Since their inception in 2018, Bob Weir has brought the Wolf Brothers to the Twin Cities on three occasions, making their return to St. Paul last night a welcome sight for fans who were once concerned that these performances might be rare – or that Weir may not return. Despite concerns about his age, Weir has expressed in past interviews that he is committed to touring in any capacity, and It’s clear his dedication to this music remains unwavering. He continues to tour with a passion and energy that other bands should take note of.
In earlier reviews of the Wolf Brothers Act, particularly their last performance in Minneapolis just days before the pandemic, I mentioned the desire for additional musicians to solidify Weir’s long standing role and unique approach to the dead catalog as a rhythm guitarist. Since then, the band appears to have taken note and made changes. The Wolf Brothers have now formed a self-proclaimed “wolfpack,” expanding to include a four piece horn section, a pedal steel player, a cellist and fiddle player, as well as Jeff Chimenti, longstanding keyboardist from dead-spin offs like Ratdog and Dead and Company. The band has gone from a trio to a much larger decet.
The Wolf Bros have benefited from the addition of more players, not only evidenced by the enthusiastic response from the audience in songs where the full band was onstage, but by the sheer amount of people in the Palace Theatre. It was as packed as Ive ever seen it be, a true definition of “Sold Out”. If the trio version of the group was an exercise in restraint when playing these songs, It’s clear the new members bring the songs back to being improvisationally focused. Although Weir’s guitar remained a prominent feature in the mix (and continued to have the clangy, trumpet-like quality I’ve described in past reviews), the new members helped to share the load of carrying the songs forward. When the trio last performed here in early 2020, during their rendition of “Sugaree”, I remarked on the lackluster performance of the two-chord song when played by just a rhythm guitarist, bassist, and drummer – dragging on for over eight minutes with very little change in voicings or notes, sans a brief run up the guitar neck from Weir. In contrast, a similar but more upbeat song like “Lovelight” really benefited from the additional horn players, bringing that song back to it’s roots in R&B.
By bringing in these new players, the band’s sound is elevated while still maintaining the sonic familiarity with their songs. It’s rare to hear a horn section play Grateful Dead songs outside the confines of a high school practice space filled with unsuspecting young jazz players led by an overly enthusiastic heady conductor in a bandana. However, a fresh sound to these songs is precisely what Weir is aiming for with this new lineup. The addition of these musicians creates an opportunity to explore new musical territory while staying true to the band’s roots.
The first set of songs was a special setlist for St. Paul. March 1st kicks off Women’s History Month, and the wolfpack paid homage to that by having their entire first set of songs women-focused in the songwriting. Although the songs were exclusively performed by male musicians, the first set included songs such as “Women Smarter”, “Odessa”, and “She Belongs To Me” (one of two Dylan songs that Weir performed, as he likes to do when he is in Bob’s home state). Additionally, “Big River” by Johnny Cash, which mentions St. Paul, is a popular staple in the Twin Cities setlist, and the crowd at St. Paul’s Palace Theater responded with even more enthusiasm than usual.
While the second set deviated from the female-centric theme of the first set, it still contained some exciting surprises. “Eternity” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” were both performed for the first time on the tour, and the inclusion of “Supplication” highlighted the newfound power of the band’s horn section. The concert ended with a rare two-song encore from Weir, featuring “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad” and the much-loved “Ripple”.
Despite the newer wolfpack performing these songs with their own style to them, Weir has also been collaborating with several city orchestras in recent months to create even more elaborate arrangements, Adding stringed sections and dozens of new, local players to songs that were originally played by just five or six musicians over fifty years ago. In doing so, Weir has fulfilled his long-standing desire to take his music to uncharted territory. This unconventional fusion of styles may seem odd to longstanding deadheads, but it demonstrates that while these songs are known to be jammy and heady, they also have the potential to be orchestral and grandios. If you go to one of these orchestra shows, Just don’t forget your tie-dye bow tie.
Unfortunately, the full string arrangement of the wolfpack did not happen during last night’s performance in St. Paul. However the absence of violins and cellos did not detract from the excitement of watching Weir perform in a smaller venue like the Palace Theatre, before he’ll be embarking on a tour with Dead and Company over the summer that will take him and the band to the largest stages in America for the final time….At least with that current iteration of the Grateful Dead.
I say that because fans of the band have fired up the rumor mill about why Dead and Co. is disbanding after this summer. Does John Mayer want to focus more on his solo career? Is drummer Bill Krutzman’s health declining? Does Weir want to break off the band in preparations for a 60th Anniversary tour of the Grateful Dead in 2025? All of which has the core question of – What happens now? Is the party over?
But when looking back at The Dead’s history, There has always been a Grateful Dead in some form or another since the band’s inception in 1965, including its long, strange trip of spinoff bands and their members since guitarist Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. Regardless of which band members are still around or which members want to continue playing this music – there will always be a version of these songs to be played.
This highlights the significance of a group like the Wolf Brothers, who continue to play this catalog of music, featuring members of the Dead’s lineup, even if their sound is unconventional compared to previous iterations of the band. For some fans, the added lineup of horn players or orchestras doesn’t matter, so long as they can hear Bob Weir perform Ripple in their town. For others, Just hearing a band play Ripple in their town is special in its own right. In any case, Let there be songs to fill the air.