Former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir spent the better part of the last two weeks in Mexico, where his band, Furthur, performed their final four shows at a festival called Paradise Waits before going on indefinite hiatus. The event was held at the all-inclusive Hard Rock Hotel in Puerto Adventuras on the Yucatan Peninsula and immediately after, Cloud 9 Adventures staged another festival for My Morning Jacket. Weir is currently prepping to go back out on tour with his band Ratdog, but stuck around to jam with Jim James’ crew and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. On his day off he spoke with Rolling Stone about the Grateful Dead’s upcoming 50th anniversary plans, the opera and symphonies he’s working on and much more.
You’re no stranger to strange lands, playing largely for a crowd that will travel with you and for you, like when the Grateful Dead played Egypt, or when Ratdog played Jamaica. Can you talk about your experience playing your own festival in Mexico last week?
I think this is my first paid gig down here. The Grateful Dead is sort of famous for its Americana songbook and that will travel to Europe and Japan but that’s about as far as it goes. There were no Mexicans in the crowd last night. We’ll see if we can’t do some sort of PR at some point. It would be nice to see that Americana songbook resonate elsewhere in the world. I’d like to see other places and bring this music there.
You sat in with My Morning Jacket during their One Big Holiday festival. How was that?
I had a ball with those guys this summer; they’re a wonderful band. They’re a rock band with a pedal steel in it. There aren’t many of those. And they all listen to each other; they’re not your classic jam band per se, but they can play. We had a bunch of fun and I’m looking forward to having a bunch more. And to boot, they’re recording in Stinson Beach [California], right over the hill from where I am in Mill Valley, so I’m looking forward to going out there and raining on their parade a little bit.
The Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary is coming up in 2015. Is it a chance for you to look back and get sentimental?
Let me start by saying that I’m already in my 50th year, so this is an ongoing process. We have to do something commemorative. I think we owe it to the fans, we owe it to the songs, we owe it to ourselves. If there are issues we have to get past, I think that we owe it to ourselves to man up and get past them. If there are hatchets to be buried, then let’s get to work. Let’s start digging. I’ll just say, to my delicate sensibilities, that it would be wrong to let that go by un-commemorated.
As you get older, do you have more of a desire to stick to the song form or do you still have just as much a drive to continue to improvise?
After you’ve played a song a few hundred times, little surprises mean a lot. And you only get those surprises if you hold the skunk. And so, we’ve got to stretch them out, we’ve got to see what else the song has to reveal. And as the songs grow, the songs age. They’re living things, they really are. It’s a different life form, but they grow. Some songs go to sleep for awhile. “Dark Star” went to sleep for a long time and then came back.
At your TRI Studios, you recently played with the National, Vampire Weekend, the Hold Steady, Phish and even Sammy Hagar. Do you have any future collaborations in the works?
It’s like with the Grateful Dead; we never made plans. We just proceeded at a full racing trundle into whatever and wherever we were headed, pretty much blinded. We’re just going to see who pops up at TRI. I don’t have dream collaborations; it’s almost necessarily limiting to me. I discovered folks that never would’ve crossed my mind. Lukas Nelson [Willie’s son], for instance. Come on! That’s the glory of TRI. People just stumble in there, on their path, at a full racing trundle.
TRI is your own space where you can play shows that are broadcast to people’s living rooms and mobile phones. Does that lessen your desire to tour?
I don’t see it like that. First off, I’m a traveling musician. The itinerant troubadour. Always have been, always will be. It’s in my blood. And nothing will ever replace seeing those faces light up as the story develops. That said, there is a storytelling place that I go now when I’m in front of a camera, that’s different but it’s fulfilling. I just have to find time for that, too. If you look into the Grateful Dead’s past, we didn’t spend a lot of time in front of cameras.
The Grateful Dead songbook is so revered and is a deep well to draw from. Do you still have the urge and inspiration to write new material?
Oh hell yeah. I’ve got a project I’m working on with Josh Kaufman [Yellowbirds] and Josh Ritter. We’re going towards a real cowboy aesthetic and we’re going to see where that takes us. We’ve been writing songs, with the idea of making a record. There will be cameras involved as well. It will be a TRI offering, with audio and video, because that’s where I live now. There’s that.
What else do you have on your plate for this year?
I’ve got my symphony project. We’ve got some interest from some substantial symphonies. I’d like to do it in San Francisco. We’ve re-orchestrated what we played last time, and we’ve doubled the number of songs. With this project, one of the things we want to do is to break new ground for orchestral music. The Dead canon is a perfect place for it. Classical music has always been derived from folk music. The composers would go listen to the gypsies or whoever and then extrapolate from there. This is that same process. We want to keep it in the classical vein as opposed to in the pops vein where you just orchestrate a song. We want to orchestrate and take it for a little walk in the woods. That’s what we’ve done with the project so far, but we’re expanding the concept. Importantly, one of the things we want to do is we’re developing a couple of techniques with the notion that we want to get a symphony orchestra to improvise.
[Another project is] an opera that I’m sort of producing. There’s a young lady by the name of Miranda Jones who has written what started off as a couple of tunes that she wanted to record, and it turned into a musical theater piece. I’ve been coaching her to think of it as an opera. In an opera, as you know, the entire story development is done through libretto. The staging as well. But the stuff that’s being sung is always moving the story forward. You have to do your plot development through the sung lines. So I was encouraging her to think of it as an opera and then it turned into an opera.
After all these years, do you still read your press? Do you go online and read reviews?
On occasion. It’s really interesting to see what other people have to say about what you’re up to, because otherwise you’re going to live in an echo chamber. The people around you are people who have found you because they, by and large, are in sync with what you’re up to. They’re aligned with what you’re up to and you never get the full blowback. You never get a clinical critique of what you’re up to. And you can take any clinical critique seriously or you can blow it off. But it’s interesting.