Review by Janet Kwiatkowski
Photograph by William Harriman
At a recent 4/20 showing of the “2nd Annual Grateful Dead Meet-Up at the Movies,” it made no difference to the packed audience that it was a movie and not a live concert. Actually, the July, 1989 Alpine Valley, Wisconsin concert film was brilliant and inspired dancing in the aisles, standing ovations and sing-a-longs. A few people even lit up in the large, family-oriented multiplex. When the last song was abruptly cut short – not sure if the archival footage ran out, or the projectionist just had enough – without missing a beat, the audience just continued on singing the “Mighty Quinn” until the end. With such devotion, not much has changed in over twenty years, and it was a similar scene at the Bob Weir solo acoustic show at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield last Sunday.
These days, Weir is at the center of a hive of activity – from the recent launch of his innovative TRI Studios to the never-ending Furthur tour with Grateful Dead bandmate Phil Lesh, as well as recent collaborations with the National, Bruce Hornsby, Steve Kimock, Chris Robinson and Jackie Greene, just to name a few – but the industrious Weir managed to squeeze in six solo acoustic dates, rescheduled from last summer’s cancelled tour.
The pre-show parking lot party of long-distance travelers was already underway, in full view on South Street, when the venue opened its doors for the sold-out show. The ornate, 780-seat Colonial Theatre is known for its fine acoustics and was a good choice for a show of this quality. Fans were in a state of raging bliss trying to figure out which songs would be played prior to the start of the show.
Weir came out, bowed to the audience, kicked off his shoes, and presented himself as singer, musician, and songwriter. Like a good story that never gets old in the retelling, the songs over the decades have become a living thing of their own. The reinvention of the same songs keeps them alive, and each concert is always a welcome surprise because of Weir’s wide-ranging musical taste, which runs the gamut from Bob Dylan to Bobby Darin.
The show starter was a vibrant version of “The Music Never Stopped” followed by the Dylan classic “Maggie’s Farm” with a jam of early-blues guitar picking. Remarking “this one we broke out in San Diego in the ’70s,” Weir’s sure voice hit the mark on Marty Robbins’ juke-box favorite “El Paso” and Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” Before “Money for Gasoline,” Weir conveyed, referring to the lyric “spin the wheel like Ezekiel,” that “if you read the book of Ezekiel, it’s pretty splashy beginning around 3:17. There’s UFOs and pillars of fire, great sci-fi stuff, also some useful recipes.” Weir laid on infinite textures during the extended guitar jam.
“The National made me learn this song. They’re a band I highly recommend,” according to Weir, and he launched into Dylan’s heart-tugging “Most of the Time.” The spell was broken when the sound quit, and the house lights went up, accompanied by blaring fire alarms. Weir acted surprised and directed the audience to the exits. Amounting to an early set break, everyone had to wait outside until the quick-responding Pittsfield Fire Department gave the all-clear. No one seemed upset or overly concerned. It was determined that someone took a smoke break in the hallway and set off the alarms. The venue management was very gracious and implored the audience not to smoke inside. Can’t blame them with a recently completed 21 million dollar theater renovation.
The second set resumed with Weir saying, “Don’t smoke. You just saw what happened” (which was eventually ignored), and he re-launched into “Most of the Time.” Weir has an amazing tone to his voice, which at times sounds haunting, yet deep and simple. After attending the Bearsville show in September, I witnessed two completely different shows, which is par for a master of improv. The Bearsville setlist had more serious ballads, sung beautifully and flawlessly, but the Pittsfield show was casual, more animated and raucous. The audience danced and sang along to most of the songs. During “Mississippi Half-Step,” the audience joined in with two-part harmony, singing “across the Rio Grand-eo, across the lazy river.” These songs are entrained in our brains, and we automatically get locked in. A certain vibe gets turned on at every show.
Weir has a way of wringing every note and possible sound out of his guitar, bringing a burning energy to jams during “Two Djinns,” “Big Bad Blues,” “Cassidy” and “Dark Star.” “Here’s a song with happy chords and melody, but sad lyrics about leaving a child behind,” Weir injected before breaking out Bobby Darin’s “Artificial Flowers.” Another anecdote was told about the song “Festival” with Weir saying, “This song just fell on me after seeing the movie ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ in 1982. I based it on the scene in the bazaar. It was during a double-bill of Bobby & the Midnights and the Jerry Garcia Band that I first played it, and Jerry said, ‘Where the hell did THAT come from?’”
Any naysayers who quibble about a dropped lyric or an occasional loss of placement after an improvised jam that went out into the stratosphere and back, should just appreciate witnessing a legend and cherish every performance, made acutely precious, with the recent passing of Levon Helm. After mastering literally thousands songs in his repertoire, with lyrics that are lengthy and sometimes obscure, it’s an amazing body of work and each concert nothing less than astounding when you look at the scope of Weir’s career.
BOB WEIR SET LIST
The Music Never Stopped > Maggie’s Farm
Desolation Row > Money for Gasoline
Most of the Time
FIRE DRILL BREAK
Most of the Time
Big Bad Blues
Mississippi Half-Step > Dark Star (Verse 2) > Cassidy > Dear Prudence > Not Fade Away