Bob Weir and Wolf Bros in Seattle
Bob Weir and Wolf Bros visited Seattle’s Paramount Theater for a subdued Sunday set with a few surprises – notably, a bagpiper.
Wolf Bros, which debuted in 2018 as a stripped three-piece with Don Was on upright bass and Jay Lane on drums, has evolved into a big band vehicle for Weir’s offbeat country, blues, and soul sensibilities. For pandemic livestreams, Weir added longtime accomplice Jeff Chimenti on keys, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, and the Wolfpack – a string section (cellist Alex Kelly and violinist Mads Tolling) and a horn section (Brian Switzer on trumpet, Adam Theis on trombone, and Sheldon Brown on sax and winds.)
While they often spotlight local guests (Matt Kelly and Ramblin’ Jack Eliot in San Francisco, John Mayer in L.A.), Wolf Bros is built around Weir’s textural approach to guitar, placing chords and licks to construct a song’s atmosphere through lighthanded gesture. The core band’s sound is spare and wide-open, with the Wolfpack providing melodic punctuation and soul fanfare. The music is sculptural, a shaping of negative space.
Tonight, Barry Sless was on pedal steel. And, following news that Dead and Company would disband next Summer; the pandemic album Live in Colorado Vol. 2 charting at number 1 in Americana and Folk; and a four-night run backed by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C., the Wolf Bros were an outfit flush with momentum.
The set mixed Dead and Weir solo tunes with covers from country to blues. Weir opened “Samson and Delilah” singing over Lane’s drums alone, casting the traditional as a low-key gospel blues, in line with its origins. Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” was spare, too, with plenty of room for Sless’s steel, and for Weir, Chimenti, and Lane to harmonize.
The band kept that space open across a tightly-constructed first set. On Jerry Garcia’s “Loser”, Weir’s riffs evoked 80s metal, his wispy white hair blowing in the wind of his motion. Seattle bagpiper Jori Chisholm joined for John Prine’s “Great Rain”, adding psych rock drone to the dark and low-slung blues, opening the portal to the underworld.
The Wolfpack came out for Weir’s “She Says”, twisting horn accents into a light funk, with 50s vibe, soul groove, and Sless playing slide guitar leads on steel. Chimenti twinkled on the baby grand during Hank Williams’ “You Win Again”. Even “Casey Jones” came out an electric blues honky-tonk as the band breathed new flavors into Dead standards. On a dark and dissonant “Playing in the Band”, Kelly took a lead on cello, with the horns complexifying the melodic fills and Chris Coyle’s lights, which cast rich, dark beams of color all night, spinning triangles of shafted white. Weir’s off-beat, rhythm-inflected guitar phrasing shone during a “Wharf Rat” with Chisholm on bagpipe and Tolling’s fiddle moaning the melody under lights like big white dahlias.
The night was low-key, but that’s half the point. Wolf Bros emanate Weir’s taste and style, his vision for how to keep this music evolving. To keep it and surprising and strange.