Bizarre dreams: one of life’s entertaining ways of telling you how weird your subconscious is. I had one of said bizarre dreams last week and it was a doozy. First, let me preface by saying that my dreams have a habit of playing themselves out as movies, with theme songs, cameos by famous people, etc. (Example: One time I had a dream and during any “segue-ish” type part, “Superbad” by James Brown kept playing in the background.), and this one was no exception. So, the general setting and plot of this particularly odd dream saga are as follows: It was mid-Revolutionary War era, and I was on a huge wooden ship with a bunch of American soldiers, and, Phil Lesh and Bobby Weir. Yes that is correct. Both of whom were in full Revolutionary War garb; blue coats, tricorner hats and the like. Let me clarify: these were not 1970s Phil and Bobby, with long hair, coke bottle glasses, and shorts that would make Daisy Duke blush. These were the guys in their current state. Gray hair and fanny packs. You get the picture. So the three of us are running around the ship, doing the normal things one does on a pre-1800s wooden sailing vessel, striking up a few good conversations here and there. And whattaya know, up alongside us pulls: a British Ship! Behold, the enemy! Basically what happens next is what one would call “treason”, given the situation, methinks. Good ol’ Bob rips off his blue coat and underneath, what is he wearing? You guessed it, a red coat. He proceeds to wave over his British buddies and lets them hop aboard as Phil and I and all the other American soldiers melt into giant babies and abandon ship, swimming for dry land. Judas’d by none other than the Mr. Weir himself. Who woulda thunk it.
This whole melodrama got me thinking: is this my brain’s not-so-subtle way of telling me that I’m a Bobby-Hater? You know, that sub-sect of Dead fans who can’t stand him, think he’s a talentless attention hog, and say Jerry should have permanently kicked him out of the band when he had the chance. It’s strange, because I always thought of myself as a defender of the Bobby; while occasionally obnoxious, he brings an irreplaceable element to the musical makeup of the band- there’s something I love about the messy, almost juvenile energy and excitement that he plays with. I draw certain parallels between Bob Weir and Robbie Robertson of The Band: while not necessarily the most talented of the group, and perhaps the most divisive, you absolutely cannot say that their respective bands would have been close to what they are today without them.
Personally I have always been a huge fan of most compositions in which Bobby has lead vocals. I wouldn’t say this is because he has lead vocals. I don’t think I even actively enjoy his voice that much, to be honest. It’s more the character of the songs themselves, and the perfect fit of his performance technique with the way the songs are arranged and written (so I guess a lot of credit would be owed to John Perry Barlow in that case). I’ve discerned that the ones I enjoy most have an element of angst and tenseness in them that is presented in a “build-and-release” type fashion which meshes perfectly with Bobby’s vocal approach and makes the songs absolutely striking. Of course Pig Pen was the king of the wailing, soul-crushing blues piece, but the Bobby songs are something different than that all together. They have a feeling of franticness and complete reckless abandon that lends itself to the emotionality of the songs. “Black-Throated Wind” (a song featured on Bobby’s first solo album, although I’m sure anyone taking the time to read this mumbo-jumbo already knows that) is just one of my most favorite examples of this, and I would find it hard to argue that it isn’t one of the most achingly gorgeous songs in the Dead’s rotation from ’72 to ’74. It’s slow, melodic build combined with a shrieking peak full of raw energy is practically heart wrenching . (See the version off of Dick’s Picks 14 for a good example of this.)
But the one song that I always have to harp on when defending the musical chops of Mr. Weir is “Estimated Prophet”. To me, Estimated is quintessential Dead (an air of strangeness, haunting lyrics, and the ability to be a fantastic jam vehicle), and at the same time, quintessential Bob Weir. It’s too disconcerting to look back and try to imagine the Dead repertoire without it, and just as weird to think of anyone else singing it besides Bobby, not to mention the fact that the musical arrangement itself was his doing. I have to hold firm that, despite (or maybe because of?) his sloppiness both instrumentally and vocally, he is absolutely crucial and completely inseparable from the Grateful Dead identity.
Had to include the classic Estimated, New Haven ’77, for all intents and purposes: