Saturday night, the unlikely partners will meet up for an epic, historic, to be witnessed by a crowd of about 50 people at Weir's TRI Studios and a huge remote audience across the web. The concert dubbed (you guessed it) "The Bridge Session" will be broadcast live on Yahoo! Music starting at 9 p.m. ET/6 PT.
Prepare to settle in for a while. "We're doing a pretty lengthy show," Weir tells Yahoo! Even if there were no specific plan for intermission, he says, "there would need to be a set break."
Those words are music to the ears of Dead followers. As Andy Bernstein, the producer of the event, promises, "These guys in the National and their team have been rehearsing for two weeks. This is not a pick-up-the-guitar-and-play kind of show. They've really, really put their time into this. So there's a lot of music to be had. A typical Grateful Dead-style show is three hours of music, and I don't know if we would go to three hours on this," because, with the National's members being a bit less improvisationally minded, "you won't have the crazy long jams that take up three hours. But these musicians don't skimp -- let's put it that way."
And, Bernstein adds, "A set break can be dead air, or a set break can be really inspiring."
They're going to go with "inspiring." A roundtable discussion on sociopolitical issues is scheduled between sets. Weir will field some questions via Twitter (tweet your questions using #BridgeSession), and participants in the half-time discussion will range from — on the left — John Perry Barlow, well known as one of the Dead's key lyricists and a progressive activist, to — on the right — Buddy Roemer, the ex-Louisiana governor and 2012 Republican presidential candidate, and Mark McKinnon, a famous former Bush/McCain consultant.
That might be a bridge too far for some fans who just want to kick out the jams and will use the half-time chat as a bathroom break. But Weir and the National are both doing this gig in support of Headcount.org, a non-profit dedicated to registering music fans to vote and sparking their interest in the topical concerns that come up around election time. (Weir is even a Headcount board member.)
And even if you skip the roundtable, you may still find some political undertones in the choice of cover songs that the two acts have planned in addition to selections from their respective catalogs. A lid is being kept on just what will be played, but Weir does reveal that "I learned a couple of new Dylan songs, for instance, that they suggested."
Weir and the National were preparing for the show on their respective coasts, and when we spoke with Weir, he was just about to finally meet up with his collaborators on his home turf 15 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge. "We get two and a half full days of rehearsal before the light gets red on the camera. So I think it'll be pretty together. It'll be loose, too, as well, because we're doing a pretty lengthy show. It's not going to be very, very carefully prepackaged, by any means."
There will need to be a certain tightness, regardless, because there will be as many as 10 musicians on stage: Weir, three members of the National, and six backup players the National guys selected from the Brooklyn scene.
"We got a lot of players," Weir says. "When I saw the stage plot, which just arrived last night, one of my partners here said, 'That's a 5-4 defense!'" He chuckles. "Playing safety is the whole deal."
As you might guess, it's not just any studio that could comfortably handle a football team-sized lineup of musicians plus an array of cameras and sound guys plus 50 lucky seated guests. As Weir says, "I built that place so that this kind of thing can happen."
He's had TRI Studios up and running for about a year now, though the facility hasn't yet hosted quite as high-profile an event as this one. Weir's investment in the place started when he appeared at an engineers' conference in New York in return for a steep discount on a top-of-the-line recording console. But, as he looked at the expense involved in putting that board into his relatively primitive old studio, his accountant asked him, "Aren't we making a silk purse out of a sow's ear?" At the same time, the real estate market fell apart and he was able to get a great deal on a building that already had the millions of dollars of sound insulation, floating floors and other accoutrements he needed that anyone buying it for office space would have had to spend a small fortune to rip out. Voila: he had a state-of-the-art new space that only had one problem, if you can call it that… too much space.
"Over the year and some that we were building it," Weir recalls, "new ideas kept coming in. I at first had in mind that it was just going to be a rehearsal and recording facility for me and my band. But it occurred to us as we were building it that the Internet is starting to be able to provide high quality audio and video -- and if it isn't able to do it quite as well as we would like right now, it will be soon enough, or hopefully soon enough. So we started building it with broadcast in mind."
He insists the popular stereotypes about audio-video quality on the web are wrong-headed — or at least are when it comes to what his studio can provide. If your idea of what streaming quality is has been influenced by YouTube, you especially need to tune in Saturday night, he says. "It will be noticeably better than what you're used to getting over the web. What we can provide is better than what you can get on a DVD. Our audio stream is better than TV quality. It's 48K, and that's as much as the web can provide right now. When we can find a way to put out 192, we'll put out 192. Right now the best (video) we can offer is 16-bit resolution. But that's all going to change. If you look at what the gaming industry is able to do, we've just got to catch up with them, and things will be a whole lot better. And we're just going to have to flog whoever we can find to flog to make that happen."
You associate the Dead more with live performance than the cult of gearheads, but Weir definitely qualifies. And he's as opinionated as Neil Young when it comes to arguing for higher standards of digital technology in the service of getting back to something that sounds like analog. "We need to chat, Neil and I!" says Weir.
You'll find a lot of musicians of Weir's age and era complaining that rock & roll isn't as compelling as it used to be because the artistic or political motivations aren't there. While he doesn't completely discount those factors, he's convinced the reason music doesn't play as crucial a role in people's lives anymore are because CDs and the Internet have made it sound like crap.
"Back in my day, music was pleasing to listen to. Aside from maybe what was being performed—if it was a bad performance, or if it was an ugly or a sad song—technologically, the analog audio was pleasing to listen to. And so more people listened more of the time, and music assumed a bigger role in our culture. Music got the best and the brightest right out of school. That's not to denigrate today's crop of artists, because these kids have stuck with music regardless of the sad state of the technology, so you have to credit them that. But if we can get audio standards anywhere near where they used to be, then music will automatically assume the larger role in the culture. That soup's gonna get pretty spicy, and there will be a lot happening there. I look forward to that day, and I hope it comes soon. It really happened fast back in the '60s, so it can happen again fast."
"Way back when I started playing guitar, I bought a $20 Japanese-made instrument, and it was basically unplayable, but I learned to play it anyway because I had to. Then within about a year, I got a better one, and everything was better—my whole life was better. The Internet technology is an instrument. And the better the instrument, the better the experience. So I want to be able to provide people with listenable music, to my standards. And I want to be able to listen to music that's up to my standards as well, from other people's performances. The only way that that's gonna happen is if people apply effort, because the current standards are not gonna budge until somebody makes them budge. Like I say, the gaming industry has gone leaps and bounds beyond where the audio industry is right now, because people made that happen. We can do that, too."
- Bob Weir