Saturday, March 18, 2006

Weir's World

From Fairfield County Weekly:

Weir's World
From that trippy train ride with the Dead to discovering Miles to losing himself in the music--a conversation with RatDog's Bob Weir
Brita Belli - March 16, 2006

With RatDog, Bob Weir continues to chase the muse. Bob Weir must be in relentless pursuit of something big. While playing rhythm guitar for the Grateful Dead, performing nearly 100 shows a year for 30 years, he was already developing his solo side, through albums like Ace and Heaven Help the Fool. He and Dead bassist Rob Wasserman collaborated for years on their own material, and became the heart of RatDog, a group that continued the experimentation the Dead had begun. The six-man group lost Wasserman in 2003, but developed a sophisticated jazz side with drummer Jay Lane, pianist Jeff Chimenti and saxophonist Kenny Brooks from the Charlie Hunter Quartet.

Not that Weir's band has ever lost touch with its Grateful Dead roots. RatDog borrows liberally from the Grateful Dead songbook, resurrecting their sound when he sings those songs he always sang ("Cassidy," "Playing in the Band") and carving new avenues for other classics. Whatever Weir is chasing in relentless performing that's led from the height of psychedelic mayhem through music without Jerry Garcia with the Other Ones and the Dead to RatDog, it all leads back to a festival tour by train across Canada in 1970 that he and the Grateful Dead took with a host of friends and fellow musicians, from Janis Joplin to the Band and Buddy Guy. In 2003, footage of the tour was released as Festival Express . Bob Weir explains how that trip went down and the rest of life caught up.

Fairfield Weekly: In Festival Express you come across as the innocent, naïve 22-year-old. Was that train trip a turning point for you?

BW: Well, it was a great ride, I'll tell you. It was the ride of a lifetime. As far as a turning point, not really. It was a great party.

FW: Alcohol seemed like the only unknown element.

BW: For a lot of us, that was the case. Actually, it was something of a discovery. We all got looped.

FW: What kind of influence did the other musicians have on the Grateful Dead and your music?

BW: I guess that train trip was kind of influential in that we all got together and traded licks... There were a few songwriters that I became aware of like Kris Kristofferson; he had just written "Me & Bobby McGee" and that tune was making the rounds during that train trip. I think I learned of Jackson Browne on that trip... Aside from that, I knew about country music, I knew about jazz music, I knew about blues and rock ' n' roll, and I'd been sort of pursuing all those. Most of us had been. I was acutely aware of what Miles Davis was up to at that point.

FW: Jazz seems to be an integral part of RatDog. How did Miles Davis and fusion factor into your sound?

BW: [Miles Davis] had been at it for a while when the train trip happened. And he had been sliding a little toward the electric side of instrumentation. And that was opening up a whole new world for us electric musicians. I had for a number of years at that point been listening to John Coltraine, Miles Davis, those guys. And a number of other guys of that ilk, playing what was basically acoustic music. But to hear Miles start playing music of that nature with electric instruments incorporated, that was a bold step, and it opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for us rock 'n' roll musicians, as electric musicians. All the guys in our band had been listening to a lot of that going into that train trip. I kind of expect to one degree or another a lot of the other musicians on the train had also been listening to that stuff. But the train trip was an opportunity for us to get together and in some instances actually sort of chase that muse. Which we did.

FW: RatDog still performs a lot of the classic Grateful Dead songs. Is it different now?

BW: Well, we've all grown up. The characters become richer, more complicated, more nuanced characters.

FW: Are there any songs you feel like you can't perform? That belong to another time?

BW: No. A good song is timeless. And if you have to bring yourself back to that time, then that's a wonderful trip to take.

FW: The Dead are known for reinventing songs live. Do these songs continue to evolve?

BW: Yeah. They get plumper and fuller. Or leaner and meaner. They go however they want to.

FW: Could they change night to night even?

BW: With RatDog, once we play a tune out of the repertoire, it's going to be a while, generally at least a week, before we get back around to it in rotation, so the song gets to go fallow for a while after each performance, and by the time it re-emerges, we've had ample opportunity to pack it under our pillows and let it grow. When it comes back out, almost invariably there are new aspects to the song that come to the fore.

FW: I've met a lot of serious Grateful Dead fans who love the song "Black Throated Wind" [written by John Barlow]. What does that mean?

BW: The lyric, the line "black throated wind" I wouldn't know how to say that, except those words. It means what it means to me, it's something I can see but, God, I could probably write an essay on that. On what that means. But that would be a pathetic attempt to do what prose and poetry can do in three words.

FW: Were there times for you when the scene around the Dead became too out of control? Where you had to step away?

BW: Well, you know, if that happened I did. I went on vacations. Jerry and I used to take vacations a lot. Head to the beach.

FW: Many of you had side projects. Was that a way to regroup?

BW: Yeah. All those side projects were vacations from what the Dead did. And invariably I came back from all those side projects refreshed and enthused, with a notion of climbing back into the Dead songbook.

FW: When you look out at your audience now, do you see people who have grown up with you, or more new faces?

BW: I don't know what I'm looking at when I'm onstage. I see a lot of young faces, I see older faces. The younger ones tend to be further up front, the older ones tend to be further back--that much I can tell you. But aside from that, when I'm onstage, I'm not really there. If it's between songs... I'm thinking about the music and where it wants to head to, where I intuit that it wants to head to next. And when we're actually playing or I'm actually singing a song, the guy who's on the marquis out front isn't even in the house. What you see onstage is some sort of corporeal representation of the guy who's on the marquis, but who's actually standing in front of you is the character in the song. I spent my entire career learning to go there, learning to forget myself. To lose myself, step aside and let the character come through and tell the story.

Bob Weir & RatDog
Mon., March 20 & Tues., March 21. 7:30 p.m.
$49.50. Premier Music Hall, 6 Delay St., Danbury.
(866) 384-3060,


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