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Published: 2017/10/14
by Dean Budnick

Bob Weir at 70: Storyteller and Gizmo Freak (2004)

Photo by Eric Segalstad

Bob Weir was still a teenager when he joined the band that would become the Warlocks and later the Grateful Dead (think about that for a moment). Given the scope of his ensuing career, the recent release of the Weir Here two disc compilation justly gives him his due (and after four decades as a songwriter and performer some would say this recognition is overdue). The following conversation considers the music represented on Weir Here while also touching on Ratdog, the Dead, senior moments, and the archaism of albums.

DB- First off what was your initial reaction when someone approached you about putting together a career retrospective?

BW- There was the sort of "you're kidding me" reaction. It had never occurred to me but I was talked into it pretty quickly.

DB- In terms of selecting the songs, let’s start with those on Disc One, the studio tracks, what was the process?

BW- We went back and forth. I wanted to pack it full of the tunes that I felt didn't get the respect and attention they so richly deserved at the time they were out. The people who market me wanted to pack it full of the hits. And so we went back and forth and I think it came together pretty well.

One tune I had to champion but wouldn't have made the greatest hits list was "Fly Away". That tune came together very quickly. It's kind of an adventurous cross between reggae and fusion jazz. For what it's worth, in the Jamaican equivalent of the Grammys it won the best foreign reggae song.

DB- You’re certainly someone who thrives in the live setting but I’m curious, as you go back now and listen to these songs, is there one where you absolutely nailed the studio version in such a way you feel you can’t attain it when you play the tune live?

BW- Yes, "Cassidy" from the Ace album. There's a stark simplicity and beauty. There was no bass, just myself and Billy. I recorded the basic track with guitar and then went back, doubled what I'd done with the electric guitar and that was that. It was pristine and I'll never get that with any of the ensembles.

DB- Are you ever tempted to perform a stripped down version?

BW- I suppose I could do it live. I would do the acoustic part and then get one of the guitar players I'm working with to do the electric part and have just one drummer. But on the other hand I'd have to remember how I played it because it arose from a tuning that David Crosby taught me and I can't remember the tuning (laughs). So needless to say I can't play the original guitar part that's on the record until I discover how to do that tuning again.

DB- Stepping back, you mentioned "Fly Away." Will the process of re-engaging that song lead you to play it out live again?

BW- Yes, next time RatDog goes out I'm going to have it up with them. I used to play it with Bobby and the Midnights and I played for a while with Rob Wasserman when we were a duo.

DB- Over the course of your career, occasionally songs have disappeared for extended periods of time. For instance you put away "Black Throated Wind" for about fifteen years. Why was that?

BW- We stopped doing that one in 74 when the band took a year off. When we came back there were a lot of chord changes and I just sort of forgot about it. I don't listen to my old albums. I only have so much time in my day and if I'm going to listen to music I better get at it and I want it to be new information. You can get new information from old stuff but more often than not it's not going to be the first place you look.

Anyhow, when we came back together we didn't have any lists, we just worked off what we could remember. So we started working up a repertoire again and I didn't even remember "Black Throated Wind" until a number of years later.

Later, with RatDog, one of the guys brought it up. When we were working stuff up, I'd send them home with little homework assignments to learn a particular tune. I wanted to be able to play it exactly like it is on the record one time and then there are no rules anymore. So, and this is years ago, I sent them home with the Ace record to learn something like "Greatest Story" and their curiosity took them to other songs. And Mark might then say, "How about Black Throated Wind?' And I'd say, "Sure I know that tune." (laughs) So that's how that one came back around again.

DB- When you’re out performing now, and in particular singing some of the older material, how often do you find that particular lyrics will jump out at you, either because you simply enjoy enunciating a specific phrase or the words themselves take on new resonance?

BW- Pretty nearly every night something like that happens. I don't keep track of it. It takes you unaware but that's what I live for and I know it's going to happen all the time.

DB- In terms of taking you unaware, I think that people are still surprised that on those songs you’ve been playing for many years, occasionally a lyric will elude you.

DW- (Laughs) Yeah, we have our senior moments.

DB- (Laughing) Although, most respectfully, that has happened infrequently since you were a junior. Do you find that there’s a precipitating factor?

BW- Generally something else is grabbing your attention, you're kind of singing on auto pilot. I may be listening to something that someone is doing or the sound of my instrument may be bugging me and I'm trying to think of how I want to change it. Or somebody may play a riff that crosses my eyes and it sort of leaves me vacant for a minute (laughs). It used to happen all the time. Jerry would do a little clang or something, I'd leave my body for a minute and then I'd have to come back and sing.

DB- The release of Weir Here invites sweeping assessments of your music. How has the nature of your songwriting changed over the course of your career, if at all?

BW- The biggest change is lately I have preferred to write with the guys that I'm going to be performing those pieces with. That way pretty much I know what the carpet is going to feel like, the harmonic and rhythmic textures. You really can't know what you're going to get if you sequester yourself. And the other thing is when I'm working with other people, ideas are going to present themselves that I wouldn't up necessarily come up with. More often than not I am pleasantly surprised by that.

DB- Do think that’s something particular to RatDog

BW- It just feels right. I write by touch, I write by feel. When I'm writing music I let my fingers find it I don't try to impose it with my head.

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