Bob Weir came of age on stage with the Grateful Dead. He poured the sting of friends lost into his microphone and guitar strings and learned to take life one day at a time, show by show.
The road seemed neverending for Weir and the Dead; it stretched out before them for 30 years. Each show was a journey in itself - fans and musicians reaching psychedelically toward the next ethereal plane. Hallucinogenic experiments and improvisational jams, nearly constant tours and transient followers carried the band into the American mythos.
Six years after the demise of the Dead, Weir is still living the Long Strange Trip and says he could not imagine life otherwise.
"It's all I've ever known," Weir said recently from his home in Marin County, Calif. He was just 16 when he joined the band that became the Grateful Dead in 1965. "There is nothing I'd rather do - it's all I've ever wanted to do for as long as I can remember."
The So Many Roads tour will bring Weir, now 53, and his band, RatDog, to the Pier Six Concert Pavilion tomorrow. (The tour also features Rusted Root, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, Keller Williams and DJ Logic.)
Formed by Weir as a "vacation" from the Dead in 1995 with bassist Rob Wasserman, RatDog became his primary gig after Dead lead guitarist Jerry Garcia suffered a fatal heart attack.
Last year, after the band's lineup solidified, RatDog released its debut album, Evening Moods, Weir's first non-Grateful Dead studio endeavor in about 20 years. "There is an endless quest for expanding musical horizons," Weir said. "And RatDog is doing that for me."
To Deadheads everywhere, Aug. 9, 1995, could be described as The Day the Music Died. Garcia - the silver-haired guru of the culture - met his end in a California drug treatment center at age 53. Weir was in New Hampshire with RatDog when his tour manager told him the news. The man that he says he loved "as much as I can love another human" had taken his final bow.
But Weir did not drape himself in black, sink into a bottle, sulk in a hotel bathroom. He did what he had always done: He got on stage, and he played.
"It never occurred to me not to go on," Weir said. Then, with a laugh, he added: "If I had not gone on, Jerry would have been so [ticked off]. The show must go on."
The show had gone on before, after the death of three keyboardists: First, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, the original keyboardist and forceful front man, died in 1973 of liver disease. Then, seven years later, Keith Godchaux died in a car accident less than a year after leaving the band. And, in 1990, Brent Mydland overdosed.
"When one of us checked out, the rest of us felt the obligation to carry the torch," Weir explained.
But after Garcia's exit, the Dead's dead began to outnumber its living, and they called it quits.
A year later, the road began to call the surviving members back again. Weir got together with a fellow Dead member, percussionist Mickey Hart, to start the Furthur Festival. They joined up with Dead bassist Phil Lesh and Bruce Hornsby, who played keyboards with the Dead for two years in the early 1990s, and toured under the name the Other Ones.
But the journey did not remain harmonious. Lesh, the bassist who had a liver transplant in 1998, had a very public falling out with the rest of the group and struck out on his own, leaving the Other Ones to tour without him last year. It was a painful split for the Dead family, with public jabs and fans divided among the separate camps.
"We just came to loggerheads on how to proceed on a number of business issues," Weir said. "Phil didn't like the way we were doing things and picked up and left."
Recently, though, Weir and Lesh reunited on stage. RatDog did seven shows this summer with Phil Lesh and Friends. Weir and Lesh - who had not spoken in more than a year - even got on stage for several numbers and embraced before a crowd of happy fans.
"It was a lot of fun," Weir said, adding that the two did not discuss business differences because the reunion was about making music. "We have both grown over the last few years as a result of going off in our own directions. We had new ideas and new themes to introduce to an old conversation that has been going on for 35 years."
He admits that he still thinks about the old days. "The Grateful Dead if it was still around would be pretty amazing right now - we would be at another level, I suspect," he said.
But life after the Dead has real rewards. In the years since the Dead disbanded, Weir has married for the first time. He and his wife have a 3-year-old daughter and are expecting another child this fall.
Weir also is finishing up a musical he's been writing with jazz saxophonist David Murray and guitarist Taj Mahal about Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige. And, inspired by Paul Newman, Weir has put out his own brand of hot sauces. The proceeds benefit the Furthur Foundation, which gives money to progressive groups working on environmental and social issues.
And then, of course, there are the pleasures of playing with RatDog. Weir said he has been learning from the rest of the band - most members did not even listen to the Dead before - and developing a better method of writing music.
Stylistically, he said, the basic thrust of RatDog's music is about the same as the Dead's. "We play highly improvisational music and, you know, we like to take a song and take it for a little walk in the woods," he said.
Unlike the Dead, most members of RatDog came up in the jazz tradition, whereas Weir and Garcia had their roots in country and blues. (In addition to Weir and Wasserman, RatDog includes keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, lead guitarist Mark Karan, drummer Jay Lane and saxophonist Kenny Brooks.)
"I have been learning from them the jazz tradition," Weir said, "and they have been learning from me the blues and they are starting to break into the country stuff that I have been doing all along."
Weir, who once wrote in solitude, has been developing a more collaborative writing process, which he started toward the end of his time with the Dead.
"We record all of our shows, and what I like to do is go back and listen to some of the jams that we do," he said. "If something was particularly well-defined and had a real strong flavor, I like to take that and work it into a song. That is more satisfying to me than sequestering myself and hammering out tunes. And it's got to be more satisfying for the guys in the band, because they are emotionally and artistically invested in the song."
And one collaborator in particular has been there when Weir is trying to decide how to turn a phrase, how to develop a melody or harmonic progression.
"As far as I am concerned, Jerry is not all that gone," Weir said. "I can still hear him."
What: So Many Roads tour with RatDog and Rusted Root
Where: Pier Six Concert Pavilion, 731 Eastern Ave.
When: 6 p.m. tomorrow
Tickets: $28.50 to $38