I interviewed Bob Weir the cover story for the December 2016 Guitar World. Read the whole story below.
Bob Weir is on quite a roll. The release of Blue Mountain, his first solo album in 10 years—and his first collection of entirely new material in three decades—is the culmination of 18 very active months for the founding member of the Grateful Dead.
It started in the summer of 2015 when the Dead’s surviving Core Four—Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart—played Fare Thee Well, five shows in California and Chicago which they said would be their final performances together.
Joined by Phish’s Trey Anastasio and keyboardists Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti, the group sold out Levi’s Stadium and Soldier Field, while thrilling legions of Deadheads around the world who watched live feeds in theaters and at home. It was the kind of triumph that was impossible to imagine when Jerry Garcia died in 1995. The Grateful Dead broke up a few months later but over the ensuing years began to regroup in various configurations.
The “final” Fare Thee Well shows were once again, predictably, not the end of the story. Soon after, Weir, Kreutzmann and Hart announced the formation of a new band, Dead & Company, joined by Chimenti and two unlikely new members: bassist Oteil Burbridge, fresh off 16 years in the Allman Brothers Band, and singer/guitarist John Mayer, best known for his pop songs and Stevie Ray Vaughan-inspired blues playing.
A new group in the shadow of the much-hyped final shows raised some critical hackles, but the fans never blinked. They understood that this was an entirely different venture. And indeed the group has reinterpreted the Dead’s vast, treasured catalog of music, with Mayer, Burbridge and Chimenti adding a more straightforward swing and youthful vitality. The band has been another big hit, selling out stadiums and amphitheaters filled with a mix of old Deadheads thrilled for another ride and a new generation of fans. Weir looks reborn with his new younger mates, singing and playing with vim and vigor.
“It’s a wonderful environment to just go for it,” says Burbridge. “It’s not about the execution. It’s about trying to find something new. The Bible says that love covers a multitude of sins and a really good jam where you go someplace you’ve never gone before will erase any mistake. That is the mindset of both the fans and the band. And Bobby is such an interesting player, who is so much fun to work with. Maybe because Jerry was playing long solos, Bobby found a really in-depth approach to rhythm playing, laying into chords all the way up and down the neck. He’s also a very underrated singer, with a pleading quality that really connects.”
Weir has always been a peculiarly underrated, sometimes even disrespected, guitar legend. Maybe it was his lack of soloing, the fact that the Dead’s soundman spent years mixing him too low or that he was always the clean cut handsome guy in a band of grizzled hippies. Probably it had more to do with three decades spent serving as a low-key sidekick to a revered guitar hero. But the mere fact that Garcia chose Weir as his foil and wanted him by his side for all those years speaks for itself.
And Garcia was never shy about discussing his appreciation for Weir, noting in 1982 that his partner was “an extraordinarily original player in a world full of people who sound like each other.
“I don’t know anyone else who plays guitar the way he does, with the kind of approach he has,” Garcia continued.
Weir’s explanation for the development of his unique style is essentially that instead of trying to copy other guitarists, he borrowed from pianists, specifically McCoy Tyner of the John Coltrane Quartet. “I just loved what he did underneath Coltrane’s work, so starting at age 17, I sat with that stuff for a long time and tried to absorb it,” he says. “I got further and further toward it. I’m very fortunate that I found a perfect role for my approach at a very young age.”
Warren Haynes, who has played often with Weir, including several tours with the Dead, says that he never stops marveling at Weir’s unorthodox approach to everything he does and the way it pushes both full band improvisation and soloists towards making more interesting choices.
“Bob’s very unique chord shapes and rhythmic patterns push you to play differently and outside of yourself,” says Haynes. “He very naturally leads you into a lot of bobbing and weaving, counterpoint, call and response. And he has this wonderful sense of not needing to compare this moment to any other moment. Every song, every performance, gets approached with a fresh outlook. It’s an intangible thing, but it’s so crucial to all he does.”
On Blue Mountain, Weir is again exploring new ground. You will hear nary a jam. Instead, the album is based around the songs, driven by his hard driving, straightforward acoustic guitar and rough-hewn voice. Like Dead and Company, the album pairs Weir with a younger generation of admirers, in this case a core of Brooklyn-based musicians orbiting around the band The National. Weir co-produced with Josh Kaufman, co-wrote much of the material with Josh Ritter and is backed by The National’s Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner on guitar and Scott Devendorf on bass. The Dessners’ curated the sprawling alternative tribute to the Dead Day of the Dead, which was released last spring and included three songs by The National.
Weir now sports a full head of wilding grey hair and a bushy beard. His voice has lowered and taken on some of the same gentle urgency of Garcia, with a cracking grandeur that serves the songs well. It is the song of an American icon making a stand.
GUITAR WORLD: Your collaborators on Blue Mountain feel like a left turn. How did you hook up with these guys?
WEIR: Four or five years ago we did a web broadcast from my studio (TRI) celebrating Jerry’s 70th birthday and we assembled a crew of young bucks to focus on Jerry’s songs and the Devendorfs and their Brooklyn crew showed up in spades and we got along real well. I was impressed by how hard they listened and how economical they were in what they offered. A couple of years later they called, said that they had been talking amongst themselves and come up with the notion of doing a record of cowboy tunes with me. And that seemed like a great idea, like something right up my alley.
Cowboy songs have always had an allure to me. I spent time as a kid, a young teen, in a bunkhouse kind of living that life. I’d spend my evenings with these old guys who had grown up in an era before radio had reached the nether regions of Wyoming and their notion of what to do for an evening was to tell stories and sing songs. I was the kid with a guitar so I became the accompanist and I learned a bunch of the tunes and the delivery and the esthetic – the ethos if you will.
And is that where you learned country songs you brought to the Dead, like Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” and Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.”
Yes, more or less. I heard that stuff and developed an affinity for it and an understanding about how to approach it. Not necessarily those exact songs, but I could hear where they were coming from and understand their value.
You sing these songs like they are from the bottom of your heart. How hard to develop that level of sync with a songwriter like Josh Ritter whom you had not known before?
He’s a gifted songwriter and there was actually a lot of back and forth. There weren’t all that many tunes that he offered that we did straight the same way. He’d come up with a line and I’d say, “Now how about this?” One thing tripped something else in my thinking and so forth. We went back and forth and I definitely had a feeling of collaboration on the songs – and that’s always been my preferred way of collaborating with guys like [John Perry] Barlow and [Robert] Hunter.
This album is so different than the Grateful Dead. That’s how you approached solo projects throughout the Dead’s prime – for instance, “Heaven Help The Fool” and Bobby and the Midnites. Ratdog became very Dead-like, so in a way this is more of a throwback.
Well, yeah! That’s really what I like do to because otherwise it’s not a vacation. If I’m going to use the same approaches and methods then I might as well do it with the guys I’m used to doing it with because we have that worked out. No one’s going to do it better with me. If I’m going to go exploring, then all bets are off and let’s just see what we turn up.
So is the goal finding a balance between Dead Bob and solo Bob?
[laughs] Yes! That’s what I’m always working toward.
“Ki-Yi Bossie” is one you wrote with your guitar tech AJ Santella and it’s a very interesting tune, addressing a 12-step program in the context of a real cowboy song. Did you set out looking to write a song about the program?
It’s rarely that direct! I don’t know how I found myself there. I had a notion for what the song was going to be about, that it would end with a guy who’s punching cows, which is his refuge from another existence. So I wanted to go to another existence first and I thought I better start out real bleak – and that took me to a basement room and a 12-step program.
I took the 12-step to be literal and the cow punching to be a metaphor for chord punching – being saved by music.
Well, yeah. That’s it. The guy could have ended up in a monastery but then he wouldn’t have ended up on a cowboy record. I should make mention that Lukas Nelson kicked me along while I was developing the song and he had a lot to do with the setting– the rhythm , the key, the tonalities. This totally slipped my mind when I was doing the credits!
Will Dead and Company work up and play any of these songs?
I’m not sure that they work in that context. The bulk of them don’t lend themselves to what Dead and Company do. I’m hugely looking forward to playing these songs live with this band on tour this fall. They’re all good players and the places we’re playing are fun places that we’ve carefully chosen. We’re gonna have some fun on this tour.
I assume that what it’s all about for you at this stage of your career. Would you do anything that didn’t seem like it would be fun?
No. [laughs] I can happily say that I’ve come to the point in my life where the stuff that I do is the stuff that what I want to do.
Did you enjoy the summer Dead and Company tour as much as you seemed to on stage? The whole vibe was as positive and upbeat as anything I recall in Dead world for a long time.
Yeah. It’s been great all around and we’re starting to navigate uncharted waters, which was the whole idea of the endeavor from the beginning. We’re just now getting there, but the band was spitting fire all summer.
Could you elaborate on what you mean by “uncharted waters”? It’s a tricky line to walk there, playing the classic material while having your own identity.
Yeah. We’re trying to be ourselves and be unique. The material itself is “classic” now, but it’s drawn from all our sources – all the stuff that we listened to and grew up on. We extrapolated that all out into the music of the Grateful Dead, but we never stopped listening to stuff and never stopped having new thoughts about where to take the material and how to interpret it. So even within the Grateful Dead, the music was never, ever static.
Now we have an ensemble with three original -or virtually original – members of the Grateful Dead, one guy who’s played with us for years (Jeff Chimenti) and two guys who are virtually new to the material. They have their own set of roots and influences and ideas and we need to observe that in the band and then work with it. They’re not supposed to just be mimicking parts.
Do the original guys change what you’re doing in response to the new musicians or do you think, “Hey, I’m Bob Weir. They have to fit around me”?
Well, obviously it’s both. I have to change because of what they’re doing. if they’re going to shade a tonality this way or that, I have to go with that to one degree or another. I have to listen to that and sort out for myself if that’s where I want to go. I’m the guy who knows where the song is coming from better than they might, so it’s up to me to ask, “Is this where the song wants to go?” Do I try to shade the tonality or rhythm back towards the original or do I try to go with and even build a fire this new direction? That can be really exciting, too. Sometimes it’s a rather arbitrary decision on my part, and there’s a bit of adventure in that.
We’re getting to the point where we know each other well enough to where we can anticipate where one another is coming from – and from that we can intuit where each is heading. So new stuff is going to come out of the old material and then you’re not quoting chapter and verse from the Grateful Dead. You’re extrapolating and making it up as you go. That’s when it’s time to put the hammer down and start writing because there are new things to say.
So you anticipate writing new material with and for the band?
Oh yeah! And I very much look forward to it.
Any chance of a new recording?
It’s not active right now, but I would think so, yeah.
How does the nature of improvising with Mayer differ from Jerry? He seems to really dig into chords and rhythm and engage with you there more, which alters the feel.
Jerry did that often enough as well. I actually think when John does that he’s often doing his best to quote Jerry. If he’s going to start playing chordal stuff, I’ll either play against him or go to single line stuff. I’m all about trading back and forth and always have been. That’s been conceptually the same going back to the beginning, throughout the Grateful Dead and in all post-Jerry bands even when the actual approach changes, as it always does.
Can you compare the musical and emotional impacts of Fare The Well and Dead & Company?
Dead and Company is much more of a band. We are a much more cohesive unit that the Fare Thee Well outfit had an opportunity to be. On account of people’s scheduling and things it was very difficult to get much rehearsal in – and we only did five shows!
Dead and Company put in a lot more rehearsal and then hit the road. And the only way you get a real band is by playing together in front of people. There’s no shortcut. There’s no other way to do it – at least the kind of band we are trying to build. The Fare Thee Well outfit just simply didn’t have that opportunity, which Dead and Company has had. And I think we’ve kicked the ball down the field a fair way.
Were you surprised by how quickly and thoroughly Deadheads embraced John Mayer, who seemed like an unlikely fit on the surface?
No! Not at all. The night we met was at a TV show that he was hosting and I was invited to play with him. We ascertained very quickly that it was going to be a lot of fun. I sorted out real fast that he was up for the job. I really just pretty much knew from that time I met him that it was going to work so I’m not surprised that other people have found that to be the case. He’s a fabulous player and he’s coming from a place of love. He loves the music, and he loves the way we go about making it. So what more is there?
Phil’s unorthodox bass playing had a lot do with the Grateful Dead’s sound. You guys have given Oteil the freedom to not mimic that. How would you describe the difference between their approaches?
[long pause] Oteil is a much more traditional bass player albeit he’s very, very fluent on his instrument. A fantastic player. Phil is an iconoclast by nature and to some degree I think he actually disdains the traditional role of the bass player. I kind of always wondered what the music would sound like with a guy who would lay into the 1 and 3 a little more often than Phil is inclined to do and it’s gratifying to hear that.
You recently said that you hope John is carrying the torch by playing these songs decades from now. That shows a lot of faith.
Over the course of our first tour, I became aware and then convinced that he gets what we are up to and is up to the task of carrying the torch.
It also shows that you’re taking a long view.
Look, there’s gonna come a time when I’m not going to be able to be out there playing and when Bill and Mickey aren’t going to be able to do that on account of our unfortunate demises. That’s just how it is and I’d love to see this tradition carried on into the future, well beyond us.
I think some great things can come of it and it doesn’t necessarily require my participation. Right now, there are a lot of good Dead cover bands and others out there playing the music and doing it justice. That’s very gratifying and in the future I hope there are going to be remarkable people using our approach and some of our material as vehicles to create wonderful new music. I want to see that happen and I’m very happy for John to be a part of it.
All of your guys’ bands together and separately have become like a Grateful Dead University, with younger musicians like John, Oteil, Jeff Chimenti, Joe Russo, Warren Haynes and Trey Anastasio, learning directly from the originators.
It looks like that’s what’s coming together and it’s great. There are going to be future professors in that school of music who will amaze people. I’m just happy to see that happening, to see that approach starting to be more formalized to some degree by people who know it, understand what it’s about and know how to approach it and do it justice.
There have been a lot of books written about the Grateful Dead. Do you ever read them?
No, I’m dyslexic in the extreme. I read a lot but I don’t get all that much read. I’m writing a book myself and I don’t want to be influenced by anything anyone else has ever said. The exception is Dennis McNally’s book [A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead] because it is sort of definitive history – he was our historian – and I’m tracing through it to remind myself of the chronology of events so I can paste my recollections and observations around it.
How did you end up playing with Paul McCartney at Fenway Park?
I’ve wanted to play with him since I first heard the Beatles! We listened to a lot of the same stuff growing up; a lot of his heroes are my heroes. The Beatles could play a Bakersfield shuffle better than anyone in Nashville these days can. They knew intimately what Buck Owens and Little Richard were up to; they knew American music quite well. They played real rock and roll – not “rock music.” There was a roll to it, too. I’m not sure that they got there from some studious application or academic pursuit. They osmosed it the same way we did. So we speak a lot of the same language.
I’ve wanted to play with Paul for the longest time and it so happened we finally ended up in the same place. It was big fun and I hope to have a soundcheck the next time we do it!