“If I keep doing Grateful Dead stuff till the end of time, I might get bored pretty quick,” Weir said in a radio interview in March, 1978. “I already know how to do that… but fitting into that little niche… eliminates the possibility of growth.” So began Weir’s solo career with Heaven Help the Fool, recorded in the summer of 1977 and released in January 1978.
Ace, Weir’s first album under his own name, was recorded almost exclusively by the Grateful Dead (plus Dave Torbert and a few horn players), and aside from Walk in the Sunshine, it comprised exclusively Grateful Dead material. Released under Grateful Dead Records, there was no band or commercial support for the album.
Beginning in 1974, during the Grateful Dead’s then-indefinite hiatus, Weir toured and recorded with Kingfish, founded by former New Riders Dave Torbert and Matthew Kelly in 1973. Matthew Kelly was one of Weir’s oldest friends (reportedly at his tenth birthday party), and considering the New Riders’ close relationship with the Dead, it made sense that there be some cross-pollination. Unfortunately for Kingfish and despite the fact that they did very few Grateful Dead songs, Weir’s status in the musical world left the impression that they were merely his backup band. This initial collaboration lasted through August 1st, 1976, when Kingfish did a handful of east coast shows ahead of two GD dates there. Weir felt “stretched plenty thin” by his dual commitments and stepped out of Kingfish for the time being.
When Heaven Help the Fool was released, the Dead had recently signed to Arista and Weir embarked on a nationwide major-markets tour with the Bob Weir Band in support of the album. The February-March tour comprised 17 dates and there were a half-dozen one-off shows later in the year, but it was a short-lived group with a catalogue of less than twenty songs (generally about 12 per show), assembled strictly for the promotion of the album. Shows were relatively short and the music, though upbeat and energetic, was conventional. Nonetheless, two major connections emerged from that lineup. Brent Mydland, of course, would go on to join the Grateful Dead in April 1979 and the first lineup of Bobby and the Midnites in June 1980. The BWB also comprised Bobby Cochran, nephew of Eddie Cochran, former lead guitarist of Steppenwolf, and fellow Ibanez endorser with his very own Cowboy Fancy model. Master of both the screaming classic-rock lead and SRV-style blues, Cochran would play with Weir through 1984.
It was not until mid-1980 that Weir formed his first real side-project, Bobby and the Midnites. The core of Weir, Cochran and Miles-Davis-sideman and Mahavishnu Orchestra founding drummer Billy Cobham was complemented at different times by Brent Mydland and Matthew Kelly (June ‘80 – January ‘81); Alphonso Johnson (January ‘82 – March ‘83), of Weather Report, Genesis, and later Jazz is Dead and the Other Ones; and Little Feat bassist Ken Gradney (March ‘83 – September ‘84).
In contrast to the pathologically uncompromising Grateful Dead, Bobby and the Midnites threw themselves gleefully into a broader 80s sound: Me Without You, Rock in the 80s, Thunder & Lightning (with its refrain “over the edge and out of control”), and I Want To Live in America are shameless 80s pop. The rest of the repertoire was mainly Weir material, with very little GD: Minglewood, Supplication, Victim, and a few covers like Women are Smarter and C.C. Rider. The band was tight, Cochran never failed to impress, and there was room for more stage goofery than with the Dead: vamps over Heaven Help the Fool or Josephine could occasion a lot of ad-libbed antics and asides. The Midnites released two records in their four-year lifespan, did six major tours along with a dozen smaller runs and one-offs, and performed their last show in September 1984.
No sooner had the Midnites dissolved than Weir went back to playing with Kingfish. A new MO appeared: in an effort to capitalize on Weir’s contribution while avoiding the identification as his side project, he acted as a sort of guest bandleader. Most of the band’s repertoire consisted of covers, and depending on the night, Weir would lead part or all of a given set, always leaving a half-dozen original Kingfish tunes on which he was absent. In all the Kingfish lineups (at one time including Steve Kimock), Matt Kelly was the only constant, but keyboardist Barry Flast did most of the talking: he would introduce the songs, the band and Weir whenever he came on. Parenthetically, it made me smile to hear him introduce their signature song Hypnotize with a shout-out to all the “Fishheads” in the audience. Finally, it was common for Bob to do a few solo acoustic songs towards the end of the second set. This same arrangement applied to Go Ahead, a Mydland/Kreutzmann outfit with which he did a dozen shows during the Grateful Dead’s ‘87-‘88 winter hiatus. Weir’s collaboration with Kingfish would continue sporadically through 1989.
In 1986, Weir recorded three songs with a Brian Melvin project called Nightfood. Brian Melvin shared the Dead’s San Francisco roots and loved their sound. He is an adept of the Mickey Hart-style spiritual world-rhythm approach, and played with Jorma Kaukonnen and a host of other Bay Area musicians. He was also a close friend of the late great bassist Jaco Pastorius, who among other things collaborated closely with Pat Metheny and replaced Alphonso Johnson in Weather Report. Melvin cut a record aptly titled Nightfood and Weir played a handful of gigs in support of the album in late 1986. The music on the album is fusion-lite and by then Pastorius’s bipolar disorder, exacerbated by alcohol abuse, made him very erratic, but it’s an interesting interlude in Weir’s career to have shared the stage with him. I have found no live recordings but if anyone has a lead, let me know.
In all likelihood, Weir had been doing solo acoustic stuff all along but there is no easily accessible record of such performances outside Deadbase, which lists his first solo performances in 1984. At the Sweetwater in Mill Valley, in October 1988, Weir first played with fantastically interesting upright bassist Rob Wasserman. This led to a long-standing collaboration that would tide Weir over into the mid nineties and eventually transition into RatDog, via Scaring the Children (later RD3) and Ratdog Revue. Weir/Wasserman, or more commonly Bob and Rob, did their first three outings in ’88 and ’89 as an opening act for the Jerry Garcia Band but struck out on their own in January 1990. Until 1993 they toured regularly whenever the GD were not on the road, generally with an opening act (Susan James, Hot Tuna, Bruce Cockburn and Michelle Shocked). Their sets were rather repetitive (though less and less so as the years went on), and Wasserman almost always took a bass solo. New material complemented the standard Weir solo catalogue, lighter, more vocally-driven songs from the standard jazz canon. Fever, Witchcraft, Twilight Time and Artificial Flowers found their way into the sets more and more frequently in that period.
There were no Weir/Wasserman shows in 1994, but in April 1995, Jay Lane and Matthew Kelly first performed with the duo at an Earth Day concert in San Francisco in a one-off performance that would lead to RatDog. Named Ratdog Revue, that foursome premiered on August 6th, 1995, three days shy of Jerry’s death, which would mark the biggest turning point in Weir’s career. It seems an appropriate place to end this overview of his musical extracurriculars.
I began this week’s listening with the intention of identifying some pivotal moment in which Weir went from sideman to showman, so to speak, but seven shows over 12 years is hardly enough to give that sort of insight. If anything, this overview reveals a series of explorations in different directions. The Midnites was an anti-Grateful Dead foray into the world of pop and conventional rock and roll; Kingfish and Go Ahead offered a forum for him to do a little of everything without the pressure of being a support pillar; and Scaring the Children (my favorite of the duo’s monikers) was a serious, bare-bones exercise in developing guitar voicing and jazz vocals. Whether these were planned, conscious choices or not is debatable, but they certainly complement the picture of Weir’s character available from his days with the Grateful Dead.
Next: I’m listening to RD3’s three-day run at Wetlands in February 1999 (new soundboards), while I decide what to do next. My options are: GD January 1970, GD November-December 1979, RD 2006, a closer look at Bobby and the Midnites, or a series from the recent Mike Gordon tour. If anyone has a preference, let me know.