At the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., last month, the National Symphony Orchestra and its conductor, Steven Reineke, played alongside Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir and his band, Wolf Bros.
Classic Grateful Dead songs like “Shakedown Street,” “Dark Star,” and “Uncle John’s Band” are reimagined as classical music. This project has been in the works for more than a decade.
Bob Weir and the Wolf Bros play at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with the National Symphony Orchestra.
Weir and the rest of his core band (Don Was, Jay Lane, and Jeff Chimenti) spent weeks in California practicing before the show.
John Blackstone, a reporter, asked Weir, “Will the band or the symphony orchestra be more scared going into this?”
He said, “That’s a good question, but I don’t know.” “I’m not sure if the musicians in the orchestra know what they’re getting themselves into. “Man, this is going to be fun!”
So it happened. The crowd stood up all four nights, which confused the ushers who didn’t know how to deal with a jam band. A win for the orchestra and band, and for the music teacher who brought together the mainstream and the counterculture.
Giancarlo Aquilanti runs the rehearsals for the Grateful Dead songs that he orchestrated.
Before he met Weir in 2009, Giancarlo Aquilanti, an Italian composer at Stanford University, didn’t pay much attention to the Grateful Dead. He now loves the music as much as any Deadhead.
“There’s so much material in the Grateful Dead’s music that, once you get into it and understand how they work – again, musically, in terms of counterpoint, harmony, and rhythm – I found that it works very well with an orchestra,” Aquilanti said.
He looked at the improvised parts of every Grateful Dead show and saw how Jerry Garcia, Weir’s longtime partner, influenced them.
Blackstone asked Weir, “He sang his songs in the Grateful Dead, and you sang yours. Now you’re also singing his songs.”
“Yeah, I can’t sing them like he does, and I won’t even try. But yeah, those songs do need to live. They need to breathe, live, and grow.
Weir went on, “A song is a living thing.” “If you’ll let me get all hippie and philosophical on you, the people in those songs are real. They live in some other world, and they come to ours through musicians and artists who have made it their life’s work to be a way for creatures from other worlds to come to ours and entertain people, because that’s all they want to do. It’s just that they want to meet us, and that’s what we do.”
Bob Weir helped start the Grateful Dead.
In 1963, Weir and Jerry Garcia met in Palo Alto, California. Weir was 16 and having trouble in school, but he could play the guitar well. The Grateful Dead became a touring powerhouse, playing for an army of loyal fans. When Garcia died at the age of 53 in 1995, the trip seemed to end.
Blackstone asked, “Does any of this have to do with the fact that Jerry left so quickly?”
“Well, he left some unfinished business,” remarked Weir. “We were partners. I’ll do my best to clean up some things for him. “You do that for your friends.”
The Happy Dead
The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir play at the Empire Pool in Wembley, London, on April 7, 1972.
Aquilanti said, “I have some recordings of Jerry Garcia playing these guitars, and it took me days or even months to get one section to say, ‘This is it.'” So, for me, it was like getting this man’s soul, going back to him, and giving him a chance to live again through these orchestrations.”
Weir said, “Giancarlo has been able to write down what we were trying to do, because we all had this Philharmonic idea of what we were trying to do.” That always happened. “This is a horn line,” I thought. And that’s how Jerry would hear it. But now we can put it on the horns.”
“I take it you don’t know how to read music?” Weir was asked by Blackstone.
“You have to keep everything in your head?”
“Yeah. I’ve worked hard on this, you know. I have a very bad case of dyslexia, so I have to. I have to remember all of this.”
“Excuse me, but as a man in his 70s, I can say that your memory may be fine, but sometimes it takes a little longer to remember.”
“So I have to know it deep down. It’s not about remembering as much as it is about feeling it.”
Weir and his wife, Natasha, have two grown daughters, Monet and Chloe. Weir is a big fan of fitness, which he shares on social media, so he can keep up with them.
These workouts get him ready for his busy concert schedule, which includes the last tour with Dead & Company, a group he formed with guitarist John Mayer that has been one of the most popular acts in the country. Weir is also putting out live albums with Wolf Bros, and in February, they’ll play three nights of classic rock with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
Bob Weir seems to make it his life’s work to keep the music of the Dead alive.
Blackstone asked, “Is it one of your hopes that your songs and music will be remembered long after you’re gone?”
“The most important thing I think about is what people will say about what I do in 300 years.” Weir replied. “Now I have a lot more options. And I’m going to be stir-fried if I just walk by that. “If you’ve worked your whole life to be able to work with a symphony orchestra in a meaningful way, how can you turn that down?”
WEB-ONLY: Click on the video player below to watch a longer interview with Bob Weir.