It’s been over a decade since Bob Weir, most recognised as the guitarist & founding member of Grateful Dead, released any new material and the first solo effort since 1978’s ‘Heaven Help The Fool’.
‘Blue Mountain’ is a beautifully crafted record, almost conceptual, with its roots firmly placed in Folk & Country. Stated by Weir his desire to compose an album of “cowboy songs”, referring to his childhood when he worked on a ranch in Wyoming. Enlisting Josh Ritter as co-songwriter- an established Americana country artist, proves he’s in capable hands to achieve the authenticity.
‘Only A River’ introduces the album and sets the tone for things to come. An effortless, melancholic, heartfelt love song that personifies and pays homage to ‘Shenandoah’; an old American folk song. The almost ritualistic chanting ‘Only a river gonna make things right” encapsulates the listener in a trance-like state.
Many of the themes prevalent throughout the album, as you’d expect given the objective, are hard times, tragedy and love lost. ‘Gonesville’ is one of the many examples of this, a delicate camp-fire styled track, perhaps most emphasised by the band jamming coupled with choral vocals & accompanied by a gentle strum.
Several of the tracks don’t sound too dissimilar to the work of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and at times musically, The Doors. From a haunting cavernous vocal delivery in ‘Storm Country’, a progressive, slow tempo, atmospheric song to the simplistic title track ‘Blue Mountain’. Whilst entirely fictional, takes an anecdotal approach. I would presume the track is based on the Blue Mountain in Texas and not Oregon; this is supported by the line “I was born in a manger in Texas”. I could only assume San Francisco born Weir wanted to affiliate his work with a southern state better renowned for the level of country singers and cowboys.
Whilst the album is substantially successful in implementing the ideal of an assemble of ‘cowboy’ songs, ‘Lay My Lily Down’ & ‘Ki-Yi Bossie’ are the two that miss the mark. While they both respectively honour the ‘cowboy’ esque style, predominant throughout, there’s not enough substance and variation to qualify them as independently strong. The subject matter in ‘Lay My Lily Down’, while being a touching sentiment simply lacks the standard of the other tracks. It’s not to say both tracks are particularly bad by any means, both actually have good underlining elements but on the whole are too repetitive and too alike.
‘One More River To Cross’, the culmination track on the album plays a critical role, as a listener it’s the last track to leave an impression and it undisputedly achieves just that. Again, contains many similar qualities of the preceding tracks, yet seems to embody the whole message that was set out by Weir.
Initially, from the concept of an album “full of cowboy songs” it’d be easy to misconstrue and not take seriously. Although, when analysing the finer details, such as Weir insisting on using only an old steel guitar throughout; the conscious production qualities such as reverb on the vocals, we’re awarded with a collection of tracks true to their nature. At 68, with such a prolonged hiatus, this is a great indication that Weir is far from ready to wind down his career, if anything it’s reignited and paving a new path for future musical expeditions.
Blue Mountiain is out now on Columbia Records.