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Live Review: Bob Weir & Wolf Bros with National Symphony Orchestra @ The Kennedy Center — 10/6/22

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Bob Weir, a founding member of the Grateful Dead, leads the Wolf Bros and The Wolfpack in a performance with the National Symphony Orchestra at The Kennedy Center on Oct. 6, 2022. (Photo by Casey Vock)

Of all his bandmates’ accomplishments since his tragic death in 1995, even Jerry Garcia himself would have been awed and moved by the sight last week in the nation’s capital.

In a feat for the ages, Bob Weir — a founding member of the legendary Grateful Dead — took The Kennedy Center concert hall stage this past week alongside his friends the Wolf Brothers and a five-piece brass/string quintet known as The Wolfpack while being backed by the National Symphony Orchestra for four nights of performance celebrating the band’s vast, adored songbook.

Before a packed house the night of Oct. 6, Weir helped guide a grand reimagining of a hand-picked list of Grateful Dead classics, with the respected Steven Reineke conducting the massive group of world-class musicians through vivid, enthralling arrangements that were no doubt the first of their kind played by the NSO.

“This is a long time in the making,” Reineke said upon taking the stage with the symphony orchestra. Reineke, the Music Director for The New York Pops, confirmed that the collaboration was “the first time the NSO and a jam band have teamed up,” lifting enthusiastic cheers from the festive crowd of longtime fans who’d come from far and wide to enjoy Bobby’s company and Dead songs presented in a new light.

But of course, the NSO would set the night’s tone in warming up with an ambitious, gripping overture — one that mesmerized and silenced even the most boisterous Dead Head on hand as this formidable and polished machine showcased the talents of its members on stage for this particularly interesting project.

After an ovation for the NSO, Weir stepped into the light alongside the Wolf Bros, comprised of some of his longtime friends, all of whom Bobby’s known or played with for years. Don Was is the ageless Grammy-winning producer and bassist with a wild resume and vast connections; drummer Jay Lane was a founding member of RatDog alongside Weir; and pianist Jeff Chimenti is well known for his work with RatDog, The Other Ones, The Dead, Furthur, and, of course, Dead and Company, which last week announced what will be its final tour in the summer of 2023.

The Wolfpack — consisting of Alex Kelly (cello), Brian Switzer (trumpet), Adam Theis (trombone), Mads Tolling (violin), and Sheldon Brown (woodwind) — has consistently appeared on stage with their Wolf brethren in the past couple years, including last year for shows in Colorado that yielded the newest recorded material from the bunch, Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros – Live in Colorado, Vol. 2, which was released this month.

Listen to Bob Weir & Wolf Bros’ recently released recording Live In Colorado, Vol. 2 via Spotify:

A run of shows that itself had been postponed out of COVID-related safety concerns, the special occasion was in the air, and the spirit of Jerry was too. Though he and his crew had gone all out with tuxedos for the first night, Bob was a tad more casual on the second but still dapper and distinguished nonetheless — and you’d had to have been on a balcony level to see his feet were cozy in shearling Birkenstocks.

As promised, those in attendance were treated to two full sets of songs, kicked off with a sophisticated and swelled “Shakedown Street.” As this conspicuously funky late-70s Dead classic filled the room, it became clear that these arrangements — led by Stanford University composer Dr. Giancarlo Aquilanti — weren’t just tossed-around ideas, but rather represented months of work and coordination by the musicians.

And with his wife, Natascha, dancing just up over his shoulder in the box seats, Bob was aglow in fulfilling the mission he’d set out months ago to achieve — one that is likely part of his greater life mission. Recently asked about his experience following Garcia’s untimely death following years of heroin addiction, Weir indicated in an interview with talk show host (and GD fan) Andy Cohen that he dealt with his grief by simply continuing to perform — exactly what he thought his late friend Jerry would want him to do.

Watch a clip from Bob Weir’s recent interview on Watch What Happens Live with Grateful Dead fan and host Andy Cohen via YouTube:

And Bobby’s words, loaded with emotion, helped present the four shows in five nights at The Kennedy Center as simply a dedication to carrying the torch, something Weir hasn’t done alone but has done much like an act of duty to his fallen colleague and the music he gifted to the world.

In interviews over the years, various members of the band stated that they hoped the music would be reinterpreted and recolored for years to come.

Last week in Washington DC, some of those songs were transformed into compositions more complex, dramatic and nuanced than any of the band members then or now might have ever dreamt — even Weir himself at times seemed to be gazing in admiration at what was being created by the dozens of folks working together in unison.

And with selections that no doubt pleased those on hand, it became a historic night and testament to the vision of the original members as well as the late and longtime Grateful Dead songwriter and lyricist, Robert Hunter, who passed away in 2019.

Characterized by Weir’s immortal call, the hum of his Stratocaster and stoked by the brigade of brass, strings and percussion on the stage, the first set offered a new scope for pieces like “Playing In The Band,” “Jack Straw” and “Cassidy,” a song Bob wrote with his another of his late friends, John Barlow.

And after a brief break, the entire congregation returned for a second set that would see the group reprise in improvisational fashion songs played in the first set and even the night prior, and along the way deliver a magnificent, illusory take on the Garcia/Hunter ballad “Stella Blue.”

Weir’s Wolf Bros posse was naturally part of something much larger for this show, but it didn’t take away from the enjoyment as Was, Lane and Chimenti were basking in what would have to be considered a monumental evening for the group — as well as the NSO, which received a warm, extended round of applause after an inspirited presentation of “Uncle John’s Band.”

The Wolfpack, a well-received and enriching feature of the latest Weir and Wolf Bros live record, was a thrilling additive to this assembly, with each of these heralded musicians taking solo turns at various points in the night.

And the Wolf Bros and The Wolfpack would get their time to shine together, as the NSO would bid farewell after a victorious, spangling “A Touch of Grey,” and Weir mischievously slid into “Fever,” the seductive Eddie Cooley classic, followed by one of the Grateful Dead’s all-time favorite covers, “Not Fade Away,” originally recorded by The Crickets.

Expressing his sincere gratitude to Reineke, Aquilanti and the “gracious” symphony orchestra, Weir thanked the large group of musicians for being willing to give the whole thing a try with an open mind.

A fantasy of sorts that Garcia and his gang might have envisioned in their early days as burgeoning musicians from the San Francisco Bay Area, it indeed became a reality — songs from the Grateful Dead catalogue broadened and decorated by one of the most respected musical bodies on the globe.

Of course, his bandmates have done so much that would make him proud. But what took place at The Kennedy Center last week—in the nation’s capital, no less — would give Jerry quite the tickle.

Setlist

Set 1
Overture (National Symphony Orchestra only)
Shakedown Street
Playing In The Band >
Dark Star (verse 1)
Jack Straw
Wharf Rat
Cassidy

Set 2
Lost Sailor
Saint of Circumstances (went into Dark Star verse 2)
Stella Blue
Dark Star (verse 1)
Uncle John’s Band (reprise from prior night)
Playing in the Band (reprise)
Touch of Grey
Fever (Eddie Cooley cover, Bob Weir and Wolf Bros only)
Not Fade Away (The Crickets, Bob Weir and Wolf Bros only)

Here are images of Bob Weir, Wolf Bros and The Wolfpack performing with the National Symphony Orchestra at The Kennedy Center on Oct. 6, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.

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1 COMMENT

  1. […] Bros featuring The Wolfpack perform with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, an excellent integration of classical music with jam bands. That weekend Nina went camping with the Girl Scouts again, this time with an emphasis on caving. […]

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