In a voice wearied but surprisingly unbridled, Bob Weir led his ramblin' band and the sold-out crowd at Upper Darby's Tower Theater through campfire songs and cowboy stories that touched upon the vivid dreams and dusty realities of his past.
During one of his between-set breaks Wednesday - when Weir wasn't busy howling and crooning his way through a conjunto version of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee," a raw but silken "Mama Tried" from Merle Haggard, or Dead cuts "He's Gone" and the wiry, psychedelic "Althea" - he officiated backstage at the marriage of Geoff Gordon, the regional president of Live Nation, and his new bride, Sayeeda Kibria.
At 68, Weir in song and deed seemed more unstoppable than ever. No, the band wasn't the Grateful Dead or Dead & Company, or Weir projects like Bobby and the Midnites, Kingfish, RatDog, or Furthur. This was the ensemble built to record the earthy Blue Mountain, Weir's first real solo effort in 30 years.
Led by The National's Aaron Dessner (who has missed tour dates, including Wednesday's, due to a family emergency and been replaced by Weir stalwarts Steve Kimock and Jon Shaw on lap steel, mandolin, piano, and upright bass), the team behind Weir provided a slow-stewing tornado of subtle ambience and undulating rhythm. The band, bouncing between five and eight men, touched upon joyously eerie elements of country, bluegrass, ragtime, chunky funk and unfettered blues with quiet brio.
Weir was the calm but electric eye of that insistent storm.
At this point in his long career, Weir could've just played the Dead's old-man-of-the-mountain bit by rote for the patchouli-and-sensimilla-scented, tie-dye-hued masses. Deadheads can attest that solo Weir in the past has been as off and he's been on. Wednesday, though, Weir seemed buoyed by Blue Mountain's deeply personal inspiration - true-life tales Weir lived and learned as a 15-year-old ranch hand in Wyoming.
He opened the show solo with a warbling take on Son House's "Walkin' Blues" and a growly, Dylan-lite "When I Paint My Masterpiece," then blossomed when he hit upon his new album's quietly strummed title tune. Weir then confidently ushered forth his band for additional Blue Mountain music such as "Darkest Hour," "Cottonwood Lullaby," and "Ghost Towns," each soulful song rich with fluid bass lines and yawning lap steels.
"Cottonwood" in particular found Weir at his angelic dreamiest as a singer, and his voice was driven by character arcs in other Blue Mountain songs such as the cheery, chuffed tale of an alcoholic rancher in the sing-along "Ki-Yi Bossie."