Monday, July 16, 2018

Whatever happened to the Grateful Dead? 4: Bob Weir

The profile that follows was originally published in the weekly online magazine ‘Gonzo’, issue #289.  It was the fourth of a series of pieces I wrote for the magazine concerning former core members of the Grateful Dead, taking a look at their musical activities following the demise of the original band with Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995.

I felt that a lot of former ‘Deadheads’, especially here in the UK, had tended to lose interest in these guys’ activities, which seemed a shame as all four of them had, each in their own way, edged into new and worthwhile musical territories.  Obviously, those like me who did keep track could use the internet to keep abreast of their activities and access some of the music.  But for anyone who hadn’t bothered, I thought a few pointers towards selected highlights might be enough to rekindle interest.

My own interest is not so much on the live performance of the band’s old material, which – understandably in many ways – all four of them tend to fall back on.  Not that the reinterpretation of an old song hasn’t on many occasions wowed me, of course.  But it’s what they have done that is new and exploratory that excites me and on which I tend mainly to focus.

                                                                   Weir: Still Here
                                     A look at the work of Bob Weir, post Grateful Dead

An old friend, now deceased, used to fancy himself as a bit of a psychedelic guitarist.  He kind of noodled on the guitar in spare moments when he felt so inclined, and over the years we stopped expecting him to progress all that much.  But towards the end of his life, he moved to France and somewhere along the line got friendly with some accomplished musicians who lived in Paris.  Their tastes were more eclectic than our old friend’s, but they were fond of the Grateful Dead and content to play in that style.  They’d travel down to his place, happy to have some space to practice and jam, and they generously took time out to teach him a few licks so he could play along with them.  One bucolic weekend I and another member of our old network joined them for a weekend.  We could hear that he’d learned a lot, and played his guitar with greater confidence, but it was also clear that our new found Parisian friends were still some considerable way ahead of him.  In a break I was talking to one of them and asked him how he felt about our old friend’s contribution to the music.  He smiled indulgently and said: “Ah, he is our ‘Bob Weir’.”

It would be utterly inappropriate to compare the actual musicianship of Bob Weir to that of our friend.  Bob’s been a serious, practising musician since the early 60s, and has well and truly proved his worth.  But in the early days of the Grateful Dead, his musical calibre was sometimes in question – to the point where, for a brief period, he was ‘fired’ from the band.  This wasn’t a brilliant decision on the part of the others, they ‘fired’ Pigpen too.  What were they thinking?  And since then I think it has been recognised that Bob plays in a unique and entirely individual style.  What was shaky, perhaps, at the start became his strength.  I’d like to think that this was what the French musician was referring to – the way that, not being schooled in the conventional manner of acquiring a skill, a determined learner can find his or her own way to something special, something from within.  Or maybe he just figured that that was the politest way to answer my question.

So, Bob…  Once, though not with much competition, the prettiest boy in the Grateful Dead, for the last decade or so his face has been shrouded in a fierce shock of white and grey whiskers as he’s worked his way through his share of post-GD ventures.  These have included The Other Ones, The Dead, Furthur and Dead and Company – all of which I’ve covered in profiles of other ex-members of the band.  If you’ve read those, you might remember that, while I’m ever respectful of skills displayed, the majority of them have failed to impress me very deeply.  What interests me has tended to be the ex-members’ new and exploratory activities, and that’s what I’d like to winkle out here.

Bob Weir had a pretty good track record on this front, even before the post-’95 period I’ve been looking at in these pieces.  Whilst his first solo album, 1972’s ‘Ace’ was virtually a GD album with Bob as leader, he delved into a lighter, more pop oriented style with Matthew Kelly and Dave Torbert in Kingfish in the mid 70s, and explored both jazz and reggae stylings with his ‘80s  band Bobby and the Midnites.  Some of this approach found its way into the later Grateful Dead repertoire in songs such as ‘Lost Sailor’, ‘Saint of Circumstance’, ‘Estimated Prophet’ and ‘Hell in a Bucket’.  His next venture as leader, the band Ratdog, continued to explore these zones.  It grew out of live duet performances with distinguished bassist Rob Wasserman in the late 80s and early 90s.  With varying line ups, Ratdog toured fairly regularly (depending on Weir’s other commitments) until early 2014.  Some of its key members were guitarist Mark Karan, Jeff Chimenti on keyboards and drummer Jay Lane.  It’s repertoire included a good many Grateful Dead songs, both Weir’s own and some of the material formerly sung by Jerry Garcia.  It also included material from his solo and former band albums, covers ranging from Bob Dylan to Pink Floyd songs, and as it developed a fair quantity of original material.

Much of this found its way onto the band’s only studio album, ‘Evening Moods’.  Released in 2000, it featured the then current line up plus a number of other musicians who’d passed through the ranks, including saxophonists Kenny Brooks and Dave Ellis and harmonica player Matthew Kelly (a former Kingfish colleague).  As an album it gets off to a cracking start with the song ‘Bury Me Standing’, which I consider to be as powerful and memorable as any piece of work on which Weir has writing credits.  Set to a tight funk rhythm it builds in intensity with some superb, almost Middle Eastern sounding riffs and fine guitar by Mark Karan, joined by Bob (I assume) on slide towards the end.  Words and music suit his vocal delivery perfectly.  The lyrics, by Weir and one of his then-current writing partners, Gerrit Graham, concern the regrets of a character who perceives his life to have been driven by forces beyond his control, hence: ‘Bury me standing, I been too long on my knees.’  Not sure if it was ever performed live – shame if it wasn’t.

Of course, the problem of getting an album off to such a strong start is maintaining the standard, and there ‘Evening Moods’ runs into problems.  Next track, Weir and Barlow’s ‘Lucky Enough’ passes muster – a quiet, reflective song about states of depression with a nicely worded chorus that concludes: ‘But you may find grace / If you’re lucky enough.’  We then pass via ‘Odessa’ – one of Weir’s never quite convincing rockers – into the jazzy zone, where the songs meander tastefully, introspectively and without much to latch onto in the way of tune.  There’s a bit of a rally towards the end with late Grateful Dead song ‘Corrina’, the well-brassy ‘October Queen’ and thoughtful closer ‘Even So’.

A 2CD live album followed, dominated by the band’s versions of GD songs, plus a few selections from the studio set.  Live soundboard CDs were a available for a while, but I’ve no idea where these could be tracked down now.  File sharing sites?  I scooped up a fair 2004 set (with a lovely segue covering ‘Matilda Mother’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’) and a couple from 2007 when Steve Kimock depped for an ailing Mark Karan.  I’m fond of both guitarists, but Kimock, in my opinion, brought a little more finesse to the jams and the band tended to stretch out more interestingly around him.

Ratdog last toured in 2014 and have only reconvened on a one-off basis on a couple of occasions since then.  The last of these was a memorial event in August 2016, following the untimely death of Rob Wasserman.  There remains talk of further outings, so perhaps we’ve not heard the last of them.

Like all his former GD colleagues, Weir has performed as a guest or in short-lived collaborations with a variety of other musicians over the first two decades of this century.  Many of these collaborations have taken place at the ‘virtual venue’ of Weir’s Tamalpais Research Institute (TRI) studio, launched in 2011.  To quote some blurb: ‘TRI is a state-of-the-art multimedia performance studio, designed for broadcasting live high definition (HD) video and audio streams directly over the internet.’  It streams shows and posts videos and audio streams on YouTube, Soundcloud etc.  Here’s just a few of the artists who’ve done TRI: Jackie Greene, Warren Haynes, Ratdog,  Dhani Harrison, WAR, Blackberry Smoke, Lukas Nelson & The Promise of the Real, Father John Misty, Widespread Panic, Primus, Furthur, Slightly Stoopid, The Be Good Tanyas, Jonathan Wilson, Neal Casal, members of The National, and former Black Crowe Chris Robinson.  There are videos of Bob, alone and jamming with a good many of the above.  Like Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads it has clearly become something of a creative hub.  There’s even been a very musical chat show, running under the name ‘Weir Here’.  All in all, a person could lose several days of his/her life just catching up on seven years of TRI material.

Out of the hub have sprung new creative partnerships, such as that between Steve Kimock and Leslie Mendelson that I covered in Gonzo 261.  Weir certainly seems to have brought out the inner Deadheads in young American band The National.  These guys went on to co-ordinate the three CD set ‘Day of the Dead’, on which an astonishing variety of bands and individual musicians – from Kurt Vile to Orchestra Baobab – cover songs from (or create music in the style of) the Grateful Dead catalogue.  Bob himself turns up on the final track, a live version of ‘I Know You Rider’ with the National.

The same link up was a contributory factor in Weir’s most recent solo venture – a sortie into what are described as ‘cowboy songs’ on the 2016 album ‘Blue Mountain’.  Bob, as any fan will know, has been a purveyor of cowboy songs from the early days of the Dead.  His version of John Phillips’ ‘Me and My Uncle’ is close to definitive, and his Marty Robbins covers – ‘El Paso’ and ‘Big Iron’ - have been long enduring.  Inspired, so the publicity material runs, by his time working as a ranch hand in Wyoming when he was fifteen years old, ‘Blue Mountain’ blends the cowboy vibe with the perspective of an ageing man looking back on life.  The majority of the songs were co-written with singer-songwriter Josh Ritter – though we are not told whether he too put in time as a ranch hand in his youth.

At its best and most resonant, on songs such as ‘Gonesville’ and ‘Lay My Lilly Down’ Weir and his supporting musicians (including members of the National and various Ratdog-ers) nail this wistful and timeless atmosphere beautifully.  They have that sense of songs that have always existed, just waiting to be plucked out of the ether by the writers.  The same goes for Bob’s almost entirely solo rendition of ‘Ki Yi Bossie’, one of those ‘Wharf Rat’ style songs that take a sympathetic and well-informed look at folk who are down on their uppers.  The eerily arranged ‘Ghost Towns’ too works particularly well, but some of the rest of the material doesn’t hit the spot for me.  Maybe there’s a limit to how many cowboy songs I can take at one sitting.  Americana has its charm, but does tend to run to excess a lot these days.  ‘Blue Mountain’ is a respectable contribution to the pantheon, just not a stand-out.  Weir has played some of the material live with some of the other contributors, but don’t go expecting to hear these songs at Dead and Company shows.

So, along with Hart, Lesh and Kreutzmann, Weir’s still here.  It may seem that I have a tendency to damn him with faint praise somewhat, and it’s true that my affection for him has its limits.  But there’s no shortage of respect on my part for his restless vitality, his politics (see online for more on that) and his service to the music that I love.  Weir’s musical history is dotted with gems and I’d like to leave you with one that’s accessible on the web, if you’d care to check it out.  It’s Bob performing solo with acoustic guitar.  The song is ‘Big Bad Blues’ – with a brilliant late Robert Hunter lyric and which was performed too few times in the Furthur era.  I can’t retrace the original video I came across of Bob singing it, but here’s a link to another TRI video that gives some idea of how powerful a performer Weir can be with a first rate song to sing.

No comments:

Post a Comment