Release Date: Sep 30, 2016
Record label: Columbia
Bob Weir never stopped making music but he did back away from his solo career after Heaven Help the Fool, a misbegotten 1978 effort that found the Grateful Dead guitarist attempting to dabble in the sun-splashed surfaces of SoCal soft rock. After that, he retreated to the boogying Bobby & the Midnites, a side project that was abandoned after the Dead scored a hit in 1987 with In the Dark, then after the death of Jerry Garcia, he wandered through several jam bands, settling on RatDog as a vehicle for whatever songs he had. All of this is to say that when 2016's Blue Mountain is called Weir's best album since his 1972 debut Ace -- and it is, without question -- there simply isn't much competition.
It’s been a slow transformation (and a decade of beard-growing) for former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, who hasn’t released a studio album since Ratdog’s Evening Moods in 2000. As co-creator of a jam-friendly musical language with the Dead, the 68-year-old Weir has never entirely been able to escape that musical flavor during his collaborations with numerous lyricists and producers, almost all geared towards live performances in front of dancing audiences. However, on what is unquestionably his best solo release since 1972’s Ace, Blue Mountain finds Weir in territory that is both new and intimately familiar.
Despite the fact that he was a consistent member of one of rock’s most popular and enduring bands in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and beyond, Bob Weir is enjoying an unusual and unique kind of revival and reevaluation in our current decade. In 2014, the excellent Netflix documentary The Other One did what few—if any—Grateful Dead-related retrospectives have done in the past: shifted the focus of the band’s history from late vocalist/lead guitarist Jerry Garcia to vocalist/rhythm guitarist Weir. The latter was not only the rugged-voiced rocker yin to Garcia’s bearded yang; he often stood in Jerry’s looming shadow, deprived of a lot of adulation his bandmate was given throughout his career and even decades after his passing.
The Grateful Dead guitarist's first solo album in a decade is a set of "cowboy songs" crafted with singer-songwriter Josh Ritter and indie-folk heavies like the National's Bryce and Aaron Dessner. Weir, who delivered most of the Dead's country covers, sings about "plain-spun and rough" lives, "cutpurse" evenings and unhappy trails, while a nimbus of electric guitars surrounds his acoustic bunkhouse strumming. The highlight is his self-penned and unaccompanied "Ki-Yi Bossie," in which "a 12-step meeting under harsh fluorescent light" occasions a wry round of soul-searching, no wide-open spaces required.
The Grateful Dead and its members have a crummy reputation regarding studio albums. I could debate that position, with “American Beauty,” “From the Mars Hotel” and “Blues for Allah” as a few of my talking points. But still, live Dead, and live Jerry Garcia, live Phil Lesh, and live Bob Weir, are what have driven the Dead’s five-decade careers.