Roughly four years ago I watched Bob Weir collapse on stage during a concert with latter-day Dead project Furthur at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY. I don’t use that word in any metaphorical sense—the iconic musician simply fell down in the middle of the set, guitar in hand, after visibly struggling through much of the night’s performance. Watching the crew help him back up, I was struck by how little the whole thing felt like rock and roll. More than anything, it felt like a man getting old.
When Furthur called it quits a few months later, it was easy to think this long, strange trip was nearing its end. In fact, 2015’s much-hyped Fare Thee Well concerts seemed to signal just that. But while those 50th anniversary shows were billed as the end of something wonderful, they appear—in hindsight—to have marked the beginning of a new chapter instead. Between the John Mayer-infused vitality of Dead & Company and the cowboy-inspired musings of his 2016 solo effort Blue Mountain, Weir has only become more prolific since the core four members of the Grateful Dead said goodbye in Chicago.
That’s why it was such a treat to see him sounding, playing and looking fantastic during last night’s stop at the Saenger Theatre, his first New Orleans gig in nearly 14 years. It was also great to see him covering so much sonic territory, from the solo acoustic numbers that opened the show, to the full band takes on his Blue Mountain material that followed and the old-fashioned Dead jams that defined the second set.
Weir started things off with acoustic renditions of Son House’s “Walkin’ Blues,” the Dead’s own “The Music Never Stopped” and The Temptations’ “Standing On Shaky Ground” before his Campfire Band joined him on stage for the rest of the night. Comprised of Aaron Dessner, Bryan Devendorf and Scott Devendorf of The National, Jon Shaw, Josh Kaufman and frequent Weir collaborator Steve Kimock, the Campfire Band managed to bring both a youthful vigour and a respectful restraint to the first set’s Blue Mountain tunes. With the exception of the dull background imagery—which might as well have been stock footage from the Wyoming State Tourism Board’s cutting room floor—the night’s first half was a thing of beauty, and the “Lay My Lily Down” that capped it off was nearly perfect.
In a lot of ways, it’s fitting that Weir chose to focus on “cowboy songs” for his first solo album in almost four decades. The West may have been won long before his time, but rock and roll was a frontier of its own, and Weir was one of many who laid tracks through it. 50 years after the Acid Tests gave way to the Summer of Love, it’s no surprise that Weir still identifies with the cowboy ethos that first inspired him to leave home in his youth. If anything, age has probably imparted him with a greater appreciation for the vastness of the world and the sort of immutable wisdom that has been shared around campfires since time immemorial.
In any case, no Dead-related concert would be complete without a second set, and Weir’s solo shows are no different. Much like the rest of his tour, last night’s second stanza found Weir and his band firing on all cylinders as they worked through creative takes on Dead classics like “Friend of the Devil,” “Truckin’” and the “China Cat Sunflower”/”I Know You Rider” combo (the background visuals switched to old school psychedelia as well). Unlike the rest of his tour, last night found Weir and Co. joined by his musical contemporary George Porter Jr., who brought his bass and vocals to “Sugaree” and just his bass to “Birdsong.”
After a brief encore break, Weir and the Campfire Band returned to the stage for a lovely “Peggy-O,” its reference to “the Louisiana country-O” eliciting cheers from the crowd. It was a fantastic end to a fantastic show that offered further proof that Weir’s enduring legacy—and the Grateful Dead’s as a whole—is still being written.
Set I: Walkin’ Blues^, The Music Never Stopped^ > Standing on Shaky Ground^ > The Music Never Stopped^ > Blue Mountain^, Cottonwood Lullaby, Ghost Towns, Darkest Hour, Gallop On The Run > Jack-a Roe, Only a River, Lay My Lily Down
Set II: Me and Bobby McGee, Friend of the Devil, Truckin’, Passenger, Sugaree*, Bird Song*, China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider
^ Weir solo acoustic
* George Porter Jr. on bass
An audience recording of the show from archive.org user nolamule is available here.
All photos below by Jeffrey Dupuis.