The legendary Grateful Dead duo began a six-show March tour with a spellbinding gig at Manhattan's Radio City Music Hall
Cold rain and snow howled through Midtown Manhattan Friday night, but inside a sold-out Radio City Music Hall, Bob Weir transported his audience far from the concrete jungle. “I was out in Wyoming one fine summer, putting up hay, writing songs, and drinking a bit,” the legendary Grateful Dead guitarist said, flanked by his enduring collaborator Phil Lesh. One day, Weir recalled, he needed artistic inspiration — so he struck out from the ranch where he was staying into the majestic Wind River Range. “I got maybe a mile and a half up the road and…” Weir trailed off for a moment. “It came to me: ‘I just don’t f—in’ know what I’m lookin’ for here! But I gotta do it!”
The anecdote encapsulated Weir and Lesh’s Radio City performance, the first of a six-show “Bobby & Phil Duo Tour” that’ll take the rock icons to New York, Boston, and Chicago this month. As the crowd’s laughter died down, Weir strummed the opening chords of “Lost Sailor” which, with its traditional partner “Saint of Circumstance,” provided a ragged, tempestuous close to the first of the concert’s two sets. Like young Weir traversing the Rockies or the titular sailor John Perry Barlow depicted in the 1980 tune, Weir and Lesh — whose creative partnership now spans more than a half-century — sometimes seemed uncertain of their next move. Were there bum notes? Sure. Missed lyrics? Naturally. But they compensated with intense camaraderie.
Weir and Lesh played raconteurs Friday night, recounting tales from the Dead’s early days. Their song selection, something of a wild card going into the night, focused on those initial years. Part of that was logistical: The duo either played alone or were accompanied only by percussionist Wally Ingram, precluding the complicated grooves of later-era jams such as “Estimated Prophet” or “Shakedown Street.” But without the musical pyrotechnics of their respective bands — Weir and his John Mayer-assisted Dead and Company; Lesh and his accomplished Terrapin Family Band — the duo returned to their roots, with frequently spellbinding results. A wistful, low-stakes undercurrent defined highlights from the mystic psych-folk of “Mountains of the Moon” to the hard-times ditty “Operator.” Upon the latter’s patchy conclusion, Weir even quipped, “It occurs to me that we never got around to rehearsing the end of that one!”
Throughout their careers, Weir and Lesh have built reputations with idiosyncratic instrumental methods, and the stripped-down format accentuated their styles. Rather than having a jam-band guitar dynamo such as Warren Haynes or Trey Anastasio handle the late Jerry Garcia’s parts, as they’ve previously done, Weir and Lesh reconfigured arrangements. With economical smatterings of acoustic chords, Weir infused solos on “Uncle John’s Band” and “Me and My Uncle” with an American primitive edge. And Lesh wielded his electric bass as a melodic force: His dexterous countermelody on “Friend of the Devil” matched David Grisman’s fleet mandolin playing on the tune’s 1970 studio version.
Not that the renditions were universally tight and polished. After beginning with a promising instrumental duel, “Mountains of the Moon” meandered into a directionless jam. “He’s Gone” similarly flagged, before Weir and Lesh revived the song with a hearty version of its “Nothing’s gonna bring him back…” coda.
But despite its occasional drawbacks, the loose atmosphere spawned one of the evening’s best jams. Lesh and Weir seemingly ignored cues from each other to move on to the next section of a first-set “Bird Song,” forcing themselves to explore every corner of the song’s elegiac chord progression. The reading was such a smash that the duo brought it back for a reprise midway through the second set.
The duo’s banter might’ve skewed the crowd’s positive reception, though. They prefaced “Bird Song” with a side-splitting story about late Dead instrumentalist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and his once-girlfriend Janis Joplin, who inspired Robert Hunter’s beloved lyrics. Remembering living with his bandmates in “basically an abandoned summer camp” in Marin County, Weir noted that he shared a thin wall with McKernan and Joplin. “All night long, ‘Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!'” he shouted. Interjected Lesh: “The enthusiasm was infectious.”
At Radio City, enthusiasm, albeit of a far different strain, was similarly infectious. While the show nominally ended with second-set closer “Not Fade Away” and encore “Box of Rain,” it climaxed with a Weir-led cover of Bob Dylan’s strident 1963 protest anthem “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Weir, who with his Dead and Company bandmates visited survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting earlier this week, belted one line with particular strength: “I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of small children.” Before “Box of Rain,” Lesh stated the duo’s politics even more forcefully, urging the audience to identify pro-gun legislators and “vote them motherf—ers out.”
Alongside the evening’s otherwise easygoing nature, the political exhortations conjured the familial, but fraught counterculture from which Weir, Lesh, and the Dead emerged in the ’60s. It’s a community Deadheads will still brave the elements to participate in — and which Weir and Lesh are, thankfully, still willing to facilitate. B+
Uncle John’s Band
Ramble On Rose
Friend of the Devil
Saint of Circumstance
Me and My Uncle
Mountains of the Moon
Bird Song (reprise)
Let It Grow
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Not Fade Away
Box of Rain