Friday, November 18, 2005

Ratdog leader wants songs to be alive


From Sun-Sentinal:

Ratdog leader wants songs to be alive

Every so often Bob Weir's band Ratdog plays a number that doesn't, on the face of it, seem to fit with an improvisational rock troupe. It's El Paso, a rambling story song and '50s hit by country singer Marty Robbins. Weir, 58, remembers it from his childhood, although a fuller appreciation of El Paso's virtues would come much later."The song was so good -- wonderful melody, wonderful harmonic development and incredible vocals, and that story, plus some spectacular playing by Grady Martin, the guitarist," said Weir, who leads Ratdog to Mizner Park Amphitheater in Boca Raton for a performance on Saturday. "I grew to hate that song because it was getting so much play when I was a kid, and I was getting tired of it."But at some point in adulthood he heard El Paso again, for the first time in years, and pretty soon it became a Ratdog regular. In Weir's view, a country tune has no problem keeping company with the rock 'n' roll, blues and r&b songs in Ratdog's fluid live set. They're all apt to be played and, as Weir says, taken for "a walk in the woods" as Ratdog opens them up to free-ranging alteration.El Paso also confirms Weir's thinking about songs as songs. "I truly believe that a song is a life form," he said in a telephone interview. "It may not be carbon-based but it's a life form. Some songs live a long time -- outlive their authors. But I do know that songs are born, they have an infant stage. Then they have their childhood. Then they start to develop and mature, and if they're maturing properly they have more impact when they've been on stage for a few years than when they were born."Weir has written a few songs that have lasted into adulthood. A founding member of the Grateful Dead, the San Francisco native joined with Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and an evolving support cast to bring rock and roots music into the improvisational realm that had previously belonged to jazz. But the first band to spread the "jam" also wrote short, concise songs -- Casey Jones, Hell in a Bucket, Uncle John's Band, Touch of Grey -- that observed the rules of pop craft as closely as anything to come out of Motown, Nashville or the Brill Building.Weir said he is still working at the mysteries of songwriting."You try to find a corridor between the rhythm, what I guess I call the vamp, and the melody, and take it somewhere, and that has to fit the lyric," he said. "You know, it's a complicated process -- most of the time it's a complicated process. ... Any tune I do I'm going to approach from all those standpoints. It's going to be further accentuated by a harmonic progression that shades certain notes this way and that way, because every time you change a chord you change the lighting on the songs, you change the direction of the shadows."It's rare, he said, that a completed song just pops out in one burst of inspiration. "As you get older, your sensibilities become more acute -- more delicate, shall we say," he said with a laugh. "You're not going to go plowing ahead with this or that notion because you want to get a little more acuity in your writing. Plus a lot of the low-hanging fruit, you've already plucked. The easy stuff to say, you've already said. At that point it doesn't get any easier."Asked if he can say which songs of his are favorites, or which do the best job of locating that corridor, he replies, "I really can't. Every song is so different. There are no greater or lesser successes, really. Songs are songs. They're like kids. As far as I can get in that direction is when I'm composing a set: There's a better, or not as good, choice. There's a better or worse song for the moment. And that's as far as I can get in that direction. I love all the tunes that I've written and all the ones that I've played."

Sean Piccoli can be reached at spiccoli@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4832.

Ratdog
Where: Mizner Park Amphitheater, 590 Plaza Real, Boca Raton.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday.
Tickets: $35; Ticketmaster.com or 561-966-3309, 954-523-3309, 305-358-5885.

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