Following the release of 1970’s American Beauty, the Grateful Dead had newfound success. The band spent much of 1971 touring the songs from both of their previous releases. However, this success wasn’t without some tragedy. Percussionist Mickey Hart would leave the group in February of 1971 after it was discovered his father, who was the band’s manager, had been embezzling large sums money from the group. The Dead wouldn’t just lose one member of the group.
Longtime pianist and harmonica player Ron “Pigpen” McKernan would be struck ill with a rare autoimmune disease which in conjunction with his alcoholism, would begin to take his life. With Pigpen’s illness, the group added two new members to help fill his place. The husband and wife duo, Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux, would join the group as pianist and vocalist respectively. The two new members would begin to breath new life into the group as Donna’s erratic and polarizing vocal style and Keith’s jazzy piano playing would mix up old compositions and influence future tracks. Not only would two new musicians join the group, but Bob Weir’s longtime friend John Barlow would begin to assist him in penning lyrics to his musical compositions. This partnership would become fruitful and Barlow would produce many tracks with Weir throughout the career of the Grateful Dead.
The group’s success also resulted in contracts for members of the band to make solo albums. Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir both took up the offer and released solo albums in 1972. Weir’s album Ace would prove to be a wonderful release as it was only a solo album in name. The production of the album would feature the entire Grateful Dead as Weir’s background band. The only reason Ace is considered a solo effort is due to Bob Weir’s lead vocals and co-authoring of each track alongside Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter and new collaborator, John Barlow. Following its release, seven of the eight tracks on the album would become staples of the Grateful Dead’s live performances for the next 20 years.
The album quite literally kicks off with “Greatest Story Ever Told” which features a powerful intro by Bill Kreutzmann’s bass drum. Busting in alongside Weir’s rhythm guitar is Keith’s Jerry Lee Lewis-esque piano and Donna’s high vocals. The new group dynamic is beautifully reflected at the end of the track when Garcia gets into his solo and Keith keeps along with him. Following the group’s re-introduction, the song “Black-Throated Wind” eases in. The country tune moves in softly but hits its stride in the chorus featuring Keith’s stabbing piano and some punctuating horns by Snooky Flowers, Luis Gasca and The Space Rangers. The track feels like it would fit right in anywhere on Workingman’s Dead or American Beauty if not for the horns. The next song “Walk in the Sunshine” is a mellow country rocker that eschews a typical song structure in favor of a structure that rambles along leaving a forgettable coda at the end. The lyrics which contain rather droll rhetoric of revolution and growing older, due little to help the listener love the song. Side one however picks up at its last track. “Playing in the Band” is a near eight minute track and contains the only improvisation heard on a Dead studio album in nearly three years. The solo by Garcia is almost perfect. Keith’s driving piano moves in and out of the jam at moment’s echoing avant-garde jazz and at times punctuating every note by Garcia. Donna’s backup vocals on the song give listeners the first taste of what they would hear from the group for the next few years. There is no wonder the track would become a live staple considering it’s the best overall performance by the group on the whole record.
The second side of the album begins quite somber with the folk track “Looks Like Rain.” The melancholic lyrics about Weir losing his lover have their moments of great poetry like in the lines, “But I’ll still sing you love songs, Written in the letters of your name.” The entire track features spacey pedal steel playing by Garcia which works to pull more emotion out of the song. It also features string arrangements behind the pedal steel as well, which only make the track more cliché. However, the track is redeemed by Weir’s emotional crooning during the track’s coda. The following song “Mexicali Blues” is mariachi-inspired outlaw country with melodic horns throughout the track. The lyrics are a funny tale of a man who rode down to Mexicali after falling under a woman’s spell and killing a man. The Bakersfield-inspired track is another moment of the group playing off the motifs of their prior albums.
Besides “Playing in the Band,” there is only one other track that stands out on the record. “One More Saturday Night” is a wonderful rock & roll song that features full and lush production from the group. Once again, Keith moves to the forefront with some Little Richard inspired piano The horns on the song cut through the rest of the group like butter and push Weir to scream as if he too were Little Richard. Finally the album ends on the folksy lullaby, “Cassidy.” The track contains the best lyricism throughout the album as it seeks to remember Weir’s departed friend and famed beatnik, Neal Cassady. The track features moving acoustic rhythm guitar from Weir and is a wonderfully soft send off for the album.
Ace is a fantastic solo effort for Weir considering how few writing contributions he had made to the Grateful Dead’s studio albums up to that point. Weir’s ability as a both a musician and writer have really come into their own at this time in the band’s career. The album works well as a stepping point or introduction for the next phase of the Grateful Dead’s career after the changes in the line-up and addition of the new writing duo of Bob Weir and John Barlow. Ace is great album that should continue be sought out by those interested in hearing the band’s studio sound before their 1973 release, Wake of the Flood.
RIP John Perry Barlow. 10/03/47 – 02/07/18