I was fortunate enough recently to be offered a free ticket to see Bob Weir at the Bijou Theater. While I’d never seen him solo, I saw him with the Grateful Dead in the late 80s and with The Other Ones in the 90s after Jerry died. I was never the biggest Grateful Dead fan in the house, but I came to really love their music and the spirit of Jerry. Bob was always a bit overshadowed in my view, but I’m not sure devoted Deadheads would agree. Still, I was very excited to get to hear him and just catch a bit of the Dead vibe.
The vibe was sort of happening outside the show. Where an entire city used to spring up outside Dead shows, there was a little smattering of tie-dyed business going on in the parking lot across from the theater. It was a modest gathering of aging fans. The show itself was sold out and had been reschedule from last fall. I saw no tickets for sale and several people who wanted them. No one said, “I need a miracle,” as far I heard.
Inside, the crowd was well-behaved and pretty tame. Most of the people gathered carried a bit of age and a number of us could afford to lose a few pounds. The image I carry of skinny, young Dead fans didn’t seem to apply. I’ve always thought Grateful Dead fans were people with generous hearts and I didn’t see anything on this night to make me change my mind.
Not being a fan of the first order, I didn’t know what to expect musically. I know Jerry’s guitar work and I’ve seen Phil Lesh and Friends, but my image of Bob was more a visual one. He always seemed to be a little preppy, a little cleaner-cut alternative to Jerry’s scruffiness. Well, not so much on this night.
He’s aged, of course, and it’s hard to look into the face and catch a glimpse of that young man on the early Dead album covers. He’s also gotten quite ragged, as you can see from the pictures. The hair is unkempt and the beard is kind of crazy-wild. Somehow Jerry managed to look like a cuddly granddaddy as he aged, but Bob looks just a little out of control.
Musically, it’s hard for me to say much about song selection. I’d heard some of the songs before for certain from the Grateful Dead, but many others I didn’t recognize or I was uncertain. He played “Ripple” which was at once moving and I was glad to hear it and also sad because it was Jerry’s song.
I’d have to say most of the songs sounded very similar to each other, thanks in no small part to the limited guitar playing. I’m not sure if this reflects a deterioration or if it’s always been limited, but Bob certainly could have benefited from an ace instrumentalist/side-kick. I remembered when Bob Dylan was struggling on stage so much in 1988 and G.E. Smith took some of the pressure off by joining him for the acoustic sets.
More disconcerting than the limited guitar skills was the fact that he often messed up what he was trying to do on guitar and forgot lyrics through the whole evening. While I’ve seen other aging artists do the same thing (BB King and Chuck Berry come to mind), the others didn’t let it fluster them. They made jokes about it and joined in when they remembered. Not so with Bob. He became visibly frustrated numerous times through the night. He seemed more together during the second set, but it had rough moments, as well.
I thought the show probably ended earlier than it might when he left after a one-song encore and knocked his water bottle off the stage. He seemed angry and the sound system immediately cued recorded music effectively letting the crowd know it was over. There was an electric guitar left onstage, untouched the whole night as he strode off the stage.
In the end, I was glad I saw him. There is something comforting about seeing the musicians I’ve enjoyed for decades and I appreciate that. At the same time, I left worried for Bob. Something was certainly not right for him on this night. I hope it was an anomaly and things are better on down the road.