How to start a band, Approach No. 593.
A veteran musician has a dream. He envisions the specific players he’s going to work with. Even the band’s name.
If this sounds hippie-dippy, consider that the dreamer was Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir.
“He called me up last April and told me he had a dream that we started a trio at the behest of [the late bassist] Rob Wasserman, who was the one who introduced us,” said hitmaking bassist/producer Don Was.
“So Bobby said, ‘You want to do this?’ ”
Bob Weir and Wolf Bros — rounded out by Jay Lane, a drummer from Weir’s band Ratdog — first got together last summer. After a well received trek last fall, the trio has hit the road again this winter, with a show Tuesday at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul.
“This tour is even better than the last one,” Was observed. “We’re developing the conversation [among the musicians] and it’s going a level deeper this time.”
As of Monday, the Wolf Bros had played 102 different songs in concert (yes, Was — or someone — is counting). That includes lots of Grateful Dead tunes, of course, plus blues chestnuts and songs by Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, Ratdog and others.
On a recent morning, Weir informed Was and Lane of two new numbers they needed to prepare for that night’s special performance at New York’s Blue Note jazz club, which accommodates 200 people.
“I’ll be flying by the seat of my pants,” Was promised. “You can’t take your eyes off Bobby. You have to watch him and listen to him, too. We may have a set list, but it doesn’t mean anything.”
One thing that apparently wasn’t conceived in Weir’s dream was the Wolf Bros’ image for their publicity photo: all three musicians wearing cowboy hats.
“I had nothing to do with that,” chuckled Was, known for sporting a cowboy hat over his cloud of curls. “I didn’t know if they were messing with me or what. They just showed up with hats.”
Was, who first saw the Grateful Dead in his hometown of Detroit in the late 1960s, has known Weir since 1993. An admirer but hardly a Deadhead, the bassist had never made music with the singer/guitarist until last year.
Weir, 71, is a road warrior. He still does summer tours with Dead & Company, featuring John Mayer with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead. But Was, a celebrated record producer and president of Blue Note Records, hasn’t been on tour since 2008, with his old 1980s band, Was (Not Was) of “Walk the Dinosaur” fame.
“I love the road, especially this band,” Was declared enthusiastically about the Wolf Bros. “I could do this for the rest of my life if I had to.”
While on tour, Was still has to take care of business for Blue Note Records, where he was named president in 2012.
“I think I’m more effective out here playing, especially with Bobby, where so much of it is improvised and unpredictable,” Was, 66, pointed out. “When we’re locked in, that’s the essence of the magical moment. And that’s really what record companies are supposed to be about.
“It’s easy to forget about that in a corporate structure. It’s really good to have someone — it doesn’t need to be the president of the company — out there remembering that and keeping the focus on capturing pure inspiration instead of contracts and profit-and-loss projections. In the end, it’s about music. It’s easier to remember that when you’re playing music every night.”
The revered jazz label is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year with all kinds of reissues, a documentary film and other projects. Was is also proud of expanding the roster to include such esteemed non-jazz artists as Rosanne Cash, Annie Lennox and Benmont Tench.
Producing the Stones and Dylan
Despite his important behind-the-scenes duties at Blue Note and bass-playing gig with Weir, Was is best known as a Grammy-winning super-producer, most notably for Bonnie Raitt’s career turnaround album, “Nick of Time.”
His résumé includes the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Brian Wilson, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, Neil Diamond, Lucinda Williams, the B-52s, Gregg Allman, Jackson Browne, Stone Temple Pilots, Paul Westerberg, Mayer and Dylan.
He’s working on a new Stones album. “It’s in progress,” said Was, who has produced five records by the group. “It’s too ill-defined at this point to comment on. We’ve got a lot of stuff we started. The choice of songs will determine what kind of record it’ll be.”
He’s also produced a new album for Grupo Intocable, a Texas norteño band that fills stadiums in Mexico.
“I got a call from a guy in Mexico who said ‘Intocable want to make their “Achtung, Baby.” I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ They play accordion and bajo sextos, but they want to get different textures like U2 did with ‘Achtung Baby.’ ”
Was produced Dylan’s 1990 album “Under the Red Sky,” an all-star album of original material featuring Slash, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Elton John before the bard launched into two records covering traditional folk and blues songs. The album has often been derided by Dylan aficionados, especially the opening track “Wiggle Wiggle.”
What did Was think of the song when he first heard it?
“We were cutting tracks and we didn’t know what the lyrics would be. When he sang it, I thought it was kind of a children’s song,” Was remembered. “I understand it’s not ‘Gates of Eden.’ I view that album as basically laying the groundwork for subsequent records. I saw it as a roots, blues album. I like it.”
As for the lightweight “Wiggle Wiggle” opening the album, Was sees it as “a bold move. He’s done very well by defying everyone’s expectations, including mine.”
Less well known is Was’ role as matchmaker behind Dead & Company.
One day he met with Weir and Dead drummer Mickey Hart at Blue Note’s Hollywood office in the Capitol Tower to discuss some solo recordings. Mayer, an avid Deadhead who’d recorded two albums with Was, was recording downstairs. So Was invited him upstairs to say hello.
“By the time he went back down in the studio, there was already a plan afoot to get together and play,” Was said.
These days, he is thinking about the Wolf Bros’ future. He’d like them to make a studio record.
“We’re definitely going to do it. We’re trying to clear dates [in their schedules] now. I’d like to see us have some brand-new songs by the end of the year.”