Monday, November 07, 2005

RatDog’s top dog

From Worchester Telegram:

RatDog’s top dog
By Scott McLennonEntertainment Columnist

Reached at his home in the San Francisco area a few weeks ago, guitarist and singer Bob Weir was getting ready to shove off for what must be— or at least certainly feels like — his billionth tour through the country playing songs he first help make popular with the Grateful Dead and now carries into the repertoire of his group RatDog. Weir’s treks seem endless; this year he has already swung through New England for theater dates in the spring, played with both Steve Miller and Bruce Hornsby over the summer, and now has plenty of action booked through the fall. And this is a typical schedule. “Well, it’s what I signed up for when I was a kid,” Weir, 58, said. “It would be nice if I could front a local gig and have people come to me, but that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. Maybe I could be in a house band in Las Vegas.” That, too, will likely not happen, unless Vegas warms to having artists to the extreme left of Elton and Celine as house acts. So in lieu of The Strip, Weir leads RatDog into The Palladium, 261 Main St, Worcester, on Saturday. The all-ages show will be a two-set affair starting at 9 p.m. While 2005 marks the 40th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s launch, Weir is hardly touting that fact to sell tickets. “The anniversary is something I’ve put out of my mind. Fortieth anniversary of what? The same people who were in Grateful Dead were in the Warlocks, and it was actually 42 years ago when I first started playing with Jerry,” said Weir, referring to his meeting with guitarist Jerry Garcia on New Year’s Eve 1963. “The 40 seems awfully arbitrary to this brain.” The legend is familiar: Garcia, Weir, drummer Bill Kreutzmann, organ player and singer Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and bass player Phil Lesh team in 1965 as The Warlocks and shift from acoustic jug band music to electric blues; the band changes its name to the Grateful Dead, plugs into a raging psychedelic scene and turns its blues into one of the great musical canvasses for improvisational work, expanding its sound to include jazz, folk and country styles. The band builds a huge and loyal following, becomes a cultural icon, and 20 years into its career produces its first hit record. Garcia died in 1995, bringing the Grateful Dead era to an official close, while the remaining members of the band work with their separate bands and occasionally together as The Dead. So the year 2005 is perhaps more significant and concrete in terms of marking how long Garcia has been gone rather that when Grateful Dead started. In the 10 years since Garcia’s passing, Weir has raised RatDog from a likeable though mangy mutt of an ensemble into a sleek and muscled beast. The band’s spring tour through New England generated some stellar nights of music with Weir and crew blowing fresh life into songs its audience knows by heart. RatDog has settled into a lineup of guitarist Mark Karan, drummer Jay Lane, keyboard player Jeff Chimenti, sax player Kenny Brooks and bass player Robin Sylvester. Weir joked about being “the CEO” in charge of this operation, but he is not an iron-fisted boss. “Working together slowly and surely, we’ve developed this band. Everyone is a real capable musician, and these are all guys who are real open humans, individuals who enjoy playing with one another. I get to enjoy a supporting role at times as well as take the leadership role,” Weir said. “We’ve found the guys we needed, and it is a delight.” Weir’s effusive praise of RatDog stood in contrast to the way he talked about any sort of future with the remaining members of Grateful Dead. Weir spoke of ideas to make studio recordings of Grateful Dead songs that currently only exist as live recordings. “That would have been an excellent project for The Dead, but we sure ain’t seeing that happen. That’s all I’m saying about that,” he said. Such a project, though, may fall into the lap of RatDog. And Weir is of a mind to finish up new songs, some that he said have been in various states of completion for years. Weir and RatDog previously put out the studio album “Evening Moods” in 2000, though countless live recordings are available through the band’s Web site. Oddly enough, just as he was anxious to record live Dead tunes in a studio setting, Weir is contemplating recording new RatDog songs in a live, or semi-live setting, sort of the way Grateful Dead recorded its most successful album, “In the Dark.” “We’ve talked about doing something live during regular sound checks or doing it right on front of the audience, where you have that X factor involved,” Weir said. “When we made ‘Live Dead’ that’s what we went for, and we weren’t sure back then if it would work.” “Live Dead” is a benchmark recording from the Grateful Dead catalog. Released in 1969, “Live Dead” broke new ground for the band rather than serve as a bit of memorabilia from performances the band staged in late February and early March at the Fillmore auditorium in San Francisco.
Complete recordings of the four concerts were recently released as a limited 10-CD set. An edited three-CD version called “Fillmore West 1969” is being released by Rhino Records. Weir knew that touring and bringing music straight to people would be how he works. Getting in and out of a repertoire in ways that smacks of adventure while avoiding musical disaster has pretty much been the type of work Weir signed up for. And it’s work that, for him, never gets boring. “The whole secret to and mystery of playing in a band is learning to hear what the other guys are doing. You learn to come into songs different ways. You learn different ways to relate to each other,” he said. “The challenge all along is you don’t know exactly what to expect on any given night. “It’s still the same today as when we were playing in the ’60s.” Scott McLennan can be reached at


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