On a layover day in Minneapolis between tour stops early last March, Don Was felt like Bob Weir & Wolf Bros had finally found their groove. Not counting their warm-up residency at Sweetwater Music Hall, the Wolf Bros were six shows deep into their third tour as a band, which Weir had dreamed—quite literally—up two years prior.

“There’s something new going on,” said Was, the trio’s bassist, as well as legendary producer, head of jazz label Blue Note Records, and owner of a slew of other rockstar titles. “It’s really cool. We’ve hit another level of communication with each other.”

In the band’s earliest iteration, the Wolf Bros took an unembellished approach to the Grateful Dead repertoire. Stripped down, raw and spacious, it was very “Bobby.” With Weir’s rhythm guitar at the helm, the songs on the first few tours felt more like stories being shared around a campfire than the stadium-bending renditions played by Weir, John Mayer, and Dead & Company that fans were used to lining up for in recent years.

Weir, Was, and drummer Jay Lane explored the Dead from the school of thought that less is more. Was’s m.o. as a Wolf Bro had become to play as few notes as possible. “I’ve weaned myself off trying to play the bass and more so play the song,” he said. When the show gets good, he’ll put his right hand behind his back—“so I can’t play another note.”

As with any relationship, conversations get deeper and more intuitive over time. Silence and space become comfortable, invulnerable, even preferred. By tour three, the Wolf Bros were getting comfortable with this type of silence. “When we started, it was Bobby playing with a groove underneath. Now it’s this conversation happening,” Was said. “There’s more space…and the space has more purpose. And the shows are only getting better and better every night.”

Just two gigs later, the band was packing up its tour prematurely and indefinitely. In the middle of a two-night run in Chicago, the realities of the pandemic became too glaring to ignore. The tour was idealistically postponed until the fall. By fall, there was no clear path back to live music in sight.

One way or another, however, the darkness would eventually give.

With any Dead concert, show openers and setlists are always topics of speculation and analysis. So, when Weir cawed the first few lines of “New Speedway Boogie” into a sold-out crowd at Red Rocks Amphitheater on June 8th, 2021, it was like a pressure valve had released.

Please don’t dominate the rap, Jack…

“I got choked up a couple of times during that show, but really in that first song,” Was said following the 2021 Red Rocks stint. This time, he was driving to Los Angeles from San Francisco, where he had just been working on mixing a live album from the band’s four-night run in Colorado.

One way or another… One way or another…

“You could really feel the connection with the audience during that one,” Was said before taking a pause. During the opener, chanting along with the 9,000-person crowd, Was was transported back to flying home from Chicago last year. “No one knew what was going on. Everyone was scared and we didn’t know if it was going to be the end of mankind.”

That night at Red Rocks, “New Speedway Boogie” rang like an anthem of the survival of the human spirit. “It was an incredible release, sigh of relief, and celebration,” Was said. “I’ll never forget it for as long as I live.”

This darkness got to give.

Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros – “New Speedway Boogie” – 6/8/21

Onstage, Was often looms towards the back. His face hides behind large, dark sunglasses, and a mess of dreadlocks. Swaths of clothes drape his body, shoulder-to-toe, in all black. If it weren’t for his signature white, wide-brimmed hat and oversized, stand-up bass, he’d blend into the stage’s sound equipment. He sways cooly and calmly, grinning from ear to ear like a benevolent Cheshire Cat emerging from the shadows.

But behind those dark shades, Was will be the first to admit he’s often tearing up. “Choked up” is a frequent state of being for Was, especially when playing for Grateful Dead audiences. “It’s peaceful and beautiful,” he said, likening the experience to the heightened sense of oneness you might find on a mushroom trip. His experiences on stage can be so emotional, it can be hard for the 64-year-old funk, jazz, rock, and pop legend to even put it into words. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in all my years of playing,” he said.

Was is what you might call a later-in-life Deadhead. He grew up in Detroit on jazz and Motown before reaching global audiences with his funk duo, Was Not Was, in the ‘80s. Later that decade, he got his big break producing Bonnie Raitt’s “Nick of Time” and The B-52’s “Cosmic Thing.” From then on, his discography reads like a list of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees. Most recently, he served as the producer of Mayer’s latest release, Sob Rock. This is, of course, a gross simplification of this journeyman’s life.

Shy of a few chance meetings, Was would not reconnect with members of the Grateful Dead until he introduced Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman to John Mayer one day in Los Angeles. That day, Dead & Company was born. Simultaneously, the seed was planted for Wolf Bros.

What Was always dug about the Dead was the band’s live improvisation. It was, and still is, a very jazz-like approach to performance. So, when Weir called Was at 8 a.m. one morning to tell him about his dream of starting a trio with him and Lane and asking when he could start, Was didn’t hesitate for a second. “My interest wasn’t just musical,” Was said. “I wanted to learn from Bobby, the master improviser, how to be fearless.”

When the Wolf Bros returned to live performance this summer, there was noticeably less space on stage.

The trio has grown to a ten-piece, now joined by Dead & Co keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, legendary pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, and the “Wolf Pack,” an ensemble of wind and brass musicians from the Bay Area. The group began performing together for a New Year’s Eve live stream and continued to congregate at Weir’s digs in Marin County throughout the live music lockdown.

Don Was likened the band’s transformation to that of RatDog, which started with Weir and bassist Rob Wasserman before gradually incorporating other guys, including Lane and Chimenti. “I think he understands something about building the band from the foundation up,” Was said. “He’s very patient.”

With new instruments has inevitably come a new sound. The foundational spaces that Weir, Was, and Lane laid out over three tours as Wolf Bros are now being colored in with the sounds of violins, flute, clarinet. These instruments are atypical additions to a Dead stage, but they’re part of Weir’s ambitious vision of performing with a full improvisational orchestra, which feels almost like an oxymoron.

“It’s tough to orchestrate when the band’s playing it differently every night,” Was said. “You can’t write charts out and play the charts. You have to build improvisation into it. We’re still figuring it out, and it’s getting better and better every time.”

Credit the extra hands on deck, the post-pandemic revival, or the usual makings of great Dead show, but the mood on stage and in the audience during the first shows back was nothing short of “deeply emotional,” The second night‘s second set—when the Wolf Pack played a seven-song stretch that started with “Eyes of the World”, included a rare cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, and triumphantly ended with the second half of “Terrapin”—was particularly moving for Was.

“We only played the first half [of the “Terrapin” suite] during night one, so there’s that mild sense of disappointment. And when we went into it, there was a moment – ba da dum! – where people realized they were going to get the back half of Terrapin…I could feel that. That was good.”

Then there was night two, when the Wolf Bros closed a high-energy second set with a sentimental “Ripple”. For a moment like that, Was gave no words. Just space.

Bobby Weir and the extended Wolf Bros lineup return to the stage this Saturday, July 21st, with a performance at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, CA. For tickets, head here. To purchase your pay-per-view livestream for the show via FANS, head here.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Bobby Weir (@bobweir)