Outsiders have lobbed insults at Deadheads (devoted followers of the Grateful Dead) for years, whether taking issue with the band’s music or the fans’ aesthetic and culture. But one thing is undoubtedly true: the Grateful Dead fostered a unique and palpable sense of community, and in these fracture and troubled times, there are few things as valuable as coming together to relish in shared space and experience.
You could feel the vibes of friendship and the mild buzz of electricity before the show, as old friends mingled over beers at the Crown & Anchor Pub up the street from Bass Concert Hall, and the energy heightened along the nearby streets and sidewalks up until the time the lights went down and Grateful Dead founding guitarist Bob Weir took the stage with Wolf Bros bandmates Jay Lane, a drummer who has played with Weir in various iterations, and bassist Don Was, the prolific producer almost as famed for his long hair, sunglasses and Western hats as his studio work with the likes of the Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt.
Confession time: I entered with seriously measured expectations. And I realized after chatting to friends and seat neighbors that I was not alone. Hearing tunes that defined a major part of your life can make for a pleasurable nostalgia trip, but I had seen some video of the early part of the 20-show tour that was entering its final week. I worried Weir’s guitar sounded too tinny; the trio’s sound was too spare compared to the oversized Dead; the YouTube clips were drowned in audience singing; the group would have trouble filling the Bass with sound; and speaking of the Bass were the theater’s soft seats meant to keep the dancing Heads in their seats all night. I was a fool to worry.
The band responded to the question of energy immediately with a rollicking and groovy “Jack Straw,” at times finding a sweet middle ground between funk and reggae beats, and the crowd was fully engaged by the Grateful Dead classic that shouts out Texas at the song’s halfway point. The ecstatic San Antonio native next to me who made the drive with his partner to Austin to jointly celebrate their 50th birthdays looked at me after just the first song and said, “Already exceeded my expectations.” I wasn’t alone.
Weir stuck to mostly Dead tunes and famous Dead covers throughout the approximately two-and-half-hour show, but “Only a River,” the lead track off Weir’s 2016 “Blue Mountain,” which he made with Josh Ritter, proved the gray-haired young man who looks more like the Lorax everyday still has strong command of sensitive material. The tune has the feel of an Irish ballad, and the repeated mentions of “Shanondoah” had a nice symmetry with “Shannon” of set opened Jack Straw. A trio of Dylan and Willie Dixon-penned tunes followed, including the somewhat obscure “Shade of Grey” Weir wrote with Rob Wasserman followed before a super-slow-mo funked out “West L.A. Fadeway," lecherous and leering with Weir's gravelly growl, and playful “Loose Lucy” set up an electric “Deal” to close the set.
Weir and the Wolf Bros trotted out “Blackbird” earlier this tour and returned with it Saturday night, the McCartney song inspired by the fight for civil rights setting the tone for a more plaintive second set. Second set highlight “Eyes of the World” proved that Weir could stand on sage without the audience distracted by the shadow of Jerry Garcia. Unadorned versions of “New Speedway Boogie” and “I Need a Miracle” kicked up the pace slightly before a somber run ending with “Days Between. The beauty and ache returned with the benediction of “Brokedown Palace” in the encore spot.
While Weir will never be confused as one of the great lead guitarists in American music his herky jerky style and between-the-beats rhythms gave a jazzy propulsion to much of the night, though a thicker and edgier tone that did less to emulate Garcia's pristine style may have made for a fuller sound. Lane’s drumming filled in the gaps to keep the rhythm aloft and on track, and Was buttressed the sound with tasteful but not showy playing, supporting Weir in the way you would expect from a producer with Was’s credentials and ear. Lane contributed harmonizing vocals, though much of that duty was left to the crowd, many of whom (at least in our section) were standing and swaying the entire evening, a night of unfounded fears, surpassed expectations and community. A night in which Weir and his bandmates made Austin Grateful again.
Only a River
El Paso (Marty Robbins cover)
Queen Jane Approximately (Bob Dylan cover)
Little Red Rooster (Willie Dixon cover)
Shade of Grey
West L.A. Fadeaway
Blackbird (The Beatles cover)
Eyes of the World
New Speedway Boogie
I Need a Miracle
The Other One
Turn On Your Love Light (Bobby Bland cover)