By: Alex Wood
Seeing Bob Weir & Wolf Bros offers a rare, isolated look at the distinct style and incredible talent of the Grateful Dead’s rhythm guitarist.
Backed by Don Was on upright bass and Jay Lane on drums, the trio performed their first of two shows at Chicago Theatre on Wednesday. Though the venue wasn’t entirely full, those in attendance were treated to a terrifically curated 16-song set featuring an array of Dead classics, covers and a few genuine surprises.
Weir and the band took stage to rousing applause, and quickly began settling into “Iko Iko,” a cover that made its way into Dead sets from ’77 onward. The track’s breezy, fun vibe and audience call-back structure set a light-hearted mood that the band maintained throughout the first set.
The beloved opening chords to “Bertha” sparked enthusiastic cheers from the audience, and the familiarity of the tune displayed exactly what listeners get from a Wolf Bros show. Being the only guitarist on stage, the complexity of Weir’s guitar style was stunningly apparent, with the rich bass sound and simple drumming helping to reinvent the songs themselves. All eyes were clearly on Weir, who continued to lead the band fearlessly through each jam.
Weir referenced the Fender Stratocaster he had been using, telling the audience it was “not exactly a new guitar but I haven’t played it a lot.” He’d eventually switch from it entirely in favor of two other electric guitars mid-set.
“Bombs Away,” a song from Weir’s solo effort “Heaven Help The Fool,” was dedicated to the recently deceased Keith Olsen, who produced the original recording as well as Terrapin Station. One of only two songs performed from Weir’s solo records and more focused on songwriting and vocals, “Bombs Away” was a welcome reprieve and fit well.
A highlight of the night followed as Weir switched to an acoustic guitar for “El Paso,” a Marty Robbins cover that Weir and the Dead have incorporated into their sets since ’70. The country murder ballad was accentuated by Weir’s gruff but soulful vocal delivery and masterful, bright strumming.
After telling a short story of meeting Chicago blues legend Willie Dixon at a bar in California in the 70s, Weir slid into the dirty, electric blues riff of “Little Red Rooster,” a song that not only has a big history with the Dead, but with rock ’n roll as a whole. Weir’s fervent vocal delivery and extended solos, which were drenched in a wah-pedal effect and made extensive use of a slide, made the song another highlight of the evening.
Having moved from rock to country to blues, Weir’s versatility as a guitarist and frontman had been quickly established.
The funky blues-rock of Shakedown Street’s “Minglewood Blues” took a similar route as “Rooster” had, with Weir fitting in a “Windy City” reference to the audience’s delight.
You could feel the crowd grow rowdier as the set continued to pick up energy, the slow, spacious groove of “Lost Sailor” taking over the room. Weir’s picking again exemplified his unique style and expertise, balancing complex rhythm strokes with familiar melodic runs. As is typical, the song worked its way into “Saint of Circumstance,” continuing to build intensity to the song’s sing-along chorus, ending the first set on an undeniable high note.
Fans funneled back to their seats after a short break, anticipation growing as the stage lights finally dimmed.
From the psychedelic opening of “Cassidy” onward, the set would continue to lean on a more typical Grateful Dead, jam-heavy sound. The song’s jams took on a greater intensity and length. The singable and danceable “Corrina,” introduced into Dead sets in the early ‘90s, and kept alive by many of Weir’s projects since, seemed to match the light-hearted vibes of the opener, but still found Weir leaning more heavily into the jams.
“New Speedway Boogie” took on a hard-rock, blues-drenched sound, almost reminiscent of an early Jimi Hendrix Experience, Weir’s soloing reaching new heights as the backing band followed his lead.
The guitarist returned to referencing Willie Dixon, pointing out that he lit the candles on the late musician’s last birthday cake and worked with him on what may be the last song he ever wrote, referring to it as “something I’ve sort of had in my back pocket.” The ensuing “Eternity” is a mid-tempo blues-rocker that climaxes to a passionate end.
The first notes of “Shakedown” quickly brought the audience to ecstatic applause. Weir led the song without missing a note, his confident playing seemingly improving steadily throughout each song the entire set. Hearing his playing isolated from any other guitarist really emphasizes the blues-based influences in his style, morphing in and out of distinct rhythmic sections effortlessly as he ended with his lengthiest jam of the night, seamlessly sliding into “The Other One.”
Recalling the Dead’s earliest psychedelic roots, “The Other One” boasted complex rhythms combined with early psychedelic and blues rock overtones. Weir continued the string of fan favorites to end the set with “Morning Dew,” a song that certainly takes a different life without a lead guitarist, though it’s dynamic, slow-burning energy is always welcomed by fans.
After a very short encore break, Weir returned to an acoustic guitar for only the second time of the night for “Ripple,” a fitting and emotional end to the set that found the entire audience singing along.
Though it probably doesn’t need to be said, Bob Weir still has the magic that made the Dead what they were, and certainly doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
1. Iko Iko
3. Bombs Away
4. El Paso
5. Little Red Rooster
6. Minglewood Blues
7. Lost Sailor
8. Saint of Circumstance
11. New Speedway Boogie
13. Shakedown Street
14. The Other One
15. Morning Dew