Bob Weir’s Set List Alchemy

January 1, 2009
“We predicate our set list on not repeating songs that we’ve played recently, or songs that we played the past couple of times we were in a given town,” says Weir. “I keep all of our set lists in a database on my laptop, and I look over the relevant ones before each show. You need to know a lot of songs to operate the way we do. I choose songs from one of three lists. One is an alphabetized list of all our tunes. One is a list of all our tunes in order of beats per minute [bpm]. And one is broken down according to what songs seem to work for the beginning, middle, and end of the show, plus encores. That way the show will have an overarching contour.
“I like to make little suites of songs that have the same bpm, but different rhythms. We generally start with something fairly uptempo, say 110 bpm. I’ll do two tunes at that tempo to begin a set, and then drop back to 55 bpm for a ballad that keeps the same pulse going because it’s exactly half. I’ll close out the suite with another more uptempo tune. We’ll segue throughout the first three or four songs before pausing to take a break. Then, we’ll work another tempo. Sometimes we’ll play a whole set at one bpm, but that’s tricky. The longer you push it, the more imperative it becomes to mix in different rhythms and key signatures.
“Sometimes we plaster songs together, and sometimes we morph from one to another. Occasionally, we’ll go through some chord changes if the key shift is drastic, either by throwing out leading tones so that everybody can hear where they should go, or by me using sign language. For the sign language to work, you have to consider the shape of the letters from the other player’s perspective. I use a clenched fist for D. Thumb up or down is sharp or flat. Major is three fingers pointed down. For minor, I make a slashing motion. For example, I’ll make the C sign, thumb up, and slash if we’re going to C# min. You can’t do the add9 or anything like that, but you can indicate the basic chord and then play any additions for all to hear. It’s a good system, especially for bands that jam.”
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