Strange Houses – Bob Weir Drops Science
JJ: What do you find needs dictating? How much structure do you have to put in?
BW: Precious little, at this point. These guys I’m playing with are pretty good, they can it. The stuff I tend to dictate is “okay, it’s time to pick it up, it’s time to slow it up, it’s time to pick it up dynamically, it’s time to bring it down dynamically, it’s time to stretch it out” and then, towards the end of the show, “it’s time to bring it in”, ‘cause I’m the guy who’s aware of the clock. That’s my biggest job, to make sure we don’t go overtime.
JJ: What dictates the one set structure of the show, as opposed to the having the two set thing, which you did with the Dead for as long as you did?
BW: What used to dictate was the fact that we had an opening act and it didn’t seem to me that people came to our shows to not have music — though I imagine that some people do come to mill about and see their pals and socialize. For most folks, the crux of the matter is music. If you have an opening act, then there’s a break between the opening act and the headliner. In that case, one setbreak is enough, no matter who’s there.
In this upcoming tour, I don’t think we’re gonna have an opening act. We’ll be playing three, three-and-a-half hours, in which case we will take a setbreak. It’ll be a two set show. It’ll be pretty much the same as the Grateful Dead format. I’m not entirely sure if we wanna go a lot more than three and a half hours. I know that, for me, more than that’s just more than the human spirit can endure — though I know that a lot of folks out there cranked on ecstasy wanna go all night. We’re gonna do what we can do to the best of our ability. A three and a half hour show will be plenty, I think.
JJ: How conscious are you of pacing the show in terms of song choices?
BW: I take that into consideration a fair bit. A show has to breathe. You can’t just keep slamming the audience all night. I once went to a Bruce Springsteen show, about three and a half hours, and it was one uptempo tune after another. I was way ready to get out of there about two-thirds of the way into the show. He’s good. The music good: it was well-rendered, everything was excellent, it was just too much. That was, I’m told, a peculiar night for him and, in general, he paced it a little better than that. I was glad to hear that. You have to bring it up, you have to let it fall back down dynamically speaking, a fair bit to, in my estimation, to create a complete experience.
JJ: Towards the last 10 or 15 years, Dead shows definitely had their own language in terms of the way the sets were structured. Do you find the same thing happening to Ratdog?
BW: We’ll see. Well, our second sets…
JJ: Or just the second half of the show…
BW: We’re getting there. We don’t have as firm a handle on that as the Dead did, but then we haven’t been playing for 30 years. Nonetheless, we’re getting there. We’re getting a much better handle on how to do that than we had a year ago, two years ago, for sure.
JJ: Are you looking for that structure? Do you feel there is a perfect structure for a show?
BW: I think the Dead moreless naturally stumbled on that format. I want to underscore the word “naturally”. There’s probably a slightly different way that Ratdog is going to end up doing it, just because Ratdog is a different outfit, but I think it’ll be pretty close to that natural format that the Dead came up with.
JJ: Your role as guitarist in the Dead evolved very organically over the years, just as a product of you being there, but Ratdog seems to be moreless sculpted around your playing. How has that effected your playing?
BW: I know that I’m way more upfront with Ratdog, so I don’t know. I don’t change much of anything. It’s just a matter of attitude or awareness. It’s only a matter of percentages, but people are hanging a little bit more off of what I’m doing in this ensemble. That, I guess, would tend to frame what I’m doing a little more succinctly.
JJ: How has your guitar playing changed in recent years? Do you perceive it changing?
BW: Let me think about that. (Long pause.) I imagine it’s changing a bit, but maybe I’m a little too close to the forest to be able to count the trees here. I do pretty much what I’ve always done, which is play architecturally. I try to paint with broad strokes, play big support lines for people to hang stuff off of. That has not changed. There are gonna be scales and modes that I play these days that I’m learning, say, from our sax player or whatever. But that’s always gonna be in flux.
JJ: Continuing the metaphor of architecture, how do you envision this overall building as something different from the Dead?
BW: (Long pause.) Well, we got a sax, that’s different. We got one drummer, rather than two. (Pause.) The biggest difference, I think, is that the Dead were – by and large – older musicians. I grew up with Jerry, I grew up with the tunes, with the influences that Jerry and I wordlessly could communicate about. “I’m going to a Bill Monroe kind of place here” as opposed to any of a number of other bluegrass kinds of places. Those kinds of differentiations. I’m never gonna share that with anybody else, so we don’t have quite that library, that archive, of influences.
Over the years, I’ve been trying to – and will continue to try to – turn the guys in the band onto some of my influences and learn what their influences are. Especially the guys in the jazz background go way deep into stuff that I was never particularly aware of. In years to come, we may come up with an archive of influences that in some ways rivals what we had going in the Grateful Dead. But it’s gonna take some time to build that up.
JJ: Do you tap into any degree of that comfort level when you play with the Other Ones?
BW: Ah, not so much. It’s a simple matter of how much time I’ve spent with them. I haven’t spent that much time with the Other Ones, which is also a revolving personnel situation as well. We didn’t really get a chance to camp out and learn to live with each other.
JJ: Are there any plans for the Other Ones, for that project?
BW: Not right now. It’s back-burnered.
JJ: A random question before tying up: how you do you feel about Dead cover bands, Dead tribute bands? Every town seems to have one now.
BW: I’m kinda tickled about that. I expect they’re having fun, ‘cause we really had fun with that format, when we did that. If they’re taking up where we left off, they’ve gotta be having fun as well, which is good: that’s the whole point. There’s a line of thought that holds that the Grateful Dead were the authors of the jamband aesthetic. Really, the jamband aesthetic is an outgrowth of American musical tradition: state a theme and work it. You find it in blues, you find it in jazz, you find it in the heart of American music. For the last couple of decades, that aesthetic kind of disappeared into the background of general popular musical offerings. It’s great to see that coming back out.
JJ: Where do you see the form going?
BW: I wish I could tell you. Actually, I’m not sure I wish I could tell you. I’m actually happy to let it just tell me.
Jesse Jarnow has seen rain, and he’s seen rain, but – WHOA – here come rain.