Bob Weir brought his new trio, the Wolf Brothers, featuring Jay Lane on drums and Don Was on bass, to the beautiful Landmark Theatre in Syracuse. After the sellout crowd settled in, the band emerged and took their time tuning and prepping for the night ahead. The show got off to a bit of a sluggish start with an uninspired and sloppy “Jack Straw” that included some unnecessarily long rhythmic interludes. Weir switched to the acoustic and kicked into “Gonesville” off 2016’s Blue Mountain. The trio seemed custom-built to handle this slice of Weir’s repertoire and played more inspired as they locked in nicely for the short country ballad.
The set could have stood to have some more from that album, but they switched immediately back into the tried and true Grateful Dead trademarks. Sticking with the acoustic, the run of “Me and My Uncle,” “Peggy-o” and “Deep Elem Blues” hewed folksy and sounded great, Weir added a fresh shine with some subtle shifts in the melodies. There was an air of intimacy as he stopped to provide snippets of the songs’ histories.
Moving back to electric, “Althea” transitioned nicely out of “Deep Elem Blues” and the set started to pick up some steam as “Loose Lucy” followed. Pushing past 70 minutes, the set felt like it might be winding down when a harp came rolling from backstage. Rochester’s own Mikaela Davis followed closely behind to join the trio for a version of “Bird Song” that provided a real kick in the pants to close out the first set. The added melodic flourishes from the harp gave Weir something to play off and showcase his true rhythmic guitar genius.
The second set continued to build on the energy from the first. “All Along the Watchtower” was played jagged and grungy with Weir taking on a languid psychedelic tone. The band showcased its agility and morphing ability in a shifty “The Music Never Stopped.”
After the bluesy “Standing on Shaky Ground,” the harp came rolling back out and the band started up “Wharf Rat.” Davis confidently took on a more prominent role and the band dug out a nice space for her and Weir to take the jam to strange and beautiful places. The ensuing “China Cat Sunflower” played right into Davis’ strengths. The longer she held court on stage, the audience became more rapt with the sounds she brought into the mix. By the time “I Know You Rider” wound around, Davis was controlling more of the reins, providing the tune with extra bounce, and the crowd responded with increasing excitement.
The harp remained on stage after set close and they returned for the encore as a quartet. Not only was Davis feeling more comfortable, she was now ready to lead the band and counted out the start as they kicked into Neil Young’s “Down By the River.” It was a Neil Young cover, sure, but it was Davis’ version, and the one she’s been playing on tour all year. She sang and played the lead with the seasoned veterans backing her all the way. Jay Lane powered the jam with incredible pounding flourishes to shoot it into the stratosphere, and the crowd roared in appreciation. “Ripple” was the perfect nightcap to emerge out of the fizzle, and a full crowd sing-along had everyone leaving fully satisfied with the songs that filled the air.
I: Jack Straw, Gonesville, Me and My Uncle, Peggy-O, Deep Elem Blues > Althea, Loose Lucy > Bird Song*
II: Easy to Slip, Two Djinn, All Along the Watchtower, Music Never Stopped > Shaky Ground, Wharf Rat* > China Cat Sunflower* > I Know You Rider*
E: Down By the River*, Ripple*
* – with Mikaela Davis on harp and vocals