After a rocky period in the final days of his tenure co-leading Furthur with Phil Lesh, Bob Weir kept a fairly low profile in the weeks leading up to 2015’s Fare Thee Well shows with the bassist and his two other Grateful Dead brethren. But the guitarist/songwriter acquitted himself so stylishly in the three Chicago shows in July of last year, it’s fair to say he redeemed himself.
On his first solo album in three decades, Blue Mountain, Weir continues in that direction with comparable gravity and sense of purpose in a collaborative collection of original material where he focuses on themes dear to his heart, i.e. ‘cowboy songs’ based on childhood recollections of his time in Wyoming. Thus, it should come as no surprise to hear his repeated invocations of the Native American folk song “Shenandoah” on the opening “Only A River” or note the direct reference to the archetype of the Old West in the very next tune, “Cottonwood Lullaby.”
And it might be hard to take this seriously if Bob Weir’s delivery wasn’t so solemn, that attribute magnified by the massive presence of the recording and the extensive echo on his voice. It matters little if the youngest member of the Grateful Dead believes in this mythology or is merely role-playing: he sounds like he means it on tracks like “Gonesville, ”where the simplicity of the arrangements, mixing acoustic guitars and piano plus harmonica, mirrors the vivid music and lyrics, while the musicians’ playing sounds charged, though quietly so.
There’s not one iota of self-consciousness on Blue Mountain, even as Weir nearly yodels on “Lay My Lilly Down” and “Ki Yi Bossie” (with others answering in the background), again channeling traditional song in his voice as the accompanists ( bassist Robin Sylvester and percussionist Jay Lane from Ratdog with Josh Kaufman on guitars, keyboards and drums ) flow in unison with him. Especially during “One More River to Cross,” the ghostly air that emanates from this music isn’t confined just to Bob Weir’s singing: all involved–the entire lineup of The National, who helmed last year’s mammoth Grateful Dead tribute Day of the Dead , as well as Josh Kaufman, another major contributor to that project–may be tapping into the spirits in the air around the Applehead Studios in Woodstock New York where the bulk these sessions took place in quick succession following FTW.
Whether or not that’s true, the collaborators don’t lose themselves in the moment(s), but the sounds they create, as on “Ghost Towns,” can mesmerize ( though that certain sameness in tempo might be off-putting). The rotating casts of singers and players here construct concise, well-wrought four-to-five minute tracks like “Gallop on the Run” which are so absorbing, they seem to end almost as soon as they begin. The same might be said of Bob Weir’s Blue Mountain as a whole.