On Blue Mountain (30 September, 2016; Columbia Records) Bob Weir stepped out of the warm shadow cast by his life-long Grateful Dead colleague and friend Jerry Garcia, wrote some of his own songs, and told a part of his own unique story. And he did it in his own special way by inviting around 20 other musicians to take part (including Josh Ritter and Scott Devendorf, and Bryce and Aaron Dessner of the National); and by drawing on exotic instruments such as a Farfisa organ, an omnichord and a shruti box to tell his story.
And it is a great story, which starts with Weir returning to the moment he was a 15-year-old ranch hand in Wyoming. And if when you listen to this album you imagine wide open spaces, men on horseback, the rush of rivers, and the smell of campfires, you are not going to be far off the mark. As Weir says himself: "When I was 15 I ran away to be a cowboy. I found myself working in Wyoming living in a bunk house with a bunch of old cowpokes and ranch hands, and a lot of those guys had grown up in an era before radio. Their idea of an evening was to tell stories and sing songs. I was the kid with the guitar, so I became the accompaniment. I've been sort of wondering what to do with that, for decades now..."
The result is a collection of beautiful songs from a man reflecting on a long and fruitful life. Behind that shaggy and slightly bewildered Robinson Crusoe type-look on the front cover, Weir shines with both his Alvarez Yairi WY1 acoustic guitar and perhaps more surprisingly, with a resonant voice that was less evident during his years with the Dead.
In fact Weir can also be seen playing his WY1 acoustic on the lovely opening track, and first single, Only a River. “Only a river gonna make things right,” he world-wearily intones. This release was followed up in September 2016, with the second single Gonesville, which was co-written with Josh Ritter. The song has touches of honky-tonk, though Weir described it as “a take on a Rockabilly tune. I was trying to go back and channel Elvis for the vocal, and for the music as well.”
The third single is an unforgettably mournful ‘death ballad’ Lay My Lily Down, which relates the story of a father burying his daughter. When asked about how he tuned in to the sadness of the song, Weir replied, somewhat cryptically, "because I've been there." In fact the basis of the song came from a traditional folk song called Lay My Corey Down. “Dig a hole, dig a hole in the meadow, Dig a hole in the cold, cold ground, Dig a hole, dig a hole in the meadow, To lay my Lily down,” Weir sings, in a line that recalls Tom Waits.
It may not be the best song on the album but the emotional heart is perhaps Ki-Yi Bossie. Weir originally wanted to write this song with former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, but in the end Barlow’s sickness meant that he had to write it alone. In this moving country and western number Weir talks about being involved in a alcohol withdrawal programme, which takes place in a church basement “under harsh fluorescent light.”
The album closes with the title track Blue Mountain - where Weir explains his “welcome wore thin down in Texas, For reasons you probably know,” - and One More River To Cross, in which he again reflects on mortality.
Following decades of success with the Grateful Dead, Blue Mountain, and the Netflix documentary The Other One, has helped confirm Weir as an independent talent who deserved, and continues to merit, far more of the limelight. Though one suspects he has now got ‘bigger things’ on his mind, as he sings: “time to change the scenery, it's time to hit the pipe, and okay, i'm gone…” Hopefully not for a long while yet, as he clearly has a lot more to offer.