Bob Weir | Ace (50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) – Reissue Review

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When a member of a famous band steps out to make a solo record, she or he usually recruits different musicians. Not Bob Weir. Once word got out about the recording of Ace, the Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist’s first solo album released in 1972, all the members of the Grateful Dead showed up for the sessions, ready to record. A few of the songs slated for the album had already been pulled into the band’s live sets, and others would eventually face the same fate, so it made all the sense in the world.

There are some additional players on Ace as well, but the tone, vibe and performances all very much encapsulate the Grateful Dead. Critic Robert Christgau referred to Ace as the third in a series that began with the Grateful Dead’s pair of studio releases from 1970 — Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. When you consider 1971 and 1972 didn’t see studio albums from the band, then track through Ace, Christgau’s take adds up.

To celebrate 50 years, Ace (50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) features the complete album, newly remastered and sounding as fresh and crisp as you could hope for. A second disc features a live performance of Ace in its running order entirety by Weir and his band,  Wolf Bros featuring The Wolfpack and Barry Sless on pedal steel, plus special guests Tyler Childers and Brittney Spencer. The show was recorded in April 2022 over two nights at the famed Radio City Music Hall.

The eight songs comprising Ace are arguably some of Weir’s strongest. The album marks the beginning of his songwriting partnership with lyricist John Perry Barlow, whose words circle around “Black-Throated Wind” and “Cassidy” like a kite in the sky on a sunny day, a marriage made in nirvana. For “One More Saturday Night,” a Grateful Dead anthem routinely played at Saturday night shows, Weir kept the songwriting credit all to himself. Robert Hunter, who usually added narratives to Jerry Garcia’s songs, helped Weir and drummer Mickey Hart turn “Playing In The Band” into another band anthem.

While the recording of “Playing In The Band” on Ace has all the trademarks of a solid Grateful Dead session from the early 70s, seasoned Deadheads will most certainly recognize the restraint the players set aside for 30 minutes-plus jams in concert. It’s often been repeated and shared that many of Weir’s song served as perfect launching pads for improvisation, and “Playing In The Band” is certainly one of them. A 46-minute version over two sides of vinyl prompted the Playing in the Band, Seattle, Washington, 5/21/74 Record Store Day release in 2018.

As the opener on Ace, “Greatest Story Ever Told,” another Dead concert staple, gets things off to a roaring, upbeat start. “Mexicali Blues,” which Weir introduces on the second disc as the first song he and Barlow wrote together, is equally light with its driving horn-flavored riff and Keith Godchaux’s rollicking piano work.  “Looks Like Rain,” the album’s resident “love song” according to Barlow, remains one of Weir’s most arching, dramatic numbers with Garcia’s beatific slide guitar practically guiding the melody.

In concert 50 years later, Ace is a suitable vehicle for a different style of musicianship. Bob Weir & Wolf Bros — bassist (and esteemed producer of others like the Rolling Stones), Don Was, drummer Jay Lane and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti — could be viewed as a smoother counterpart to Dead & Company. This allows Weir, whose vocals have become somewhat ragged after years of use, to sing at a more compatible key and range. Even so, Weir gets some help from other younger, extremely vibrant singers.

Tyler Childers nails a raw, emotive lead vocal on “Greatest Story Ever Told.” The Wolfpack, a string and brass quintet featuring Alex Kelly, Brian Switzer, Adam Theis, Mads Tolling and Sheldon Brown, stir in horns to the mix, while Barry Sless masterfully shows off his skills on pedal steel guitar. “Walk In The Sunshine,” the only song on Ace the Dead never played live, is revisited with Weir sharing the vocals with Brittney Spencer for a stylish, powerful rendition. Spencer, a Nashville-based country singer, also takes on a couple zesty verses and throws in a bountiful of angelic harmonies on “Looks Like Rain,” which builds into a tour de force after an intense 11-minute readthrough.

You can hear Weir struggling through the vocals on “Playing In The Band,” somewhat short by Dead standards but seasoned with a jazzy instrumental break. Weir shares a story around “Mexicali Blues,” mentioning a forthcoming, still-unseen memoir in the process. While the performance of the songs fit the schedule, it’s no match for the one-two punch of “One More Saturday Might” (the first night of the two-night Radio City Music Hall stand was indeed a Saturday) and “Cassidy.”

Once again, Weir’s vocal limitations are evident (and likely the reason Dead & Company are playing farewell shows in 2023), though serviceable and swimming through a sea of vast instrumentation, especially on “Cassidy,” which finished off the first set of each night. The violin solo alone is enough to warrant praise. In the end, it’s difficult not to note the level of respect and possibility that are given to the songs of Ace during these shows.

The double-disc Ace (50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) includes the liner notes written by Jesse Jarnow, co-host of The Good Ol’ Grateful Deadcast and author of Heads: A Biography Of Psychedelic America. A flood of great albums came out in 1972, but next to the live Europe ’72, The next best thing from the Dead camp was most definitely Ace. Not only does it exhibit all the magical inner workings and enhancements of the Dead’s organic chemistry in the 70s; it’s also a preview of things to come from the mind and partnerships around Bob Weir — still enjoying the ride after all these years.

~ Shawn Perry

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