Last week, founding Grateful Dead member Bob Weir payed homage to his late bandmate, Jerry Garcia, to mark what would've been the iconic guitarist's 70th birthday. Weir led a rotating assemblage of nearly 20 musicians through a four-and-a-half hour marathon set that drew exclusively from the Garcia songbook, touching upon Grateful Dead classics and Garcia solo cuts alike.
The celebratory concert, titled Move Me Brightly, was streamed live from Weir's TRI Studios in San Rafael, just down the road from where the Grateful Dead used to practice. In addition to bringing together three official members of the Dead (Weir, Phil Lesh, Donna Jean Godchaux), participating musicians included members of Phish, Vampire Weekend, the Hold Steady, Furthur, the Black Crowes, the Cardinals and others. The event crossed genres and generations, demonstrating the massive reach of the Grateful Dead, nearly 50 years after they first formed and 17 years after they disbanded.
During a short break in the midst of a lengthy rehearsal for the event, Weir sat down with Rolling Stone to look back on his days with Garcia and the Dead, reveal his current plans and relay a humorous story about his pal Sammy Hagar.
How often do you think about Jerry Garcia?
Quite often. You know, he lives and breathes in me.
When the Grateful Dead were going strong, did you guys see each other's side projects and listen to each other's music outside the band?
Sure. If I came and checked out a Jerry show, generally speaking, I'd be pressed into service and would end up onstage. Either that or I'd be out with Bobby and the Midnights and we'd open for the Jerry [Garcia] Band, or stuff like that.
I'd generally end up playing with them, but I did actually go and catch the Jerry band on a few occasions, just to check in to see if he had a new lineup or a new presentation going. I had to see what that was all about, just to be up to speed on what he was up to, so that in my compositions and arrangements and stuff like that, you know. . . I'd take mental notes of stuff that he was doing that the Dead wasn't doing, and try to incorporate that into my vision of what the Dead would be capable of.
Your songwriting really came into its own a few years into the band's career. Did you feel, with Jerry's songwriting being what it was, that you had to compete somehow?
It wasn't so much a competition as an expectation that just standing there onstage and playing and singing were not all what we were about. There was more to us. Christ, when I joined the band, when I started playing with Jerry, I was 16. I hadn't really developed as a songwriter. I was learning my instrument, learning how to sing and all that kind of stuff. And after a few years, I had watched Jerry do it a little bit and I had been involved in some group writing sessions.
Jerry started writing around the same age that I did. So I guess I hit that point in my development right on time, and just started writing.
Do you think that younger fans who got into the Grateful Dead more recently are getting an accurate portrayal of what Jerry Garcia was actually like?
They're getting a partial representation of that. Jerry invested a lot of himself in the songs, and they're getting that. That's pure and undistilled. So there's a lot of that. The electricity that he delivered live – you can get a little of that from videos and stuff like that. And then there are things like, oh, for instance, there's that David Letterman interview that we did one time where you can sort of get a glimpse of what Jerry was like.
His comedic side. . .
Yeah. But that's something that nobody really knew about anyway, other than us. Backstage, we kept each other amused. Keeping each other entertained and amused was what we were all about. Someone was visiting us – some big mucky-muck of some sort – and Jerry and I and our roadie Steve Parish were back in the little guitar tent on the back of the stage. And we were just hanging like crows on a fence, just kicking stuff around and yucking it up. And this guy was sort of aghast at what we were doing – this was some serious dark humor going on back there. And Jerry looked up at him at one point and said, "You see, comedy is what we're really about. The music, yeah, this music thing is all well and good, but comedy is what we're really about." There was this ring of truth to that.
There's this Grateful Dead: Spring 1990 box set coming out, which a lot of people are really excited about. There are so many different opinions about what years and eras were the band's best. I've heard your bandmate Phil Lesh say that his favorite era was during that initial period through 1974.
I had the best time in Brent [Mydland]'s final years.
In an interview I did with Grateful Dead archivist David Lemieux, he told me that every band member has to approve every archival release, then he sends everyone the final product. But he speculated that he'd be surprised if anyone in the band actually listens to those releases. Do you?
I do, sometimes.
Do you remember any of the more recent ones that you particularly liked?
Nope. That's not to say that I don't remember, but I can't put a name on any of it. Generally speaking, I'll listen to the first bit of it and that will take me back there and, generally speaking, [Lemieux] is right on with his selections. That's more his business than mine. I've got so much stuff to do.
Speaking of which, you've had a lot of different projects that you've already dedicated a lot of time to this year – you've done shows with Furthur, Ratdog, Bruce Hornsby and a run of solo acoustic shows. You even played a gig with members of the National. What next?
Personally, I'm working on my orchestral piece. It's now twice the size of what it was when we tried it out a year ago in May. That's evolved a bit and we're looking to stage it and probably record it as well.
I'm looking forward to some more solo acoustic dates. That's a lot of fun for me, because I get to be alone with the song. And I get to hear every little nuance; if my instrument does something that I wasn't expecting, I get to chase that. Chase that down a little bit. It's simple enough so that I can hear everything that I'm singing and playing, and I'm hearing stuff that I wouldn't, in an ensemble, be able to hear. And I'm working with that stuff so that the songs are showing me new sides of themselves.
Final question: You're neighbors with Sammy Hagar. Last time I was here you told me a funny story about what happens when his wife gets mad at him. . .
He's more fun than a frog in a glass of milk, and he's got his studio right around the corner here. He's nuts. We hang together a bit. When he gets thrown out of the house, typically I'll get a phone call – 'Bob, I'm coming down there. I've got to show you my new car.' He comes down there, he's a little edgy, and he's got a new car and he takes me out and scares the living crap out of me. And he gets it out of his system and everything's fine.