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Bob Weir & the Campfire Band in Cincinnati

About halfway through “Cassidy,” Bob Weir unplugged his acoustic guitar, strapped on an electric axe and the Campfire Band was instantly transformed from something unfamiliar to Weir fans to something intimately familiar to Weir fans.

While this, like the entire concert, was terrific, it was what came before and after—acoustic-centered, Americana music—that made this performance so special. Because when you’ve seen a guy perform 150 times in various, but similar, incarnations over the course of more than three decades, it’s a rare and wonderful treat to experience something different.

And Bob Weir & the Campfire Band, featuring members of the National, plus guitarist Josh Kaufman and multi-instrumentalist Jon Shaw, are something different.

Thus began the short, Grateful Dead portion of his show at Proctor & Gamble Hall in Cincinnati on Jan 13. The concert was part of the MusicNOW 2017 festival and began with a Cincinnati Ballet world premiere, “Garcia Counterpoint,” written and performed by the National’s Bryce Dessner. Based on a Jerry Garcia guitar solo from a performance of “Althea,” the debut featured two ballet dancers – dressed in street clothes – accompanying Dessner as he worked with loops and, presumably, pre-recorded music to lay down an avant-garde soundtrack to ease the crowd into the show.

Playing a healthy chunk of Weir’s 2016 solo album “Blue Mountain,” the band, featuring keys; banjo; mandolin; electric and upright bass; drums played with brushes and muted with towels; and guitars played with fingers, picks, bows and slides, performed under a big screen splayed with sepia-toned, Western images consistent with the cowboy motif of “Blue Mountain.” They switched to full-color, dippy psychedelia when Weir and his quintet eased into “Dark Star” late in the first set, as the former Dead man peeled off innovative, trippy riffs on his acoustic guitar.

Sporting blue jeans, a black “Gonesville” T-shirt and a white-as-snow mane and beard, Weir strode onstage just before 8 p.m. and kicked off the evening with three solo-acoustic numbers that nodded to Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson and Little Feat in that order.

After sets of 70 and 90-minutes, respectively, Weir’d kick off the encore similarly, playing Blue Mountain’s “Ki-Yi Bossie” all by his lonesome before being joined by the band and guest vocalist Lisa Hannigan, reading the lyrics from paper, for a pretty “Peggy-O” and joyous “Ripple.” More than three hours after Weir first appeared, the enthusiastic audience, which didn’t sit the entire evening, was clapping and singing along in celebration.

In between, Weir and company put on what was the best performance I’ve seen out of Weir in more than a decade—and probably longer.

The frontman was gregarious and engaged, playing more lead guitar that he has since the earliest days of RatDog in the late 1990s. The new material seemed to reinvigorate him, while the new arrangements of the older tracks seemed to renew his interest. Weir sang with purpose and clarity and remembered 99.9 percent of the words.

“Dark Star” appeared twice, once with Weir on acoustic; once with Weir on electric, and both times segued into Buddy Holly numbers, “Oh Boy” and “Not Fade Away,” respectively – nifty juxtapositions that worked incredibly well.

The “Blue Mountain” material, like so much of Weir’s studio work, took on a new resonance in the live setting. Given a chance to breathe, the songs showed themselves for the quality numbers they are and proved Weir – an astonishing 52 years into his career – to be the rare artist of his generation that can come up with something entirely new at such a late date and present it as authentic, wholly relevant and successful without putting off his existing fanbase.

In fact, the folks who filled all but the top balcony of the 2,700-capacity theater seemed more receptive to new tracks like “Lay My Lily Down” and “Ghost Towns” than they were to warhorses “Eyes of the World” and the aforementioned “Cassidy.”

As we filed out of the venue, audience members were heard to say that Weir had obliterated their expectations with a performance that made it nearly impossible to believe the Campfire Band was playing only its 10th show since forming in late 2016 and which had never played with its current lineup.

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