In three parts or movements, Weather Report Suite remains one of Bob Weir’s most captivating compositions. The concepts of “suite” and “prelude” date to the Baroque, and for a rock guitarist the most well-known composer of these would have been by Bach. In fact, the “Prelude” is based on the “Bourée” from Bach’s Lute Suite no. 1 in E minor (BWV 996). Weir’s use of two-part counterpoint recalls the two-part texture of the “Bourée,” and the harmonic choices are very similar to Bach’s, with a couple of key exceptions. The three-note trills in the bass and the guitar solidify the neo-Baroque texture.
The first part of Weir’s “Prelude” uses chords found in Bach’s with a slightly altered progression—E minor to Am to Bm (Bach uses B major). The second part of Weir’s begins on C major (the VI chord), and here his piece has an expansive quality lacking in Bach’s tightly wrought movement. In Bach’s case the second part sticks to the standard modulation to the III chord or G major. The counterpoint continues in Weir’s, but the real change occurs when he introduces an F chord (bII), which is not from Bach but from the world of Spanish music. Here Weir develops the idea found in the “Spanish Jam” of the Dead, which is based on Phrygian motives (half-step or in the case E-F; the Phrygian scale contains the notes E, F, G, A, B, C, D) found in Miles Davis’s 1959 album Sketches of Spain (here’s a YouTube link to a beautiful piece from the album called “Saeta”; note that the scale is transposed down to D Phrygian in this example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNx9fABz2f0&feature=related). After returning to E minor, Weir strums the G chord, with a quick C chord on the upbeat, which leads to the return of the two-part counterpoint. Here the F is resituated in a move from D major to the parallel minor which leads to a ii-V7 progression (Dm to G7) resolving to C major. Weir then ends the prelude with a surprising shift to E major through a series of V-i progressions (note that the dominant-tonic idea is found prominently in Bach’s “Bourée”), B7-Em, C#7-F#m; to get to the C#7 chord the Em becomes a E dominant seventh (with the third or G# in the bass). To bring us back to the world of 1970s rock, the E major chord (the goal) alternates with the subdominant chord (IV)or A major, which now transitions into the second movement of the WRS. Note that these two chords function as a kind of instrumental refrain in the next movement.
The second movement of the WRS is referred to, confusedly, as “Part I.” Weir co-authored the lyrics with Eric Andersen (b. 1943), who was one of the performers who accompanied the Dead on the epic 1970 Festival Express train tour that made its across Canada. Click on this link (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g70zT3lXPZc) to see him performing “Thirsty Boots” at the Festival. A typical folk singer from the late 1960s and 1970s, Andersen’s fashions his lyrics in a sophisticated, earnest, and perhaps “sappy” poetic style. Indeed the assumed poeticism of “Part I” is unlike anything else in the Dead’s original repertoire. Weir’s progressions are more straightforward in the second movement, and contain ideas he had already developed in his recent songs from 1972, “Black Throated Wind” and “Looks Like Rain.” “Part I” turns on the relationship of E to C#m to D and F#m (chords that also figure prominently in the two songs just mentioned). The chorus of the song, which begins on the lines “And like a desert spring my lover comes and spread her wings,” modulates to D major (via a V-IV progression), and then the D-G chords essentially replicate the E-A chords mentioned above. The final part of the song is a bridge to the third movement, and begins on “Winter Gray and falling rain,” here the two oscillating chords, B-E, recall the dominant-tonic progressions of the “Prelude.” The final chord progression, played instrumentally, is A-D-C-E; the next movement, “Part II” or more commonly known as “Let it Grow,” begins on the E chord resolving to the Am7 chord.
For a great version, listen to the first ever full WRS, from Nassau Coliseum on September 8th, 1973 (available on the Internet Archive at http://www.archive.org/details/gd73-09-08.sbd.wulf.183.sbefail.shnf). Note that the night before, on September 7th at the same venue, the Dead had played “Let it Grow.” The WRS would only remain in their repertoire through the final concert run of 1974, played at October 18th at Winterland. --Stay tuned for “Let it Grow”