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Bob Weir keeps the Grateful Dead alive — and always evolving

Fresh off a run of shows accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra, the 75-year-old guitarist keeps looking ahead to the next step in his musical journey.

“With the Grateful Dead, if it’s done right, there’s a chance they may be a part of the conversation in two to three hundred years,” says Bob Weir. (Jay Blakesberg)

If you listen through the hundreds of bootleg recordings of Grateful Dead shows, one of the few constants you’ll find is rhythm guitarist Bob Weir’s stage banter. With a slight drawl he’ll announce a set break, crack a joke, or, famously tell everyone to “take a step back. And another step back!” Even if his contributions to the band’s sound weren’t as universally conspicuous as Jerry Garcia’s, he has always been a central conduit between the Dead and the Heads, the affable counterpoint to Garcia’s status as the band’s mystical figurehead.

That godlike reverence fans projected onto Garcia is something Weir emphatically rejects. “I won’t have it,” he recently said over the phone from a printing studio in California. “The deification that those folks made of Jerry is basically what killed him,” Weir said. “It disgusted him, and rightly so.” When pressed if he’s experienced that type of idolization himself, he quashes the idea: “I’ve seen where that goes. That’s a lesson I learned the hard way, from losing a friend.” Hero worship would be an awkward fit on Weir, anyway.

Still, in the nearly 30 years since Garcia’s death, Weir, who recently turned 75, has taken on the task of shepherding the Grateful Dead’s music and the fan base into the 21st century — just on his own terms and in his own way. With John Mayer, as well as original drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, he leads Dead & Company, the stadium-filling group that picks up where the Grateful Dead left off in 1995 in terms of psychedelic bombast and extensive group improvisation. In 2018, Weir founded Wolf Bros, a more nimble quartet with keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, bassist/producer Don Was and drummer Jay Lane that operates like a country pickup band with the sensibilities of a jazz combo. But what Weir seems most excited about is a collaboration with composer/arranger Giancarlo Aquilanti to orchestrate the music of the Grateful Dead, which debuted this October at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra.

“It really completes the picture,” Weir says. “You can listen to a song from its jug band roots and then take that all the way out to a full orchestra. You can’t get it all at once, but if you know the music, and a lot of our fans know the music, people respond.” Rather than have the orchestra simply add color to Weir and his band, Aquilanti instead strove to put together arrangements that would fully integrate both elements, including having members of the orchestra improvise. There are sections of the score that are vamped until Weir indicates to the conductor he’s ready to move on, and other passages that present orchestral players with chord charts that they can interpret as they please. Elsewhere, Aquilanti folds in nuggets of harmony and melody derived from live recordings Weir passed to the composer, subtle interpretations of Garcia solos or bass lines by Phil Lesh. “I took the souls of the Grateful Dead and I spread them throughout the orchestra,” says Aquilanti, comparing the process to Béla Bartók’s work collecting Hungarian folk tunes and composing around them. “That’s why the orchestra cannot be on the side. It needs to be on the front line.”

Weir walked onstage at the Kennedy Center on Oct. 5 in a loosefitting tuxedo, his bow tie slightly askew. As the fans started gathering in the aisles to dance to “China Cat Sunflower,” flustered ushers tried to get them to go back to their seats in vain; sometimes there’s a period of grappling with one another when institutions like the NSO and the Deadheads, each with their ingrained rules and rituals, meet. Weir positioned himself so he and the conductor, Steven Reineke, could communicate constantly, with the Wolf Bros not far behind him. It was a new environment for the music and the community, and it felt like it, with all of the rough edges and electricity those situations can produce. “When the orchestra kicks in behind you, it’s like catching a monster wave,” Weir posted on Instagram the next day. Judging by the audience’s reaction, they felt it, too.

Halfway through the second set, Weir put down his guitar and the orchestra crept in with the opening of “Days Between,” a song Garcia wrote and debuted in 1993, two years before his death. Weir has made it his own over the past decade, having played it many more times than Garcia ever did, slowing it down and leaning into the sense of yearning at the song’s core. With just the orchestra behind him, Weir sang of the poetic nature of growing older; it was the only time the entire house went silent. “The simpler my offering of that song, the more powerful,” he explained. “So I just concentrated on that one, on getting the hell out of the way and letting the character step through.” He feels there’s a great mystery in that character, one that frames even youthful exuberance “with the wisdom of years.”

In his book “Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music,” guitarist Derek Bailey writes that the Grateful Dead is unique among rock bands in that its “reputation is based on the expectation of change.” The venerated Grateful Dead of 1974 sounds radically different from how they would sound just three years later in 1977, and even now fans continue to follow along, cataloguing the shifts and embracing every new stage. That works out well for Weir, who is afforded the freedom to experiment with projects like the orchestral presentations, and to follow his muse minute by minute. “If we were to go out and try to do a rote set, the same thing night after night like some outfits do, I’d make it maybe two or three gigs and then go completely nuts,” he says. “Sometimes repeating myself would be a good idea, but it’s not something that comes particularly easy to me.”

The centrality of change and evolution to Weir’s ethos allows him to think about how it fits into the broader scope of history — something that takes on a greater sense of urgency as he grows older. “I’m trying to assimilate what I understand, and that is time is a human construct, a marker we put on things that doesn’t necessarily exist,” he explains. His mind is on the next tour, but it’s also on how his music will be remembered and kept alive by people that haven’t been born yet. “With the Grateful Dead, if it’s done right, there’s a chance they may be a part of the conversation in two to three hundred years. So that’s my consideration when I have to make decisions — what to do with a melody or a rhythm, or what to do on the business side. What’s this going to look like then?”

The more immediate future will likely hold some surprises. Next year, Dead & Company will play their final summer tour before disbanding, something that Weir says will allow them to “party it up a bit with the presentation.” There will be performances of the orchestral arrangements with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in February, with the potential for more in the future, which Weir says will incorporate more new elements, and maybe even more new songs. After a recent Wolf Bros sit-in by onetime Miles Davis Quintet bassist Ron Carter, he’s looking forward to further encounters of that nature, and says, “I think we can bring that jazz element back to country music, and I think I might be the guy to do it.”

When rehearsing with the NSO for the recent shows at the Kennedy Center, Weir realized that the orchestra was providing all of the color and complexity he had been striving for in his guitar playing throughout his years with the Grateful Dead. “It’s both interesting and challenging to step back from that mind frame and simply offer the barest, so the woodwinds and brass and strings can carry what I was hinting at.” After a pause he adds, “Well, that’s a metaphor for life, I guess.”

Ceding space and creative agency to an orchestra is a new challenge for Weir, but it is certainly in the tradition he and his bandmates have established over the past 60 years. The cycles of renewal and rebirth that characterized the Grateful Dead throughout its existence, and which Weir has continued in the years since, come from understanding the eternally new contexts the music exists in and making up something new to fit them. As Weir looks forward to what’s next — the next jam, the next project, the next phase of the music he’s dedicated his life to — he operates like any good improviser does: mostly on faith. “I’m not any younger than I used to be,” he says. “So I’ll just have to take it step by step. Like I say, my footsteps will take me where I’m going. I know that.”

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