straight into the jammiest song of the night—“The Other One,” which was overflowing with energy and the freshness that comes from non-Dead Head players excitedly jumping onto that speeding bus to never-ever land. Again, textures of trumpet, whammy bar-distorted guitar and the churning ’60s organ combined to take the song to a new (old) place. (That performance is currently posted on the TRI Studios home page.) “Standing on the Moon” is almost always a tour de force for Bob these days, and this one was, too. With Bob practically whispering the lyrics, and the band playing spare but evocative lines (more reverb-drenched electric guitar) it was beautiful and powerful. The second set closed with that time-tested blend of psychedelia and Americana, a lively, well-executed “China Cat Sunflower” > “I Know You Rider,” on which the interlacing of electric guitars—Weir’s Gibson, Cohen’s Fender and Kaufman’s Guild—hit a couple of ecstatic peaks while everyone else cut loose, as well.
The encore turned into a new mini-set. First, Bob instructed the fans in TRI’s small viewing area to form a semi-circle in front of the performance space (there is no actual stage) and clear a spot in the middle. A single, high-quality large diaphragm microphone was set up in the middle of the floor and then the musicians, most carrying acoustic instruments, formed a circle around the mike, and the crowd filled in behind them. Bob was playing a straight acoustic this time, and others played banjo, autoharp, accordion, mandolin and hand percussion, or just sang along, as they ambled through “Ripple,” “Uncle John’s Band” and “Brokedown Palace,” with pretty much everyone in the room joining in. It was loose, sloppy, at times off-key, but also warm and filled with love and good vibes—just a joyous and unself-conscious campfire sing-along of tunes that are ingrained in us all. What a fantastic and moving way to end an evening of often spectacular free music!