An assemblage of East Coast indie rockers flew to the Bay Area to collaborate with the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir for a one-time-only performance on Saturday night. Called the Bridge Session, the nine-person collective included three members of the National – Aaron Dessner, Bryan and Scott Devendorf – along with Walt Martin from the Walkmen, Sam Cohen and Josh Kaufman from the Yellowbirds, Conrad Doucette of Takka Takka, and National contributors Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett and Kyle Resnick. The performance took place in front of a live studio audience of just over 100 at Weir’s TRI Studios in San Rafael, California, and was webcast live on Yahoo! Music.
“For us, the night definitely exceeded expectations,” Scott Devendorf told Rolling Stone immediately following the show. “We were surprised that it was even going to happen in the first place, and then as we were rehearsing it became more and more real.”
Devendorf says that he and his National bandmates were “big fans of the Grateful Dead for a long time” and recently got back into them. Working with Weir – and seeing his dedication to the music during several 10-hour rehearsal sessions – “kinda blew our minds … It was definitely inspirational for us.”
Saturday’s two-set performance drew mostly from the Grateful Dead’s vast catalog. Weir led the pack through what was no doubt familiar territory to him but strange waters to his sudden bandmates, as they ripped through jams such as “The Other One,” “Brown Eyed Woman” and “Friend of the Devil.”
But given the nine-person ensemble – and the musicians’ somewhat disparate musical backgrounds – Weir was forced to rethink some of his approaches and, in some cases, alter the arrangements on tunes he’s been performing for decades. Instead of morphing into “Slipknot,” as was the Grateful Dead’s custom, “Help on the Way” segued into a cover of Cass McCombs’ “Love Thine Enemy.” And in “Standing on the Moon,” Weir even experimented with the melody, deviating from the way Jerry Garcia used to approach it when he sang it with the Dead.
“This next one, I had to park for 20 years,” Weir told the audience while introducing the buried rarity, “My Brother Esau,” explaining that it was a song the other guys specifically asked him to dust off for the show. “And I’m kinda glad they did,” he said, “because it forced me to rework the bridge.” No pun intended, of course.
The Bridge Session included two National tunes – “Daughters of the Soho Riots” and “Fake Empire.” Weir handled vocals for the former, which he tinkered with in a way that referenced the original but which met him halfway towards his more characteristic vocal delivery. It proved a great match. The group also covered Bob Dylan’s “Most of the Time.”
For their encore, the entire ensemble ventured into the middle of the audience and huddled around a microphone, holding all acoustic instruments, for a singalong to “Ripple,” “Uncle John’s Band,” and “Brokedown Palace” – all of which appear on the Dead’s stripped-down 1970 albums, Workingman’s Dead and Reckoning.
The Disco Biscuits’ Marc Brownstein served as the night’s emcee. As he told the audience at the start of the show, the idea behind the Bridge Session was to literally bridge the gap between genres, geographies and ideologies. Images of both the Brooklyn Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge – which reflected the musicians’ two distinct home bases – served as a backdrop.
Between sets, Weir joined a roundtable political discussion moderated by Andy Bernstein of the voter registration group, HeadCount, which produced the event as a benefit for their organization. The discussion also featured independent presidential candidate Buddy Roemer, climate change activist Jessy Tolkan, No Labels cofounder Mark McKinnon and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. They debated topics such as money in politics, personal freedom and the upcoming presidential election. But, as Weir told Rolling Stone a few days before the show, his main goal for the night was to just “have fun.” Mission accomplished.