Bob Weir, it seems, started working on his new album “Blue Mountain” in 1962, while spending a summer as a teen working on a Wyoming cattle ranch. That was the impression, at least, as he talked about it at a special event Wednesday night at No Name on Fairfax. Two days out from the album’s release Friday, the former Grateful Dead singer-guitarist did a little Q&A with Grammy Foundation and MusiCares exec Scott Goldman, along with some playback of a few new songs and, best of all, live performance of a few more with his current band.
We learned a lot more about cutting the herd and scatter raking than we could have anticipated.
We also learned that there is a direct connection to be made from the old ’30s jug bands to the colorful funk of George Clinton.
“Straight lineage,” he told a curious Goldman, though Weir made a pretty compelling case.
Mostly, we learned about the deep lineage in Weir’s music going back to that Wyoming summer that stayed strong through all those years with the Dead, various solo and side projects, and now, as he’s set to turn 69 in a couple of weeks, showcased with poignant, personal depth on the new album.
The most direct connection comes with the album’s title song, which he played solo acoustic here. It was a song, he explained, that he first heard back in the bunkhouse on that Wyoming ranch, where he was the kid with the guitar expected to accompany the “real” cowboys singing at night.
“It was great ear training,” he said of having to pick up songs he’d never heard before on the spot. “I was panic-stricken.”
This song in particular he’d not only never heard before, but never heard again, despite some searching and connections to some of the top folk musicians in the world over the years. Finally, via internet sources, “I did find enough of it,” and with Josh Ritter and Josh Kaufman, his primary collaborators for the album, wrote a new song based on the old, true to its ancient history and true to right now, true to the teen in the bunkhouse and true to the graybeard staring somberly from the album cover.
Regarding the album opener “Only a River” (heard in the recorded version) and its references both to Shenandoah and the Red River, he said he was going to “wax hippie metaphysical” (a great name for a Dead tribute band, by the way) and talked about the feminine mystique of rivers as the source and, uh, other stuff.
And he talked about the roots of much of his music being in Western music — not country, but Western, “the red-headed stepchild” — and of being gobstruck seeing Buck Owens and the Buckaroos play, ditto for Peter, Paul and Mary, and how that brought him connections to the rivers of folk traditions that led to both Western and rock ’n’ roll. On the latter tip, he and the band played “Gonesville,” a muted tribute to Elvis and rockabilly, with the band. Then they played “Lay My Lily Down,” a wonderful adaptation of a song originating in the British Isles and filtered through Appalachia.
“We changed a few of the lyrics,” he explained, deadpan. “And the melody. And the rhythm. And the story. But we had to get started somewhere. And we did.”
Here the band showed how it is bringing a slightly different feel to the material than the gorgeous, Kaufman-produced album versions, recorded largely live in old churches in upstate New York. Here, with Kaufman on lead guitar, it pointed toward how they might stretch things on the upcoming concert tour, with the National’s Aaron Dessner filling out the lineup. Not stretch like the Dead, who could really stretch, of course. But still give each performance a lot of in-the-moment feel that will evolve in the course of the venture.
Then they did a lovely version of the traditional “Peggy-O” — “this one probably pre-dates gunpowder” — which was a longtime staple of the Dead’s repertoire, generally sung by Jerry Garcia.
They finished with an adaptation of a real cowboy song, “Ki-Yi Bossie,” which on the album is performed by Weir and a real cowboy (well, Brooklyn cowboy), Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, yodeling and hollering and all. The version by this quartet, although they’d never played it together before this night, put new spins on it, again revealing the promise of some great things on tour.
The words, too, by Weir and A.J. Santella, put some new spins on the cowboy song, opening not on the prairies with the doggies, but in a church basement at a 12-step meeting. He dedicated the song to John Perry Barlow, another Wyoming cowboy who had been his longest-running songwriting partner, but has been ill of late and could not contribute to this album.
“It’s a cowboy song from the bunkhouse,” he said by way of introduction, adding, as proved to be unnecessary: “Adapted.”
Well, so has that teen who rode the range and picked up some songs.
||| Live: Bob Weir plays the Wiltern on Oct. 10. Tickets.
||| Stream: The full album via NPR.