Bob Weir Ropes Grateful Dead Classics, Dylan Covers & Cowboy Songs Into MusicNOW Festival Kick-Off Show

Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images
Bob Weir performs in New York City on Oct. 17, 2016.

Bob Weir gave the people what they wanted on Thursday night (Jan. 12) at the latest stop of his Campfire tour, taking the stage at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati to help kick off the 12th MusicNOW Festival with rapturously received set of Grateful Dead classics, Bob Dylan covers and a dose of cowboy songs from his recent solo album, Blue Mountain. The jam nation icon was on hand to kick off night one of the three-night event founded by The National guitarist Bryce Dessner as an annual showcase for today's most vital contemporary classical, folk and rock performers and arrangers.

And as you might expect, Weir packed the performing arts hall more used to touring shows like Mamma Mia! and Dancing with the Stars with a somewhat funkier crowd eager to see how their 69-year-old hero's signature rhythm guitar and dusty outlaw vocals would mesh with a band featuring three members of The National (drummer Bryan Devendorf, bassist Scott Devendorf and guitarist Aaron Dessner) as well as red-hot guitarist/producer Josh Kaufman and multi-instrumentalist Jon Shaw.

To no one's surprise, they twirled, sang along and danced in the aisles for more than two hours during the 21-song set that opened with Weir playing solo acoustic takes on Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece," Son House's "Walkin' Blues" and Little Feat's "Easy To Slip" in his inimitable laid-back style. His grey halo of hair, prodigious walrus mustache and mutton chops illuminated by a white spotlight, Weir stretched those folk/blues nuggets out in loping, take-your-time arrangements as wide open as the Ansel Adams-style Montana vistas projected on the screen behind him.

Then it was time to get down to some cowboy business, as the band joined him for a run of songs from Mountain that included "Only a River," the hop-along paced "Darkest Hour" and "Lay My Lily Down," which featured vocals from another MusicNOW performer, Irish singer/songwriter Lisa Hannigan. For a crowd that was clearly a mix of youthful and senior Deadheads eager to hear their beloved canon, the reception for the low-key songs from the singer/guitarist's first solo album in 38 years was more than polite.

The chugging "Gallop on the Run" got feet moving and "Ghost Towns" began cranking up the heat as Kaufman squeezed off a sharp solo that segued into the night's first Dead classic: "Dark Star." The first notes of the legendarily epic tune made the room erupt in joy as psychedelic washes of paint appeared on the large screen and Weir played a slide solo on his acoustic guitar that had at least a few fans putting a hand over their eyes to better soak in the ecstatic magic. 

That 10-minute excursion morphed into the skittering rockabilly shuffle of Buddy Holly's "Oh Boy" and ended with an extended, trippy guitar showdown between Weir and Kaufman during "Gonesville." Following a brief intermission, the band returned with one of Weir and the Dead's staples, a near-mournful cover of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee," followed by a chugging train through "Jack-A-Roe" and a meandering, droney take on another Weir classic, "Cassidy." 

With the crowd suitably warmed up, the first few notes of the Dead's "Eyes of the World" got the whole room vibrating and spinning to the song's chunka-chunka vibe as the three guitarists took turns with elegant, tastefully trippy solos during the 10-minute boogie. Weir slowed it down for a wistful cover of Dylan's already nostalgic "Most of the Time" and then blew minds by segueing back into the 10-minute conclusion of "Dark Star," followed by Holly's "Not Fade Away," which brought out a sea of air guitars and crowd vocals on the song's chorus as Weir stepped away from the mic and let his followers bring it home with joyful clapping and a group sing-along.

The night ended with Weir solo acoustic again, for the campfire homage to sometime-Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, "Ki-Yi-Bossie," during which Weir finally busted out some yodeling, as well as the Dead staple "Peggy-O" (traditionally sung by the late Jerry Garcia) and another bit of Dead red meat, "Ripple." 

Bob Weir set list: 

Set I

"When I Paint My Masterpiece"

"Walkin' Blues" 

"Easy to Slip"

"Only a River"

"Darkest Hour"

"Lay My Lily Down" 

"Gallop on the Run"

"Ghost Towns"

"Dark Star"

"Oh Boy"

"Gonesville"

Set II

"Me and Bobby McGee"

"Jack-A-Roe"

"Cassidy"

"Eyes of the World"

"Most of the Time"

"Dark Star"

"Not Fade Away"

Encore

"Ki-Yi-Bossie"

"Peggy-O"

"Ripple"


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