Vintage Album Review – Bob Weir’s “Ace” (50th Anniversary Edition)

photo: Todd Michalek

Some refer to him as “The Other One.” That’s not exactly a term of endearment or a ringing endorsement. In the Grateful Dead, nobody would ever rate Bob Weir above Jerry Garcia. Garcia always considered every member of the band equal, and the outfit a truly democratic collaboration. But that was just Jerry showing off his humility.

The Grateful Dead was indeed like a super group all unto itself with the talent it amassed, certified by how bassist Phil Lesh, percussionist Mickey Hart, and rhythm guitarist, songwriter, and secondary frontman Bob Weir were all able to launch solo careers both during Jerry Garcia’s time on Earth, and after. But Bob Weir was regarded more like a reliable relief pitcher when the Grateful Dead took the stage as opposed to the feature act.

It was Bob Weir’s ability to be selfless and subordinate to Jerry that made the chemistry of the Grateful Dead so legendary. Once a student of Garcia, Bob Weir specifically tooled his rhythm guitar style to Jerry’s natural form of playing. And even though he wasn’t as prolific, and his songs were probably more hit and miss, Bob Weir also contributed some of the most critically important songs to the Grateful Dead canon.

Enter Bob Weir’s 1972 solo release called Ace, which was facilitated by the band’s record deal that allowed multiple Grateful Dead members to release solo albums under the band’s umbrella. Just like Jerry’s solo album Garcia from the same time period, Ace not only seeded the Grateful Dead’s legendary live shows with some important cuts, it deserves to be in the conversation for one of the band’s best studio efforts. With some exceptions, the album was the Grateful Dead band backing Bob Weir.

The Grateful Dead played a very important role in the transition of California music from psychedelia to country rock, facilitated by Jerry Garcia’s studious knowledge of old-time string music and his steel guitar capabilities. The band’s early ’70s albums like Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty, and the aforementioned Garcia easily hold up against many of the Nashville country releases of the era.

But Ace is not really that type of animal. There’s a lot of variety within the eight tracks, but it’s best described as maybe folk and blues-inspired rock. The album is unique in the Grateful Dead catalog for utilizing horns in the recording session, but unlike most Grateful Dead records, Ace doesn’t lend to some bold sonic expression or shift. Yet the album is also slyly and understatedly excellent, evidenced by how we’re still talking about it 50 years later, and it’s been awarded a 50th Anniversary Edition.

“Playing in the Band” with its extended jam on the end, the border town-inspired “Mexicali Blues” with its superb chorus, and the most up-tempo song in the entire Grateful Dead repertoire, “One More Saturday Night,” all come from this album, even if they were featured live before it. “Greatest Story Ever Told” didn’t get as much set list recognition in its day, but it has since been exposed as a defining Bob Weir track, helped in part by its championing by Tyler Childers.

Even the deeper cuts from the album are worth your attention though. Few regard Bob Weir as some amazing singer. Since he didn’t have an especially unique or eloquent voice, he’d sometimes resort to shouting to get emotion across. Similar to his guitar playing, Bob Weir was at his best supplying harmonies to Jerry Garcia. But Bob’s performance of the heartbroken “Looks Like Rain” on this album is pretty spectacular, and finds Weir’s vocal sweet spot.

“Cassidy” is also a song not to overlook. Bob Weir was good friends with beatnik icon Neal Cassady. Cassady was like a big brother to Bob, and when he died in 1968, it affected Bob Weir greatly. You also can’t mention the songs of this album without mentioning Bob’s collaborative songwriters. John Perry Barlow was to Bob Weir what Robert Hunter was to Jerry Garcia. Barlow’s work is all over Ace. Robert Hunter and Mickey Hart also contribute on multiple songs.

Beyond Ace, Bob Weir was responsible for some other important Grateful Dead songs like “Sugar Magnolia” and the “Weather Report Suite,” but Ace has really revealed itself as his master work. The 50th Anniversary Edition comes with remastered tracks, and live recordings from a concert taped at Radio City Music Hall in 2022 with The Wolfpack that includes Don Was on bass, and Tyler Childers and Brittney Spencer guesting on tracks.

Though the live tracks are cool to capture for posterity and to hear Tyler and Brittany with Bob Weir, Bob’s fastball has probably passed him by at this point. But the greatness of Ace is locked in for all time, and like all of the greatest music, has only grown better with age.

Ace is an album that may not hold much weight with you unless the Grateful Dead looms large in your musical ethos, though with Tyler Childers, Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle and others covering Grateful Dead songs these days, those differences are beginning to diminish. Either way, Ace is nothing short of essential in the Grateful Dead world, and exemplifies why Bob Weir wasn’t just “The Other One.”

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Purchase Ace: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition

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