Bob Weir‘s busy spring is turning into a busy summer. Fresh from a solo tour (which included jamming on Lady Gaga’s “Million Reasons” with Phish’s Trey Anastasio), the founding Grateful Dead guitarist is preparing for his third extended run with Dead & Company. Featuring Dead drummers Billy Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, the band once again features John Mayer in the role of late lead guitarist Jerry Garcia. When Rolling Stone reaches Weir – who appeared in April with Mayer and Dave Chapelle at their Controlled Danger tour at San Francisco’s Fillmore – he is getting ready for a casual evening of jamming with Phil Lesh at the Dead bassist’s San Rafael hangout, Terrapin Crossroads. He’s set to begin tech rehearsals the following day with Dead drummers Billy Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, and longtime keyboardist Jeff Chimenti.
And, as always, there is a new Grateful Dead archival release out now: Get Shown the Light, a four-show live box set built around the band’s beloved May 8th, 1977, performance at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Recorded from the audience by Dead taper Jerry Moore and enthusiastically circulated, his was the first version of the concert to make it into the Deadhead community. In the Eighties, a high-quality soundboard tape from the band’s official engineer, Betty Cantor-Jackson, emerged from a stash of master reels auctioned off from a derelict storage locker. The latter tape, now reacquired and properly released by the Dead, cemented the show as Deadhead legend for its brightly inspired jams on “Scarlet Begonias”/”Fire on the Mountain,” “Not Fade Away,” and “Morning Dew,” especially. It is also a show that Weir has little memory of, though he’s not averse to trying.
Following the band’s spring 1977 tour, drummer Mickey Hart’s car accident forced the cancellation of the band’s summer plans. It was the last summer the band would be absent from the road until Garcia’s death in 1995, and Weir has headed out every summer since. Dead & Company are still deciding which Dead songs to dust off for the tour, which runs from May 27th in Las Vegas to July 1st at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, but Weir is most excited about a mysterious “new wrinkle we want to iron in.”
Having done two full tours with Dead & Company over the past two years, how do you hope to keep things fresh?
We still probably need to spend a little time together riding on the bus between shows and listening to stuff that we played, and just stuff in general. One of the things that the Grateful Dead did, way back when, was we spent a lot of time just turning each other on to music. If somebody was listening to something that really caught their ear, they’d make sure that everybody else in the band heard it and that came home for us in innumerable ways. And the opportunity avails itself for us between gigs. When were on tour, everybody goes to their own bus, but we should probably all hop on the same bus and spend an hour or so on the road listening to … stuff.
Are there any songs you’re especially excited to explore with John Mayer this summer?
Yes, but that’s always going to be the case. But this new wrinkle, which I’m not at liberty to try to attempt to describe because I really won’t know what we’re looking at until a few days into it at least … that’s what’s got me going right now. The premise that we’re working with is that when most people go to a show, they’re not really watching what’s going on onstage. They may be watching what’s on the screen. But when the songs are playing in their mind’s eye, they’re actually watching a movie. They’re watching the movie the song the character in the song is delivering. They’re watching a movie on the big screen in their head. We’re going to try to play to that.
What older songs have you found unexpected new wrinkles in?
Mayer particularly loves “Althea.” Now, we had a good time with “Althea” back when Jerry was around, but [Mayer’s] fascination for the song exceeds mine. But, standing right next to him when we’re playing it, I’m getting a bit more a shower of sparks when we play the song that takes it to another level.
It seems like Mayer’s really a student of older Dead recordings. Does he ask you about older shows?
Oh, yeah, he bugs me about that stuff all the time.
Do you ever end up listening to older recordings?
Not very often, but in rehearsal, and sometimes during soundchecks, if we want a reference point arrangement-wise we often do that. My model for how to work this material is for everybody to be fluent with the most recent iteration of the tune that we did until 1995 [when Jerry Garcia died]. “Eyes of the World,” for instance. I think that people should go back and listen to earlier versions, but we like people to hear where it was when we left it when we were playing with Jerry. And [tell them that] as soon as they do that, to not do that again. As soon as they can do that, usually in the rehearsal or in soundcheck, then the song is free to go wherever it wants.
What do you remember about that spring ’77 tour and the Cornell show?
For me it was just another tour. I remember feeling like we were hot back when were doing it. But, for instance, that Cornell show that that people talk about, I can’t remember that specifically. It didn’t stand out for me on that tour. The whole tour was like that for me. I think that show became notable because there was a particularly good audience tape made of it. And that got around. I think it was the quality of the recording was good and the guy’s location was excellent. And whoever it was that made that recording made every attempt to get it out there so that people could hear it. [Laughs] And he was wildly successful at that. So it became a very famous show for us. But at the time it was just another show, and the whole tour was pretty much the same quality for me.
Part of the lore is that the reason that ’77 tour was so tight is because you’d just recorded Terrapin Station with [Fleetwood Mac producer] Keith Olsen and he thought you were too loose and cracked the whip to make you practice.
I’m not sure that he cracked the whip so much as it being apparent when we were working with [him], just getting across to him what the songs were about, that we had to tighten them up. At the same time, we spent a lot of time – more than we normally did – in rehearsal, getting the songs ready. And so the upshot of all that is were playing a lot. As I recall, we didn’t even finish the record before we hit the road again.
How much of the Deadhead culture did you notice emerging around that tour?
It began to dawn on us that people were regarding this as more than another band, that there was something else happening that was sort of overlooked. That was right around the time we had to deal with tapers, for instance. We’d just signed with Arista, the record company. Arista was freaking about the phenomenon of tapers showing up at our shows. They were insisting that we put an end to this. And we just didn’t want to do that. We didn’t feel comfortable doing that, so we didn’t. [Laughs] And through simple benign neglect we get credit for inventing viral marketing.