Subscribe

Credit: minds-eye

Music

The 10 best Bob Weir Grateful Dead songs

@TylerGolsen

Bob Weir was always ‘The Other One’. To borrow the title of both one of the Grateful Dead‘s most legendary jam excursions and the title of his Netflix documentary, Weir truly encompassed a complete alternative to the band’s most recognisable member, Jerry Garcia.

Garcia was paunchy, Weir was scraggly. Garcia had a soaring tenor voice, Weir had ragged baritone. Garcia played crystalline lead guitar lines, Weir played jazz-infused inversions. Garcia struggled with his health, Weir was always in top physical shape. Garcia presented the platonic ideal of hippiedom, Weir looked like he could crash a board meeting on looks alone (if he tied that hair into a ponytail). When Garcia retreated from the spotlight, Weir became the nominal frontman, interacting with the crowd and leading call and response chants.

There was a stark difference between the songs that two traded off throughout Dead shows as well. Garcia got the emotional ballads, Bobby got the rock and roll tunes. Garcia could play country, but Weir was the head cowboy. They both employed long-form song suites, but the differences between Garcia’s ‘Terrapin Station’ and Weir’s ‘Weather Report Suite’ are monumental. They worked in tandem, played off each other with ease, and added different elements to the rich and varied stew that was the Grateful Dead.

Weir always had a versatility that served him well. He could navigate dense arrangements or play three chords Chuck Berry tunes without there ever being a contradiction. He could embody the rollicking spirit of Pigpen on ‘Good Lovin’ or simply add colour to the soaring solos that Garcia would launch into on ‘Morning Dew’. His lower register added a bottom end to the group’s harmonies, and his good-natured demeanour made him the eternally put-upon little brother within the Dead’s unique personal dynamic. In other words, he just fit.

Picking just ten of Weir’s songs to call his best is nearly impossible. Just like everything about the Dead, it changes from fan to fan, day to day, performance to performance. Adding to the challenge is the sheer number of songs that the Dead performed with Weir as a vocalist – more than a third but less than a half – that still amounts to well over 100 songs. Sometimes what constitutes a ‘Bobby song’ isn’t clear either: what if he trades vocals? Did he have to write it? Do covers count?

So with that, I’ve done my best to provide an accurate overview of Weir’s progression as a singer, songwriter, and essential element to the band’s sound. A specific order became unfeasible, and as the list continued to whittle itself down, the snubs became more and more egregious. Some absolutely legendary tunes had to be left off, so with respect to those who missed the cut, these are the ten essential Bob Weir-led Grateful Dead songs.

Bob Weir’s 10 best Grateful Dead songs:

10. ‘Truckin’

Remember back up at the ‘Sugar Magnolia’ entry when I said that there were songs that managed to extend beyond the Dead cult and into the wider public? Well, I left off perhaps the biggest example of this phenomenon: ‘Truckin’. Is there a single phrase more synonymous with the Grateful Dead experience than the line “what a long strange trip it’s been”?

‘Truckin’ actually acted as the band’s ‘commercial song’ before ‘Touch of Grey’ catapulted them back into the mainstream two decades later. Even non-Deadheads could be heard singing along to the lyrics concerning drug busts and life on the road. More than just about any other Dead song, due to its specific references, ‘Truckin’ is emblematic of the Grateful Dead as an unimpeachable addition to American culture.

9. ‘Mexicali Blues’

‘Cowboy Bobby’ is a persona that has become intrinsically linked with Weir. Whether it’s taking on Marty Robbins’ ‘El Paso’, Merle Haggard’s ‘Mama Tried’, John Phillips’ ‘Me & My Uncle’, or Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, Weir amassed a large number of country and western tunes that would often add a bit of rollicking fun to the first sets of Dead concerts.

Just as he had done with ‘One More Saturday Night’, Weir decided that he wanted an original cowboy song all his own, so he and Barlow went about writing an old-fashioned country and western tune. Like ‘El Paso’ and ‘Me & My Uncle’, ‘Mexicali Blues’ follows a similar plot of love, murder, and escape. If you can get past just how underage his companion is (and that’s a mighty big “if”), what you’re left with is one of the most fun romps in the Dead canon.

8. ‘Weather Report Suite’

The Dead singled their ambitions to go beyond the haphazard suites of Anthem of the Sun throughout the ’70s, and Weir’s own desires for an epic-length composition with heavily arranged parts and little freeform jamming led him to create a new piece based around the tempestuous ways of the natural world. What he came out with was a three-part suite that would illustrate just how much he’d matured as a songwriter, arranger, and singer.

The song’s prelude, a beautiful fingerpicked opening section, was quickly dropped from live performances, as was the melancholy Part 1. Part 2 was rechristened ‘Let It Grow’ and remained in the band’s live rotation until the very end. Harder hitting and more frantic than its subdued predecessors, ‘Let It Grow’ also allowed the band to stretch its improvisational jazz-fusion legs as well, creating a monster jam that was irresistible to a band eager to prove their varied influences.

7. ‘Black-Throated Wind’

Another infusion from Ace, ‘Black-Throated Wind’ has gone through a fascinating progression within the Dead canon. Originally performed frequently throughout the early ’70s, the song either got burned out or fell out of favour within the group and didn’t see a single performance between 1974 and 1990. During the band’s final five years, the song was brought back out, often to a thunderous reception from die-hard Deadheads.

A road trip song, ‘Black-Throated Wind’ is one of the more impenetrable lyrics from a band who were never afraid to let the interpretations of their songs take on a life of their own. More important is the impassioned performance and the renaissance of the song, now rightfully viewed as one of Weir’s all-time best.

6. ‘Estimated Prophet’

As the band moved past their ‘Primitive Dead’ phase and into more jazzy territory in the ’70s, the style that would often get associated with the Dead began to take shape. Nebulous jamming, complex chord structures, strange diversions of meter and time signatures. Gone were the more explicit influences of R&B and blues, mostly due to the passing of Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, and with new members Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux, the Dead began to explore some more heady sonic territory.

‘Estimated Prophet’ represents Weir desire to do more than cowboy songs or rock and roll covers. But the psychedelic simplicity of ‘The Other One’ wouldn’t do: Weir wanted something more structured and more elastic. Out came ‘Estimated Prophet’, the perfect balance between the band’s more ambitious arranging and the group’s continued pursuit of melody and hooks. One of the supreme joys of life is watching novice Deadhead try to wrap their head around the song’s mind-bending chord and time changes.

5. ‘One More Saturday Night’

The Dead were a versatile band, able to adopt progressive rock, folk, country, jazz, bluegrass, R&B and just about any other style into their sound. But few genres were as potent to the band’s music as old school rock and roll. The influence of Chuck Berry was something that all the members shared, and their giddy interpretations of songs like ‘Around and Around’, ‘Promised Land’, and ‘Johnny B. Goode’ allowed for a necessary break from the dense and noodle-heavy exploratory jams. Sometimes, a band just needs to rock out.

At one point, Weir decided that he wanted a rock and roll tune for himself, so he tapped the Dead’s in-house lyricist, Robert Hunter, to help him flesh out the tune. Weir changed most of the lyrics, leading Hunter to disown the song, but it’s hard to argue that Weir didn’t make the right choice. ‘One More Saturday Night’ is a rollicking show closer, and if it happens to be that day of the week, you can almost be guaranteed to hear it as a show’s final encore.

4. ‘Playing in the Band’

Weir’s solo album Ace looms large in his legend, mostly due to the fact that it birthed many of his most notable contributions to the Dead canon – and you’ll see that literally half of this list is made up of songs featured on that album. Recorded with all the members of the band, minus Pigpen, Ace is basically a Grateful Dead album if Weir was the only singer, leading to some fascinating alternate universe images of Garcia simply being the lead guitarist.

‘Playing in the Band’ shows off Weir’s early penchant for odd time signatures, cycling through a 10/4 meter that keeps the song tumbling with an idiosyncratic drive. In some small way, the song also extended an Oliver branch to the band’s legions of fans. By singing along, coming to shows, or simply spreading the gospel of the Dead, you too would be playing in the band.

3. ‘Sugar Magnolia’

The Dead didn’t have ‘hits’ in the traditional sense of the word, but as they became more and more legendary within the world of music, specific songs began to escape the internal cult atmosphere of the band and become more recognised to a general audience. You can hear these ‘hits’ from the way more casual fans react to them at Dead shows: ‘Touch of Grey’, ‘Casey Jones’, and ‘Uncle John’s Band’ being some of the most notable.

Along those same lines, ‘Sugar Magnolia’ has become one of the prime ways to integrate casual listeners into the Dead fandom. An uptempo rocker about the wonders of nature and the strong support of a partner, ‘Sugar Magnolia’ radiates the kind of exuberant joy that anyone could key into. The Dead weaponised its indelibleness, playing the song more than any other original tune (the only song to get more stage plays than ‘Sugar Magnolia’? ‘Me & My Uncle’, also sung by Weir)

2. ‘Cassidy’

Legendary Merry Prankster Neal Cassady, who provided the inspiration for the ‘Cowboy Neal’ character of ‘The Other One’, makes a return in ‘Cassidy’, although here he resides as more of a ghost than a character. 

Cassidy is named after the daughter of Dead roadie Rex Jackson, but Weir’s writing partner John Perry Barlow imagined the vitality of Cassady being reborn through the eyes of a new life: “I can tell by the way you smile he’s rolling back.”

A beautiful and delicate song about the miracle of life, Weir was never more endearingly genuine than he is singing ‘Cassidy’. Weir himself has an affinity for the song and, when asked what song he wanted to be played at his funeral, Weir responded with the opening lines of ‘Cassidy’, keying into the eternal circle of life and death as illustrated in the lyrics.

1. ‘The Other One’

Bob Weir was very much the kid of the Grateful Dead. Joining the band when he was just 16, Weir was the constant butt of jokes, the target of ribbing, and the occasional source of discontent within the group. As the band evolved, Weir was almost left behind due to his initially rudimentary skills. Weir had to adapt to the psychedelic and dense jamming that the band were adopting, and initially, he had a hard time finding his own vehicle for exploration.

It would be on the band’s second album, Anthem of the Sun, where Weir found his first major leading song. Initially a group composition with multiple parts, ‘That’s It for the Other One’ was eventually separated and condensed to the song’s third section, ‘The Faster We Go, The Rounder We Get’ (with occasional plays of Garcia’s ‘Cryptical Envelopment’). Soon to be known simply as ‘The Other One’, Weir led the band through a legendary psychedelic tale that dovetailed into endless improvisations that could often reach half an hour in length. ‘The Other One’ proved that Weir could follow the band in their exciting new direction.