Many jam bands can noodle one into a somnolent zombie. Begging the listener to either go along for the ride or drift off into a drug addled stupor. Most often these well meaning acts lack truly memorable material, material that can elevate your spirit, levitate you out of your seat and get you to dance at the top of your lungs. The Dead could do it and do it while they took you on a tour of our American music lexicon via their varied song selection. Bob Weir's RatDog can play circles around most bands touring the world today.
Ten years in with this lineup and Weir has proven that he was no second banana to his foil Heir Jerry in the Grateful Dead. He is up to the task and then some to wave that freak flag high and wide. They are the best band touring the States this year. In the last two weeks I caught them opening for the Allman Brothers in Holmdel, NJ and Hartford, CT and in each show they were enchantingly fierce. Two completely different sets, two completely different shows in tone, texture, and feel. Whether exploring the jazz textures that propel so much of Mr. Weir's arrangements of his evergreen catalog, reinterpreting covers by Bob Dylan or The Beatles, or even re-imagining the Dead's catalog, he and his accomplished bandmates excel in their interpretive prowess.
I could crow about this band for days. Let's start with the foundation. Jay Lane is equal alone to Dead drummers Mickey and Bill together, and I mean that with all due respect and appreciation of the dual drummer line up of The Dead employed for so many years. The man is all over the kit, both muscular and nimble yet altogether propulsive. He reminds me of jazz giant Tony Williams. He and bass player Robin Sylvester lay down an ever-expanding groove that ebbs and flows with Weir's flowing set list.
One song literally melds into the next so effortlessly that if you didn't know the material you'd swear you were listening to an extended two-hour symphony. The show in Hartford started with Jay's propulsive thunder and quickly morphed into "Terrapin Station." This complex song would even do Radiohead proud. (Now that would be quite the cover for them. And conversely, RatDog covering "Paranoid Android" would be astonishing.) Bobby's guitar playing creates a rhythmic friction in each song, a counterpoint to Mark Karan's stinging lead guitar work.
Karan's playing is a sideways glance at Jerry, anything but rote during the Dead classics, and never without his own imaginative personality shining through, especially when his fingers bend the strings of his Fender Tele, Strat, or Gibson SG. His electric work is quite exhilarating. Given the remarkable number of mediocre guitarists garnering accolades today, it's quite puzzling that the mainstream rock press is not crowing about this man. His lyrical fretwork really shines on the jazzier arrangements. Witnessed live at the PNC in New Jersey during the second set was his majesty on the Miles Davis tune "Milestone." Weir ignites the song with the main motif, playing a hypnotic guitar riff that frames the melody while the band falls in behind him. And Kenny Brooks on sax provides more than just background padding on each tune. His instrument adds remarkable color to each song, never forced or in the way. Miles beyond the one-note honking from the Big Man with the East Street Band.
How many bands tour with a full concert grand piano, Hammond B-3, and other electronic keyboard goodies? Not too many. And for good reason. Not too many bands have an accomplished keyboard player like Mike Chimenti. Classically trained, he gets his freak on with style and chops that actually augment the twin guitar work. And if you've ever listened to a fair amount of jazz you'd know that this is extremely difficult. Whether a barrelhouse boogie-woogie or stabbing organ fills, his keyboard workouts remain an integral part to the overall dynamic. Quick, name me your favorite jazz guitar/keyboard record... This is a very rare bird indeed. Chick Corea and Al DiMeolo in Return to Forever recorded some of the finest duets ever committed to vinyl, but those were two masters at the top of their game. Ditto for John McLaughlin and Jan Hammer in Mahavishnu Orchestra. Most keyboards in jam bands offer little more than some pleasant color to the proceedings.
And while the songs snake and weave into a final coda from "Terrapin Station" in Hartford, I am reminded that though RatDog at one time was just a side project from Bob Weir, it is now and forever a formidable beast. They are every bit the juggernaut the Dead ever was. The proof is in their music. And the proof can be found in concert or on any of their CDs that are available immediately following their shows. Mixed by RatDog soundman Mike McGinn, masterly mastered by Peter Ammerall and proficiently produced by David Raffarin, these are the best "official" RatDog bootlegs offered on the Net.
Even though I've hung out with this band, I am beyond reproach. No more proof is needed than to spend an evening communing with them from the audience. I for one would rather bask in the wonder of RatDog's improvised exploration of their rich catalog than be bored by the expected. And I would rather travel two hours to witness RatDog in concert than settle for some second-tier local act rehashing their hits note for note. Now, please don't bogart that joint, my friend.
Converge is the word. Dusty
Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs, recently contributed to Chris Butler's The Devil's Glitch project (the longest song in the world), and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was an agent at William Morris!