Music » Music Lead

From Dead to Dog

Bob Weir receives a crash course in freak-folk.


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Bob Weir: A bodhisattva for freak-folk, and he doesn't even  know it.
  • Bob Weir: A bodhisattva for freak-folk, and he doesn't even know it.
Next time you're out drinking, tell your friends that the Grateful Dead rocks. Most of them will shape-shift into rabid Dobermans and tear into your musical taste, frothing rebukes that include the words dirty, fuckin', and hippie.

It's a common ailment among music fans, this anti-jam-band rage: the zealous belief that any stoner who trucks through life in a dancing-bears tee is one of mankind's most reprehensible by-products, right up there with Joseph Goebbels and the six-dollar beer.

"I'm well aware of that phenomenon, but I could never really figure out why that was," says former Dead guitarist Bob Weir, who now tours constantly with his band RatDog. "Maybe hippies offend their sense of order."

Phoning from his home in Marin -- a county north of San Francisco that's heavy on redwoods, chakra work, and big money -- Weir also professes ignorance about a new wave of Dead-inspired hippiedom. Over the last several years, a collection of indie rockers, who used to be nothing but punks with degrees, have sprouted Manson beards and embraced the Dead's earthy, psychedelic vision.

Most music dorks tag this trend "freak-folk." They probably would've called it "neo-hippie," but that label was already snagged by fans of Phish and Blues Traveler (whom the freak-folkies don't dig, by the way).

Some of these freakers, such as the image-conscious Devendra Banhart, merely dress like the early Dead: love beads and fringed buckskin. Others -- Oakley Hall, the Skygreen Leopards, and Cleveland's Dreadful Yawns among them -- are more serious, studying the band's synthesis of acid rock, free jazz, and country-folk.

Then there's Animal Collective: This quartet sounds nothing like Garcia and the boys, but it has consciously mutated the Dead's jam-band ethos into a strange new hallucination, one that melts together noise pop and minimal techno like a Dalí painting.

The freak-folk movement and its admiration for the Dead has nabbed the attention of music's chroniclers: Two magazines, Arthur and The Fader, recently published articles binding the genre's present with its past. Both pieces serve as perfect gatekeepers, introducing outsiders to the band's colossal discography. But they also spout naive testimonials from hip freakers, who gush as if they've just smoked weed and spun Workingman's Dead for the first time.

"He was a real dude, and he was a dark guy," writes Ladyhawk singer and guitarist Duffy Driediger, trying to convince incredulous Fader subscribers that, yes, Jerry Garcia really was cool, man. "I think people should have more respect for him."

The Dead's rural pop and love for experimentation haunt several freak-folk bands, but few of them possess their chops. "[The Dead] were much better musicians," admits Glenn Donaldson of the Skygreen Leopards, whose Disciples of California disc sways like an American Beauty in full bloom.

Like most indie kids, freakers grew up through the punk movement and were conditioned to believe amateurism was cool. It's a logic that proved revolutionary in the late '70s, when the Ramones challenged the mainstream dominance of sterile professionals like Boston and Journey. But in recent years, it's turned into just another dogma.

And that, says Weir, is the problem intrinsic to all movements, flower power included. "Renaissance eras can only last so long," he explains. "It'd be nice if musicians could move beyond movements and just be eclectic."

Although Weir and RatDog approach jamming like skilled jazzbos, not primitive rockers, he's an authentic hippie with a wide-open mind. The dude wants to hear some of this freak-folk stuff.

Schooling a former Dead guitarist on modern psychedelia sounds like the groundwork for a new pan-granola nation. But how much of this stuff would he actually dig? Few musicians inspired by the Dead's extended family can strike the teetering balance that Weir has with both the Dead and the Dog: a wonderfully acidic mix of avant-garde weirdness, jazz-influenced virtuosity, and rock and roll craftsmanship.

Spout all the anti-hippie trash you want, but name another band that has journeyed from bluegrass pop to free-form feedback within the span of a single concert. Over the years, Weir and the Dead have personified eclecticism, avoiding alliances with fleeting trends while slyly cribbing new sounds. That's why the freak-folkies now reach out to them: They see a band who coolly whipped the Joneses and their dogma.

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