Once again, the Denver weekend music scene paid off in spades, bringing a whole host of greatness to the Front Range as temperatures drop and events move inside. From three nights of Moe. at The Fox Theatre to Elton John’s final visit to the Mile High City, the metropolis that has everything delivered once again. Certainly, one of the most iconic guest appearances was the two-night, tour closer of Bobby Weir and Wolf Brothers. Playing at the state-of-the-art Mission Ballroom, Deadheads came from across the land to catch the outfit that has improved with time and has been on fire throughout this tour.
With clear skies, a nearly full moon rising over the venue, and forecasted temperatures in the 30’s, Friday’s scene outside the venue was well stocked with smiling faces, a rainbow array of tie-dye, and a great sense of community in the healthy line already formed multiple hours before showtime. Although the shows were sold-out, what was also pleasantly surprising was the limited number of fans with their fingers in the air looking for tickets, meaning that everyone there was getting in for the celebratory experience that happens when this circus is in town.
When the time had finally arrived, the full band walked onstage to an electric welcome coming from the nearly 4000 deadicated who were ready to vibe with whatever the band had in store. Getting right to it, the band started with a meandering, but focused and tight jam that hinted at “Bird Song” and “Dark Star'' at times, before taking it in a completely different direction and slapping everyone with a strong “Truckin’”. Coming in at the seventeen-minute mark, this got The Mission going and had many singing at the top of their lungs, especially when the lights were “all shinin’ on me”.
Continuing with the travelin’ on theme, “Truckin” dissolved into “Black Throated Wind”. Barry Sless caressed bended notes throughout this one as Weir delivered with his raspy vocals. Don Was with his mile-wide grin kept this one chunky as Jeff Chimenti threw in his flare. The elevating closer was filled with the punch of The Wolf Pack, Sheldon Brown shredding the sax as Weir belted out the final refrain.
Pausing for a moment and with the departure of The Wolf Pack, tour staple “Brown Eyed Women” was up next and everyone in the room was happy to sing along. Sless gave this a great pedal steel western flare. The country dynamic continued at its close with a follow up in Marty Robbins’ “El Paso”. Strapping on the acoustic, Weir held down the rhythm, while Sless charged the intermittent solos, all the while Jay Lane splashed and snapped away behind the kit. The level vacillated, quieting and swelling with perfection, everyone listening with ears wide open.
The quartet continued on in another tour regular with “Queen Jane Approximately”. Chimenti was given a great opportunity to solo and his heart-felt delivery was not squandered in the least. Even with its seemingly endless stanzas of lyrics, Weir was able to recall them all with confidence and proved once again that age is just a state of mind and this one is sharp as a tack.
With the return of The Wolf Pack and for only the second time ever, “Lazy River Road” got some air time. This truly was a delight and was produced without hurry, the room floating along taking in the lyrical scenery bathed in blue and white light. Chimenti’s lengthy solo got it just earnings, listeners cheering him on at the final twinkle of his roll. The alternating string of Mads Tolling and Alex Kelly gave the tune a whole other level and had this listener realizing how bare and raw the original renditions were compared to this. Weir even incorporated a great upbeat change in the tempo when the song hits the railroad line “bright blue boxcars….”, mimicking the rollicking sound and feel of the iron horse heading westward. Closing at twelve minutes, if you weren’t smiling, you weren’t listening. The emotion of this one certainly had many thinking that Jerry would have been proud of how his piece had been arranged and performed.
Certainly, one of the big treats of any tour is the bustout and that is what The Mission got next in Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm”. Not only being the tour debut, but also the second time ever performed by this ensemble since 2020, the hoots and hollers for this famous locale carried through much of the intro. The different arrangement of this one left many scratching their heads as to what was being played until Weir started up the first set of lyrics. Performed with a moody, blues shuffle, the band took their time with it through to the end. Punchy and bold, the house trotted along under red light while Weir spilled out the words in a sultry fashion, adding his metallic angular expectation throughout. Regardless of age, anyone who knows Weir’s history with lyrics knows that there is always a potential for flaw and this long-worded piece showed this dynamic for the first time of the night. When referring to the stanza about “Maggie’s Pa….”, Weir drew a blank, and threw out a “F*CK!” instead, as the band and fans laughed, Weir smiling all the while. In perfect opposition to the mistake, Sheldon Brown took the opportunity to quell any thought that the tune or evening were going to come off the rails, nailing a searing sax solo that kept everyone moving and celebrating. In the end, with the amount of lyrics of this piece and the infrequent performances of it, the fact that Weir nailed 99% is more than incredible and just shows what a treasure he is.
“Cassidy” was the set closing choice. At the jam break, Mads Tolling took flight with the sea birds, carving an uninhibited solo that just kept the energy climbing while the rest of the stage held on. Sless took over next, employing the wah, joined by Brown’s sax, the two alternating back and forth, as the feel shifted into dark country. Tolling jumped back into the mix, distressed and undressed, giving over to the fervor as the gnarl turned in on itself until it seemed it could go nowhere else, finally breaking free above the disorienting aural cloud only to meet up with the bright of sunlight as the tune returned to its warm structure. With the final notes played, Weir stated” We’ll be back in just a short bit. You all hang loose.”
For set two, the trio of Weir, Was, and Lane returned to the stage for the Weir / Wasserman classic “The Winners”. Short, sweet, and well done, those fans long in the tooth certainly appreciated hearing an older number from Weir’s non-dead canon. Taking a moment to get the rest of the outfit back in place, the whole band started up the Memphis Jug Band cover “Stealin’”. This relative newcomer to the lobo lore, played one twice thus far, gave Trombonist Adam Theis the opportunity to take a pronounced solo and show that the bone takes the backseat to no instrument.
Fans of the Grateful Dead have long come to expect the second set to be the main sustenance of the show, filled with the juicy goodness where legend and fable are born and reality is set on tilt and following the opening tunes, this is where Friday really lifted off. Starting with Lane’s rattling symbols, Weir accented, and the rest of the players fell in one by one, circling the loose groove that would eventually morph into a seventeen minute “Dark Star”.
Shifting and snaking through the room, this one had it all: the light delicate sensibility coupled with the dark dissonance that tickles the musical primal bone of the soul. Seven minutes in, the joy of unease settled in and reached its first peak before Weir anchored everyone back into comfort with the first verse, graciously accepted by the souls taking it all in. At twelve and half minutes, the band was just scaring the children in that great kind of way that is disorienting as you realize you are in one of the safest places on the planet, many patrons looking around at each other with broad grins, raised eyebrows and WTF looks on their faces, each receiving a full charge of the cosmic energy.
Delivering on the second verse, Weir extended some of the lyrical lines to the applause of the audience before the rest added to the vocals, cycling and spinning on the lyric “nightfall of diamonds” before fading back into instrumentation.
A laidback “Shakedown Street” rose from the ashes of the disintegrating astral object and got everyone back into the groove with a strut and a sing along. The horn arrangements are a great addition to this fan favorite and everyone got a turn in the spotlight. Once again, Weir slid that slide like a man on a mission. Like its celestial predecessor, this one came in at over seventeen minutes and had everyone dancing.
The band segued nicely into “The Wheel” and this version sounded on point, even in light of it being only the second time played by this group. Weir led the vocals with backing from Chimenti and Lane. Sless’ slide once again gave this one over to that cowboy feel and the horns and string just made everything right with this quintessential Dead tune. The midsection also got some great apical treatment before changing tempo and breaking into a calypso ending with Sless providing an on par (pedal) steel drum effect.
Without notice or delay “The Terrapin Station Suite'' fired up with its first component. Chimenti got a great solo early on while Sless’ picking just continued to shine. The Wolf Pack surrounded the brothers, filling the space with so much texture and feeling. The first movement came in at fourteen minutes before shifting to “At a Siding” with its big, foreboding sound. Mads Tolling called out to middle eastern lands and conjured images of bedouin and pyramids. Lane labored heavily on toms while Alex Kelly rolled strings akin to tabla fills. Intermingled with illumination and darkness, “Terrapin Flyer” certainly pendulumed between its heavy and light sections and was played true to its original forms. The horns got their run of the place and took every advantage of the spotlight, laying out lines at dizzying lengths and blinding speeds.
Although the band left out the final vocals of “Terrapin Refrain”, no disappointment was seen around the hall as the band dropped into “Morning Dew”. With those old familiar chords, a bolt of expectorant energy charged the room, many already knowing that this steadfast piece defines crescendo and apex in the GD pantheon
Putting a final good time on the night, The Weir Family hung its hat on Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around”. This one certainly got the joint jumping and contained a great breakdown in the middle before ramping back up for the big finish. This version came in at over ten minutes and although it was the encore, it certainly was not played as the afterthought.
The sound and lights of The Mission Ballroom leave nothing to be desired and no matter where one is taking it all in, the experience is crystal clear. From the visible excitement of the audience and the tangible joyous display on the stage, one thing is for sure: Bobby and his canine kin will certainly return to deliver on the music that has made this world a better place and all of us better people. Happy 75th birthday, Bob!