The concert had all the earmarks of a Grateful Dead event: A sea of tie-dye T-shirts, fans raising an index finger outside the sold-out Palace Theatre hoping to score one ticket, and the smell of weed inside when the first note was played.
Consider Tuesday night’s show a surrogate Dead experience, what with Dead guitarist Bob Weir and his new Wolf Bros performing two sets, just like his legendary band used to do.
Weir has toured in several post-Dead groups including his own Ratdog, the Other Ones, Furthur and, currently, Dead & Company featuring John Mayer. But the Wolf Bros are a bit different from Weir’s other projects — a modest little trio playing and singing rock songs with the improvisational approach of jazz musicians.
At the Palace, there were enough numbers to keep the die-hard Deadheads doing their trippy dances and enough musical moments to appease musicheads. Good times, indeed.
At 71, Weir is a much improved vocalist, with an appealingly gruffer, deeper and more soulful voice. Being a full-time featured singer instead of one of many has strengthened his instrument and confidence.
He growled on the Temptations’ “Shakey Ground,” barking with insistence like Bob Dylan except you could understand Weir’s words. He punched his lyrics just like an exhorting Dylan on two of the bard’s classics, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” And Weir showed a likable if brief falsetto during his own “Bombs Away” and the Dead’s “Lost Sailor.”
The set list nodded to Minnesota, with Johnny Cash’s “Big River” (the line about St. Paul received a big cheer) and three numbers by the state’s most famous living musical hero.
The night opened with “Iko Iko,” the spunky New Orleans classic that the Dead used to play in concert, and ended pre-encore with Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” another live staple for the Dead that had the crowd hooting, hollering and dancing with glee.
The 2¾-hour performance featured several Dead originals, but “Wharf Rat” and “He’s Gone” were the only ones the Rock Hall of Fame group performed often. Others included the lesser known but beloved “Saint of Circumstance” and “The Music Never Stopped,” a fitting anthem for Weir and other surviving, still-gigging Dead musicians.
In the Wolf Bros, the singer-guitarist is accompanied by drummer Jay Lane, who plays in Ratdog, and bassist Don Was, the Grammy-winning super-producer known for his work with Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones and other big names. The tie-dye-clad Lane got one very brief solo opportunity on Tuesday, and Was, he of the wide-brimmed fedora and bare feet, got none. However, his upright bass was prominent in the mix, often driving the music, notably on the good-groove tune “The Music Never Stopped.”
As with an experimental jazz combo, there was lots of air and space in the performance. At times, the music felt a little empty, begging for, say, a keyboardist or Bob Weir — he is a great rhythm guitarist — to fill out the sound.
As a lead guitarist, Weir is a rhythm player in search of a solo style. During an underwhelming “All Along the Watchtower,” he kept expounding instead of soaring. On the Ratdog selections “Even So” and “October Queen,” he explored metallic twang and exotic jazz-fusion. On “Not Fade Away,” he offered trippy tonal passages before the Wolf Bros became a full-on jam band.
Exacerbating the guitar issues was Weir’s trebly sound, with his tinny tone eventually growing tiresome. No one expects Weir to be Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s late headman, or John Mayer, the group’s current surrogate.
So 2,800 Deadheads were grateful to experience the next best thing.