Bob Weir never stopped making music but he did back away from his solo career after Heaven Help the Fool, a misbegotten 1978 effort that found the Grateful Dead guitarist attempting to dabble in the sun-splashed surfaces of SoCal soft rock. After that, he retreated to the boogying Bobby & the Midnites, a side project that was abandoned after the Dead scored a hit in 1987 with In the Dark, then after the death of Jerry Garcia, he wandered through several jam bands, settling on RatDog as a vehicle for whatever songs he had. All of this is to say that when 2016's Blue Mountain is called Weir's best album since his 1972 debut Ace -- and it is, without question -- there simply isn't much competition. That said, Blue Mountain does display a level of conscious craft that is rare not only among Weir albums but also the Dead. Credit producer Josh Kaufman -- an associate of the National, who released a weighty Dead tribute called Day of the Dead earlier in 2016 -- and singer/songwriter Josh Ritter, who both worked with Weir to create a lovely, meditative salute to the "cowboy songs" dear to the guitarist's heart. Usually, Bobby's cowboy songs in a Dead set provided a bit of levity but Blue Mountain floats wistfully, sometimes seeming sweet, sometimes seeming sad, but always offering some rustic comfort. It helps that Kaufman dodges the austerity of Rick Rubin's stark recordings for Johnny Cash, nor does he indulge in the murk of Daniel Lanois' collaborations with Bob Dylan: instead, he finds a balance between simple and spacy, a blend that suits Weir well. Against this backdrop -- sometimes consisting of no more than acoustic guitar, sometimes a warm wash of guitar -- Weir sounds weathered and warm, reflective but not mired in nostalgia, not even when he's reviving trail songs or playing with American myths. In that sense, Blue Mountain is very much an extension of his work with the Grateful Dead, particularly Workingman's Dead and American Beauty: he's tapping into legends, then spinning them for the present day.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine