Bob Weir: Ace (50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) Album Review

In the early 1970s, The Grateful Dead played the most exciting music of their long career, writing many of the songs that would sustain them for the next two decades, but they didn’t spend much time in the studio. A novice might take a look at their mid-70s discography American beauty and the 73s The wake of the flood and concludes that the famously stage-centric band had abandoned the studio album altogether: a pair of live records and a solo outing each from singer-guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. Although Garcia’s solo debut often sounded like the work of The Dead and contained several songs that the band would make their own in concert, in practice it was a hermetic affair, with Jerry playing almost all the instruments himself. Weir’s, on the other hand, features the full lineup, except for keyboard player Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, still an official member but in ill health at the time.

Just 19 years old at the time of the Dead’s founding in 1965, Weir was the band’s youngest member, spending his earliest years as a backing player, adding shards of harmonic accompaniment to Garcia’s flowing lead guitar lines. Over time, he grew into a kind of different frontman: amiable and workmanlike, the one on whom audiences could project themselves, his easy relatability a natural foil to Garcia’s gnomic mystique. Ace marks Weir’s transition from pure rhythm guitarist to full-fledged composer and driving force of the band. Despite its origins as a receptacle for excess Weir material, all but one of its songs became beloved staples of The Dead’s live sets.

Weir steadily wrote songs in the early ’70s: “I got a lot of material and I just can’t use it all for the Grateful Dead,” he told a Crawdaddy interview months after Ace‘s publication. But soon after he started working, the other members started showing up, asking if they could contribute: “Everybody hears that I got the appointment and I might be going to the studio. So one by one they start to come around, Lesh and Garcia, ‘Hey, man, I hear you booked an appointment at Wally Heider’s. Need a bass player? A guitar player?'”

It’s a Dead truth that the live tapes are more essential than the albums, an inversion of the hierarchy that governs other bands’ canons. Ace is no different. Most listeners of its 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition will surely be more familiar with various bootlegged versions of “Playing in the Band” or “Greatest Story Ever Told” than the recordings presented here. From the perspective of deep fandom, it’s almost impossible to imagine how the album on its own terms might come across to a listener approaching its songs for the first time. On the surface it fits in with other West Coast folk and country rock of its era. But Weir, the jort-wearing regular joe of the dead, is a much stranger composer than he first appears. Melodic lines, and sometimes entire song sections, jut out askew from their surroundings. Complex rhythms masquerade as simple and vice versa. It may take you several listens to discern which part of a given melody should be the chorus, if it has one at all.

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