In the early 1970s, the Grateful Dead were playing the most exciting music of their long career, writing many of the songs that would sustain them for the next two decades, but they weren’t spending much time in the studio. A newcomer might take a look at their discography between ’70’s American Beauty and ’73’s Wake of the Flood and conclude that the famously stage-centric band had abandoned studio albums entirely: a pair of live records and a solo outing each from singer-guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. Though Garcia’s solo debut often sounded like the work of the Dead, and contained several songs that the band would make their own in concert, in practice it was a hermetic affair, with Jerry playing nearly all of the instruments himself. Weir’s, on the other hand, features the full lineup, save for keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, still an official member but in ill health at the time.
Just 19 years old at the time of the Dead’s founding in 1965, Weir was the band’s youngest member, and spent its earliest years as a support player, adding shards of harmonic accompaniment to Garcia’s liquid lead guitar lines. Over time, he grew into a sort of second frontman: affable and workmanlike, the guy onto which the audience could project themselves, his easy relatability a natural foil to Garcia’s gnomic mystique. Ace marks Weir’s transition from mere rhythm guitarist to a full-fledged composer and driving force of the band. Despite its origins as a receptacle for surplus Weir material, all of its songs but one became beloved staples of the Dead’s live sets.
Weir was writing songs steadily in the early ’70s: “I got a lot of material, and I just can’t use all of it for the Grateful Dead,” he told a Crawdaddy interviewer months after Ace’s release. But soon after he began working, the other members started showing up, asking if they could contribute: “Everybody gets wind of the fact I got the time booked, and I may be going into the studio. So, one by one, they start coming around, Lesh and Garcia, ‘Hey, man, I hear you got some time booked at Wally Heider’s. Need a bass player? A guitarist?’”
It is a Dead truism that the live tapes are more essential than the albums, an inversion of the hierarchy that governs other bands’ canons. Ace is no different. Surely, most listeners of its 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition will be more familiar with various bootlegged versions of “Playing in the Band” or “Greatest Story Ever Told” than the recordings presented here. From the perspective of deep fandom, it is almost impossible to imagine how the album might come across on its own terms to a listener approaching its songs for the first time. On the surface, it fits in with other West Coast folk- and country-rock of its time. But Weir, the Dead’s jorts-wearing regular joe, is a much stranger composer than he initially seems. Melodic lines, and sometimes entire song sections, jut out crookedly from their surroundings. Complex rhythms disguise themselves as simple, and vice versa. It might take you several listens to discern which part of a given tune is supposed to be the chorus, if it has one at all.