Monday, October 31, 2005

Ratdog, Weir: better than Dead

From the Buffalo News:

Ratdog, Weir: better than Dead

Ratdog was born over a decade ago as a duo. Grateful Dead vocalist/guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Rob Wasserman toured together whenever they could squeeze in dates around their other projects. In typical Dead fashion, the thing eventually took on a life of its own. When Weir and Ratdog played a jubilant show before a capacity crowd in the Town Ballroom on Saturday, they did so as not only the finest ensemble currently playing Dead and Dead-related music, but as the premier proponents of improvisation-based rock. Dare I mutter it, at its best, this band rivals the Dead.

Ratdog started out performing primarily blues-based material, but today - with Weir joined by drummer Jay Lane, guitarist Mark Karan, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, bassist Robin Sylvester and saxophonist Kenny Brooks - Ratdog can go anywhere it pleases at a moment's notice, whether it be deep funk, outer space, folk, country, rock 'n' roll, jazz or the startling fusion of any and all of these that has always been a hallmark of Dead music.

Saturday night, the band gave us a transcendent show in a remarkably intimate venue, considering the grand scope of the music. It was long, it was strange, it was definitely a trip, but mostly, it was just beautiful, spiritual, brave and rewarding music played by virtuosic musicians who have subverted individual ego for the greater cause. Ratdog is a band in the true sense; the members function as one unified organism.

The opening moments of "Supplication Jam" laid the canvas before us, and over the next several hours and two sets of music, Ratdog painted the thing every color in the spectrum. "Cassidy," one of the finest songs Weir has written, sounded fantastic, as Brooks sax lines were interwoven with Karan's sinewy modal runs, Weir's rich voice laying down the poetic text with a seasoned storyteller's authority. "Easy To Slip" fell away into "Dark Star," the dense two-chord figure an improviser's dream, the cinematic quality of the ensemble sound spacious and trance-inducing. "Bertha" bubbled under, then exploded into a full-on scorcher, as the crowd went nuts, dancing, shaking and always smiling like someone had given them wonderful news.

"West LA Fadeaway," always a torrid, funky, swamp beast of a groove in concert, was certainly one here, and again, the interplay on stage was profound - Weir playing the style of free-form, improvised rhythm guitar that is his own creation, while the rhythm section bobs and weaves, and Karan, Brooks and Chimenti spin musical gold out of thin air. Weir's take on the Bob Dylan/Robert Hunter gem "Silvio" ended the first set on a high note; this song got away from Dylan in the recording studio, and Ratdog's version is clearly the definitive one, reminding us what a fine tune this really is.

Set two started out with Weir on acoustic guitar, offering a gorgeous rendition of Paul McCartney's "Blackbird" and then leading the band through an elegant "Black-Throated Wind." One of the evening's many highlights came with the song-suite "St. Stephen/The Eleven/Come Together/Dark Star/Cassidy (reprise)," which left my heart well up in my throat and my gray matter rattling around the Town Ballroom's rafters. Judging by the crowd's reaction, I was far from the only one feeling this way.

After a fittingly rambunctious take on "One More Saturday Night" and an encore of Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," they were gone, leaving a joyous afterglow. Until next time, then.


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