While the urban grit of New York City is about as far as you can get from the ranches of Wyoming, you probably wouldn’t convince many music industry types to fly out to The Cowboy State. So it was in New York City, where just 12 hours after announcing his long-awaited “cowboy album” Blue Mountain Bob Weir premiered music from the new LP in front of a tiny crowd at The Heath at The McKittrick Hotel. Weir and co-producer/collaborator Josh Kaufman spoke with CBS correspondent Anthony Mason about Blue Mountain, performed three songs off the album live and played studio versions of three songs.
The attentive crowd of approximately 120 – a far cry from the 45K capacity of the last NYC venue Bobby played – watched as Weir and Kaufman talked with passion about a project that has been three years in the making. Bob and Josh met at The Bridge Session, a concert held at Weir’s TRI Studios in March of 2012 that saw the Grateful Dead guitarist collaborate with many of the indie musicians his music inspired. Weir talked about clicking with Kaufman as soon as they met. Kaufman, members of The National and Weir got into a discussion about Bob’s love for the cowboy music of his youth, and the younger musicians asked if the guitarist would be interested in making a whole new album of cowboy music. Bob Weir was game.
A major piece of Blue Mountain was inspired by a period in 1962, when an idealistic 15-year-old Bob Weir decided to run off to Wyoming to become a cowboy. Weir found work on a ranch as a farmhand and as the young newcomer was tasked with grunt work. Yet, the cowboys treated him well and he was introduced to a form of music that years later would be called Americana. Bob also revisited Wyoming a number of times over the years to both visit and stay with his long-time writing partner John Perry Barlow. It was these experiences that informed the music of the 12-track record.
Following introductions from Jed Hilly, the executive director of the Americana Music Association and Adam Block, president of Sony/Legacy Recordings, Weir took the stage with Kaufman and Mason. The first song played over the intimate venue’s sound system was “Only A River,” which opens Blue Mountain. While the music is straight out of the mid 20th century, it sported modern production techniques. Bob’s voice has never sounded better than it does on the new LP. The sparse arrangement on “Only A River” served the melancholy tune well. It was particularly interesting to watch Weir listening to his own music, tapping his foot along with the beat and trying to gauge the audience’s reaction.
One important Blue Mountain figure missing from the showcase was Josh Ritter. The singer-songwriter provided the lyrics for the songs on the LP and was often a topic of discussion. Weir and Kaufman explained they recorded at many different studios whenever they could find time. The pair compiled many tunes, some of which didn’t make the final cut, and after a few years Bobby said it was time to share the music with the world. Bobby’s first actual performance Thursday night was the title cut to Blue Mountain. While the crowd was sitting in the middle of Chelsea, the sound of the song brought up memories of sitting around a campfire. Weir explained he first started writing “Blue Mountain” back in 1962 and it took him 50 years to complete the title track. Bobby also showed off a Martin guitar he used throughout the performance and revealed it was the only instrument he used throughout the sessions that led to Blue Mountain.
“Gonesville” was the second song played over the P.A. Weir still had his trusty Martin guitar strapped on and strummed along to the recorded version. Again, it was hard not to notice how great Bobby’s voice sounds on the new record. While the co-founding member of the Grateful Dead described “Gonesville” as “country meets western meets Japanese sci-fi monsters,” it was the lone tune played or performed on Thursday that was straight-up country/western. “Gonesville” has a catchy chorus, so don’t be surprised to see the song garner attention from radio.
Mason then asked Weir about “Lay My Lily Down” and Kaufman strapped on his guitar for a duo performance of a song fans previously thought was titled “Dig A Hole” or “Dig A Hole In The Meadow.” Bob sang and played rhythm on one of the slower tunes of the evening. Kaufman provided textured leads that often echoed what Weir was playing. “Lay My Lily Down” had the most contemporary feel of the new material and also had a handful of spots that would make good launching points for improvisation. Towards the end of the song Josh contributed a scorching, yet fitting solo.
The final song played over the P.A. was the Blue Mountain version of “What The Ghost Towns Know.” Josh and Bob openly debated the title of the tune on stage as it may be called “Ghost Towns.” The pair revealed a few details of Blue Mountain are still being worked out and will be “until the first copy is printed.” Whatever the title, “Ghost Towns” featured a host of musicians backing Bob with the efforts of backing vocalists The Bandana Splits sticking out in particular. Weir and Kaufman had one more song to perform live, “Ki-Yi Bossie.” Bob revealed it was inspired by Barlow and that Weir had attempted to have his long-time collaborator contribute to the project, but John Perry was dealing with health issues, which prevented him from helping. “Ki-Yi Bossie” had the most old-timey feel of anything played on Thursday. Weir was spot-on when he claimed, “you haven’t heard anything like this since the ’50s” in regards to the song and his album in general.
Weir, Kaufman and Mason ended the night by taking a handful of questions from the audience. JamBase asked about the format of the shows on Bob Weir’s Campfire Tour in October. Josh and Bob indicated a total of 18 songs had been fully realized for the project. The pair and their backing band of Scott Devendorf, Aaron Dessner and Bryan Devendorf will create each setlist from a mix of the 18 tunes composed for Blue Mountain and Grateful Dead classics. When asked whether Bob would perform solo for a section of each show, Kaufman and Weir indicated that had yet to be worked out but was certainly possible.
Bob Weir’s Blue Mountain comes out on September 30. The Campfire Tour begins on October 7.
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