Hang out long enough with a bunch of Deadheads (you know, that group of concert-chasing, dope-smoking, tape-trading, VW van-loving, Woodstock Nation vagabonds—all of whom were forced to get a life after Jerry Garcia died) and you begin to wonder: Why even bother listening to anything outside of the Grateful Dead or their rich musical circle? The experience and the vibes can be that good.
OK, obviously not all of their fans are hippie caricatures. But when it comes to the music—and lord knows that after more than five decades of solo, group and collaborative side projects, there is a ton of it—it's no wonder the Grateful Dead experience marches on even though it's been more than 17 years since Garcia's passing from complications due to his off-again/on-again addiction to heroin.
In his groundbreaking book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe coined the phrase "You're either on the bus or off the bus." He expertly used this as a metaphor for "you either get it or you don't" in regard not only to the exploits of novelist Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, but also to the entire pre-Haight-Ashbury Bay Area psychedelic scene. Almost 50 years later, we now find Bob Weir, a founding member of the band, still very much at the wheel of that bus to Never Never Land.
Weir was no more than 16 years old when he started hanging out at the music store in Palo Alto where Garcia was giving guitar lessons. "I was still in high school when we started the jug band (Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, which also included founding GD members Phil Lesh and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan). I was always "the kid," he said with a laugh when told how David Crosby had once been quoted in a radio interview saying, "Does his mother know he's out this late?"
Obviously, Weir has been asked many times to reflect upon the continuing Dead phenomenon. In a recent phone interview he was thoughtful and to the point. "Certain people (the fans) are just born this way and therefore they require a little adventure in their lives and in their music. And we're more than happy to provide that for them because we're kindred spirits."
Much of the band's cult following stems from the taping culture that's led to thousands of live recordings that have been bought and sold, but mostly traded, among Deadheads. While most artists are loath to allow any kind of recording device inside a venue, the Dead actively encouraged it. Realizing this was a much more effective marketing strategy than selling albums (never their strong suit), they would actually block off a specific section behind the soundboard where tapers could set up their rigs; a space clearly defined by the sea of stereo microphones seen rising above the crowd.
Weir says it was never the band's intent to archive its work or to be at the forefront of the live bootleg industry. "We taped so we could listen back after the show, and we did that nightly. Then we would talk it down so we could improve what we were doing. Eventually that turned into a big library and picked up its own head of steam and so we just kept doing it." Weir says the nightly listening ritual continued until the fall of 1974, after which the band went on its infamous yearlong hiatus.
It was during that time that all of the band members, including relative newcomers Keith and Donna Godchaux, released solo projects on the group's independently owned Round Records. Weir's main project was Kingfish, a collaboration between him and elementary school chums Dave Torbert (of the New Riders of the Purple Sage) and Matthew Kelly.
The first Kingfish album is considered one of the stronger Dead solo efforts, but it was not Weir's first taste of success outside the band. In 1972, Warner Bros. asked him to make a solo record. While many consider Ace to be perhaps the best of the electric Dead studio albums, Weir insists it was always meant to be a solo project and that there was a happy coincidence as to how it was made.
"Jerry was doing some recording in Wally Heider's studio, where I was also going to make the Ace record. And that's where we ran into the Godchauxs and were enthralled. At that time, Pigpen was starting to fade and we were becoming aware we would need another keyboard player." Keith's piano playing was stellar on the album, while Donna helped upgrade the vocals and bring many of Weir's new tunes, almost all of which would become instant GD classics ("Playing in the Band," "One More Saturday Night," "Cassidy," among others), to life.
Torbert's sudden death from a heart ailment in 1982 put an end to Kingfish, but not to Weir's solo career. Unfortunately, while albums like Heaven Help the Fool suffered from overproduction, other projects like the terrific Bobby and the Midnites collaboration between Weir and jazz heavyweights Billy Cobham and Alphonso Johnson, never seemed to gain much traction beyond the shadow of the Bay Area. While Weir recalls this group with much fondness, he also wryly advises, "You need not familiarize yourself with the second album."
Following Garcia's death in 1995, Weir began touring with bassist Rob Wasserman and eventually formed the band Ratdog with him. With Wasserman's background in classical music, Ratdog has been all over the musical map, eventually settling in as a formidable Grateful Dead cover band. Weir's work with Ratdog has been interspersed with various collaborations with the other surviving Dead alum, including tours under the monikers the Other Ones, the Dead, and now Further, all of which have had varying degrees of frustration and success, and all of which have featured Weir singing tunes penned by Garcia (and Robert Hunter).
When asked which tunes he's inspired to perform, Weir said, "The ones I got lonesome for. And one by one I got lonesome for a lot of them."
As he sets about prepping for a run of acoustic solo shows, he says, "This will be fun and revealing to me, discovering new things about the songs, some of them written on electric guitar and now bringing them over to acoustic."
When asked if the show will focus on his Dead tunes, solo work or Jerry songs, he said, "All of the above."