Artist: Bob Weir
Album: Blue Mountain
Release Date: 09/30/2016
There is an American tradition of iconic musicians losing their cool. The stylistic cesspool of Bob Dylan’s late game projects obscured the enduring quality of his songcraft just as Miles Davis’ ill-advised collaboration with producer Easy Mo Bee capped off his career with a corny fizzle. Musicality doesn’t necessarily degrade with time, but stylistic sensibilities – the awareness of what sounds are hip versus cliche – tend to grow antiquated as a musician struggles to stay in tune with the rapidly evolving tastes of younger generations.
It takes flexibility for an artist to continuously appeal to stylistic trends as each generation rejects those of the previous one, but with Blue Mountain, Bob Weir’s first solo album in over a decade, the Grateful Dead veteran hits the nail on the head. Weir’s success on this front is largely due to his optimal choice of collaborators. All 12 tracks on the record are originals written in tandem with the superlative Josh Ritter, a songwriting titan adept at synthesizing folk-rooted lyrical elements, like storytelling, with the fresh appeal of the contemporary singer/songwriter genre. Ritter’s involvement lends an acute, modern edge to the songs and their arrangements without compromising the traditional authority that one would expect from a key figure of the ‘60s folk revival.
Even for Weir himself, the album is a throwback. The guitarist’s country foundation traces back to a formative experience working on a ranch in Wyoming after fleeing home at age 15, and with Blue Mountain he consciously draws from this implausibly classic origin story. Weir’s presence in the Grateful Dead significantly contributed to the group’s country inflection, so it is natural that his solo work extracts such elements – a veritable batch of cowboy songs with residue from the Summer of Love.
In light of Blue Mountain’s rural, hippie campfire spirit, it seems counterintuitive that Bob Weir would invite members of the National to support and produce the project. The National have developed one of the most fruitful and distinctive aesthetics in indie rock (a genre that itself prioritizes style), and thus render the album with hip nuance. Their somber, oceanic sound, however, could hardly be more disparate from the traditional vibes Weir aims to evoke. The result is a strange but successful inter-generational cocktail, with guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner spinning vast, burning electric guitar licks to complement the gorgeously blemished maturity of Weir’s emotive vocal delivery. Bob Weir has kept up with the times during his decade long hiatus, and Blue Mountain, an understated exemplar of songcraft, style and musicianship, has proven well worth the wait.