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Bob Weir: Ace - 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (2CD)

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Bob Weir: Ace - 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (2CD)
Befitting its heady milestone date, the title of Bob Weir's initial solo album, Ace, carries multiple meanings. First of all, it was the Grateful Dead guitarist, vocalist & songwriter's nickname at the time of its gestation and completion (his bawdy persona as such mirrored in the ultra-suave pose on the inside photo as well as the risque cover art).

More importantly, the album's name is also a reflection of the gambling lore so prevalent in songs of the iconic band's such as "Deal" and "Loser." In the most practical terms, however, it was indicative of the winning hand Weir held for the recording at Wally Heider's San Francisco studio with Betty Cantor and Bob Matthews: his accompanists featured all members of the Grateful Dead (except Ron 'Pigpen' McKernan).

If that is not revelatory enough with the hindsight of a half-century, consider how all but one of the songs on Ace became staples in the psychedelic warriors' live repertoire for some two-plus decades of their existence. Given that history alone, it only makes sense that the material would be worthy of its Radio City Music Hall performance on April 3, 2022, but the concert content—included on a second compact disc in this double set—also serves to bring some attention to the sole unsung selection of the album: "Walk In The Sunshine," a deceptively easy-going shuffle the likes of which the Dead so often relied upon (perhaps the reason for its anonymity?).

It is a tribute to the craftsmanlike approach that the songwriters brought to the songwriting collaborations that compositions such as Weir and John Perry Barlow's "Black Throated Wind" stand on their own terms as studio recordings, even fifty years later. And while "Playing in the Band," written by 'Ace' with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter (usually in partnership with guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia), most often functioned as an inspiring improvisational vehicle when played on stage (that is, when it wasn't a component of some massive segue), the same holds true of this seven-minutes plus rendition.

What is even more thought-provoking in this regard is that, as with the less-open ended "Greatest Story Ever Told," the backing band executes with equal parts discipline and economy; the playing of Garcia (also on pedal steel), pianist Keith Godchaux, bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Bill Kreutzmann is bereft of any difficulty operating in the confines of the studio (a point of contention to which the group admitted, especially later in their career).

No doubt that ease and fluidity of interaction(s) arose from six of the eight tunes on the album already being played in concert. Still, the positive experiences in the previous two years of em>Workingman's Dead (Warner Bros., 1970) and American Beauty (Warner Bros., 1970) clearly stood the ensemble in good stead too, while the precision and punch of the instruments is readily discernible through the remixing by Derek Featherstone, as well as the mastering by David Glasser.

Credited to 'everyone involved,' the overall production of Ace is as self-restrained as the musicianship. "Looks Like Rain' benefits from just a touch of orchestration (arranged by Ed Bogus (sp)), while horns only judiciously adorn "Mexicali Blues" and "One More Saturday Night." Such arrangements find their way to the New York city stage, as do the dulcet vocal tones of Donna Godchaux the likes of which decorate "Cassidy."

But singers Tyler Childers (whose lead vocal on "Story" matches Weir's youthful gusto) and Brittney Spencer are no more trying to just replicate the others' singing than The Wolfpack are attempting to merely duplicate the ornamentation of horns by Luis Gasca and Snooky Flowers (from Janis Joplin's Kozmic Blues Band). The contemporary bandmembers are following the lead of Bob Weir himself: he still honestly connects with the spirit of the songs as he has lived them in the five decades since he put them on record (where he over emotes occasionally).

It is a valiant ambition which pays off as handsomely as the frontman inhabits the songs alongside the Wolf Bros. The core of that group, bassist Don Was and drummer Jay Lane are augmented by pianist Jeff Chimenti and pedal steeler Barry Sless, all of whom find themselves complemented with alternately earthy ("Mexicali..") and elegant ("Playin...'") contrasts. And with more prominence given to acoustic guitars, this performance amounts to a modified and expansive presentation of the original album's variegated color scheme while also linking it stylistically with Weir's most recent solo work, Blue Mountain (Legacy/Columbia, 2016).

A common concert trope emerging from (and beyond) the jamband scene over the last thirty years, it is not exactly a stroke of genius to play Ace in the same track sequence as it was originally released. But doing so certainly reaffirms the wisdom of that earlier configuration of cuts: it consolidates the durability of the material and the strength of its foundation, as captured on tape, as a finite collection. And it leaves "Cassidy" as a most appropriate closer to the live set, especially with the vigorous strings at the end adding further substance.

Through the enclosed booklet within the slim-line 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition package, it occurs that including more stage shots of the group in action might capture the sensation(s) of those moments as well or better than writer & DJ Jesse Jarnow's essay. Here, however, the author stifles his penchant for inserting himself into his prose and instead weaves the story behind this music in and out of his own observations.

He thus clarifies rather than obfuscates, a rarity indeed for such written inclusions in archival works. Consequently, sliding those twelve-pages into the center pocket of the dual-fold CD sleeve leaves them readily accessible for reading in much the same way the two discs are simple to extract from their respective pockets to play with the regular frequency they warrant.

Track Listing

CD 1: Greatest Story Ever Told; Black-Throated Wind; Walk In The Sunshine; Playing In The Band; Looks Like Rain; Mexicali Blues; One More Saturday Night; Cassidy. CD 2: Greatest Story Ever Told; Black- Throated Wind; Walk In The Sunshine; Playing In The Band; Looks Like Rain; Mexicali Blues Intro; Mexicali Blues; One More Saturday Night; Cassidy.

Personnel

Additional Instrumentation

Bob Weir: acoustic guitar, vocals; Phil Lesh: harmony vocal; Jerry Garcia: pedal steel; Ed Bogus: string arrangement; Snooky Flowers: saxophone; Luis Gasca: trumpet; Sheldon Brown: flute, clarinet.

Album information

Title: Ace - 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (2CD) | Year Released: 2023 | Record Label: Rhino


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