Here the former Grateful Dead co-frontman sits up with a set of cowboy tunes, campfire songs – and even if his big production cost was the time taken to grow that beard it was time/money well spent – for this is Weir’s best set of songs since way back to Kingfish (that’s 40 years for those counting) and certainly his best set of “country’ songs since the Dead’s double-header 1970 high point with Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.
Friends and fans Josh Kaufman and Josh Ritter and half The National sit in and if anyone was always convinced that it was Garcia with his banjo and mandolin and weepy ole steel skills that was the pure country man it’s time to let Weir have his victory lap. The voice, weathered, croaky, sounds like it would be a good substitute for Warren Zevon’s now. And that ain’t no bad thing of course.
We open with Only A River, Bob’s remake/retake of Oh Shenandoah, and though the waltz-time ballads are thick and plenty there are gentle knees-up numbers too where the tempo gets a lift, as on early highlight Gonesville. The playing is suitably rustic when needed (Lay My Lily Down) and always thoughtful (Whatever Happened to Rose). But for all the guests it’s Weir at the helm. His voice, his heart and spirit, his songs. His delivery. Because he was younger and seen as only the foil, he’s played something of a backseat in the Dead, which is not just weird but a travesty – he’s obviously driven anything that’s happened across the second half of the band’s career and his rhythm guitar was probably always the driving heart of the band. His vocals were wobbly here and there sure, but now that works – seems age/genre-appropriate, if anything. And he really is singing better than he ever has, or treating arrangements and choosing songs better than ever. Or both.
The one setback – as is the way with veteran Record Label-era recording artists is that this is a tad long, longer than it needs to be – could lose a song or two. There’s no one weak link as such, just too many songs, too many minutes piling up, a dirge or two too many.
But Darkest Hour is lovely, and Ki-Yi Bossie is a highlight, the most “campfire” song of them all. The Dylan-esque title track is lovely. And the closer, One More River To Cross, has that broken-but-stoic sound and tone and feel of Zevon’s final couple of albums. Helped along by Weir’s near-doppelganger vocals.
So Bob Weir has either made the best album of his career or the album you never expected him to make. Or: (and perhaps it depends where you are on the fan-scale) both.