WEIR HERE: THE BEST OF BOB WEIR

It's telling that he goes by Bob and not Robert. There's a profound lack of formality to this man, a companionable spirit that beckons one to join him on his long, strange trip. This double disc compilation (one dedicated to his solo studio work and collaborations with Kingfish, Ratdog and Rob Wasserman and one disc largely devoted to live recordings with the Grateful Dead including six previously unreleased cuts) is a place marker, a glowing star on the map to show where his story has taken us so far.

As the first set to focus exclusively on Weir's contributions as both a composer and band member in one of the great rock dynasties, Weir Here creates a remarkably balanced picture that incorporates both the electric jazz grace of his writing hand and the twitchy jerk of his playing hand. There's even a few warts left un-airbrushed and for that alone this set deserves a gold star on its report card. You get the workingman's romantic and the clenched-fist righteous California peace warrior howling against the winds of war and ignorance. The shimmering beauty of his melodies contrasting sharply with his jagged tooth guitar lines, the hard wrestling of faith against day-to-day concerns emerging in nearly every piece. If one ever wished to watch the interplay of Ying and Yang in one human soul, Weir provides a pretty good show.

This gathering of friends and lovers reminds us that Weir was the closest thing to a traditional rock star the Dead ever had. Doubt me? Take a good look at a group picture of the band from any era and the fair haired Bob stands out as the only one Tiger Beat might have ever featured in their pages. It's not just a surface impression either. His confidence bubbles over, none of Garcia's innate fragility worrying his brow. Instead, there's a forthright engagement with his dreams, his failings, his lusts. He also strikes one as the good time guy in the bunch, the guy who rolls up in a candy blue convertible and tells you to grab your toothbrush and inform your mama that you won't be back until Monday. This aspect of his personality emerges here on "One More Saturday Night," a fine live "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" from 1989 and Go To Heaven's "Feel Like A Stranger" which also shows his kinship with '70s plugged in jazz acts like the L.A. Express (who backed Joni Mitchell on her landmark Miles of Aisles concert album), the Crusaders, and John Mayall in his Jazz Blues Fusion period.

Another truth that surfaces is the power of the John Barlow/Bob Weir writing partnership, every bit the equal of the much ballyhooed Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia pairing. Over the course of the 12 songs by Barlow/Weir included here one hears smooth currents complicated by undertow and rapids, a need to muddy the clarity actually adding to rather than subtracting from the music's value. Especially succulent is their knack for incorporating the idiom of other genres into the rock setting notably the reggae tinged "I Want To (Fly Away)" and a sunshine fine, previously unreleased "Estimated Prophet" where seemingly laid-back shuffles hide pockets of real grandeur. Weir's work with Barlow also brings out pissed off Bob, shaking mad and cynically astute. The live takes of "Hell In A Bucket" (previously unreleased) and "Throwing Stones" (from the DVD View From The Vault Vol. 4) find Weir with the muzzle off, railing against the insanity around him in Reagan's late '80s. Major bummer to find these songs remain so timely, mayhap even more so in the days of George W. Bush.

Six of the 11 live tracks come from '87, '89, and '90, the Brent Mydland years with the Grateful Dead. To anyone who saw Weir interact with Mydland during that blessed decade it was clear that he put the spark to him and though Garcia's presence is felt everywhere in these performances (and in the final "Special Thanks" from Weir in the booklet). Brent is here, too, in the conscious decision to focus on this period. It was also the time when the band moved from a cult phenomenon (albeit a very successful one) to a full-blown cultural signpost. For better or for worse, after the 1980s the Grateful Dead became the punch line of hippy bashing jokes, a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac, a shorthand for '60s acts that survived and prospered in the go-go '80s. All of this is irrespective of the music from those days, which remains some of the most vibrant stuff ever poured out on a stage. The sense of fun in playing together permeates the cuts with Mydland, as it does in the glimpses of the young poncho-wearing Weir we hear in the early '70s selections including the enduringly boisterous "Truckin'" from 1971's Ladies and Gentlemen... The Grateful Dead that opens the live disc.

A few cuts haven't aged well, notably the disco arrangements on the selections from Heaven Help The Fool. That he includes "Lazy Lightning," which veers near Leo Sayer country, and a couple others that show their age on the studio disc makes me think he was looking for an honest account of his recording history and his own comments in the lively liner notes add some weight to this theory behind the song selection. Missing are some tunes one might have expected to see. So no "Black-Throated Wind," "El Paso," or "West L.A. Fadeaway" (a staple of his Ratdog concert repertoire). Maybe there's a follow-up in the making called Weir There.

The tails of each disc are given over to Ratdog, Weir's other day job when he's not out waving the flag with the Dead. It's been my contention since hearing Evening Moods that Ratdog are the most sympathetic collaborators Weir has ever had. Yes, that includes the Grateful Dead, where there are more sparks and therefore more heat but in their treatment of Weir's music they often operated at odds with Bob's distinctive muse. There's a lot to enjoy in the conflict, even on a metaphorical level, but the ease and happy glide to Weir's songs and playing with the current, steady line-up of Ratdog from the past few years is something to behold. "Two Djinn" and "Ashes And Glass" off their sole studio effort hold up well against anything here, including the recognizable fan favorites in the live portion, which concludes with a venom rich, spot-on rehearsal recording of Ratdog doing Dylan's "Masters Of War."

It's fascinating to hear Weir's voice change as the years pile up, the clean, painfully earnest kid growing into a seasoned but still guardedly hopeful man. The rings around his trunk have grown in number but that suits him, bringing out his natural born blues man and flecking the standards with burnished character. He's a timeless sunset-gazing troubadour still wide of eye and fierce of purpose. This is the story so far but a long way from its ending. That the miles ahead seem as promising as the ones that lay behind is a testament to the man's immense talent and perseverance. This essential release is a gift to those who've come this far and a welcome introduction for anyone who's ever wondered why some of us shout "Bobby!" with ecclesiastical joy every time we see him walk on a stage.

Dennis Cook
JamBase | California
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[Published on: 6/3/04]

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