Elvis once said: "Rock and roll music, if you like it, if you feel it, you can't help but move to it." And if you ever witnessed a Dead show, or have caught Bob Weir's outrageously tight outfit RatDog, a viable and mighty fine alternative to the Grateful Dead (RIP) and all other jam bands criss-crossing America, then you know how prescient that Elvis Presley quote was so many years earlier. You will definitely be moved. I was fortunate enough to catch more than a few Dead shows in days gone by and I can honestly say that, unless you were stone drunk (or too stoned), once the music began you'd find you feet tapping, your head bobbing, and pretty soon your limbs akimbo in some white boy shuffle that only Deadheads have perfected. The deliciously eclectic RatDog possesses all of that and more.
Since Bobby launched RatDog in 1995 it was apparent that he was inclined to continue the fine music that he helped blaze with his once-mighty SF-based warrior musicians. For it was on the road that they forged their collective chops with a musical vocabulary so profoundly rich and deep in all things Americana: blues, R&B, folk, psychedelic rock, and even free-form jazz. Originally it was just a duo with bassist extraordinaire Rob Wasserman. But his latest outfit -- which has consisted of bassist Robin Sylvester for the past three years, saxophonist Kenny Brooks since 2000, guitarist Mark Karan since late '99, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti since '97, and drummer Jay Lane since its beginning -- has had ample time to develop into one of the best live outfits you'll see touring the world today. There's a ton of material to know, given Bobby's vast musical vocabulary, but they've honed an onstage telepathy to rival even the mighty Dead. You can't help but feel the love-fest between Bobby and his new stage brothers. And ditto for the audience. Which brings me to their transcendental show on Monday night in Central Park for the 2007 Summerstage series.
I've witnessed some extraordinary moments at Summerstage over the years -- Sonic Youth one 4th of July, Curtis Mayfield a week before being paralyzed, Solomon Burke on a blistering hot day -- and RatDog's show ranks right up there. Things began around 6 PM with one-man jam band Keller Williams: think Dave Matthews meets Ben Harper, very soulful and dynamic and able to move a large body of Dead enthusiasts in a single song. No easy feat. And towards the end of his convincing set, an acoustic guitar-toting Bobby joined him on "Bird Song" and "Women Are Smarter" as the audience whooped along. You knew from that moment that something was in the air.
Musicians seek inspiration, and New York can be brutally stimulating or calculatingly cold. On a grossly hot, humid, hazy Monday night with the sun slowly sinking in west, RatDog hit the stage and slipped into their opening jam like an ice cube sliding into a tall, cool drink. It wasn't long before Bobby started the refrain of a very switched-on version of The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." The crowd exploded as they segued into "Playin' in the Band." And if you weren't sweating by then, you were soaked by the end. Everyone was dancing -- Deadhead moms and dads with kids, cynical rock journalists, even some of the Summerstage ushers. A stirring "Ramble on Rose" followed with some tasty fret work by guitarist Steve Kimock (from once-beloved Marin outfit Zero, The Other Ones, and one of my favorite groups, The Everyone Orchestra) who is subbing for Mark Karan (out on health/healing leave). He was inspiring, so much so that Bobby traded lead licks with him during a very raucous "Good Morning Little School Girl." Bobby wielding his electric archtop Gibson 335 like a snake charmer. What tone! Does he get the credit for being a masterful rhythm guitarist with odd voicings and attack? (I trust this performance will find its way to a live CD pronto.) Keller was brought out for a rousing audience sing-along of The Band's "The Weight," he and Bobby trading verses.
Make no mistake, it was a Dead show in spirit and set list (below), filtered through the juggernaut of Weir's merry pranksters. There were many profound and magical moments during the two-plus hour gig, culminating in one of my favorite Dead songs, "U.S. Blues," with jazz wiz Dred Scott joining the merriment on keys.
I admit that I'm not a tie-died Deadhead, but certainly more than a casual fan. I've seen or played at least a thousand rock shows over the last 35 years of my life and this one was a magical musical moment. Ranked right up there with Dylan's electric return to Newport a few years back. No, I wasn't stoned or drunk, unless you factor in my day's food fast as putting me into my euphoric state. The band's energy and performance quashed any grilled hamburger cravings after being exposed to Summerstage food and beverage courts. No, it's best to say it was just some Midsummer's Night magic.
Complete set list: Jam > Tomorrow Never Knows > Playin on the Band > Ramble On Rose, El Paso@3, Corrina@, The Weight@*, Good Morning Little Schoolgirl > Help on the Way > Slipknot! > Stuff+# > Dear Prudence+ > Bird Song (reprise)*+ > Slipknot! > Franklin's Tower*+ Encore: U.S. Blues+%
*-with Keller Williams (Guitar/Vocals); +-with Josh Roseman (Trombone); #-with Tom Pope (Drums); %-with Dred Scott (Keys); Stuff - Kenny/Robin/Jeff/Jay/Steve/Josh > Kenny/Robin/Jeff/Jay/Josh > Jay/Tom
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 and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was an agent at the William Morris Agency!