Friday, April 23, 2004

Found on

Ratdog: Ratdog Develops New Tricks
Posted on Tuesday, April 20 @ 14:27:49 CDT
Topic: Show & Media Reviews

By Randall Mikkelsen

The Grateful Dead remains in flux nearly nine years after Jerry Garcia's death—as shown this year when the band, renamed The Dead, brought in Warren Haynes on guitar and dropped singer Joan Osborne and keyboardist Rob Baracco.

But the side projects of Bob Weir and Phil Lesh have jelled, taking on distinct musical identities and developing their own followings, which overlap but are not identical.

Phil Lesh and Friends thrives in the stately urban theaters, playing a hot wind of deep psychedelia. And Weir's Ratdog, which showed its chops in two packed shows at Washington's 9:30 Club March 30-31, has developed into a finely-tuned rhythm machine with a jazzy sheen that makes the nightclubs hop.

Ratdog scored in D.C. with Dead standards and familiar covers they have made their own, as well as Ratdog tunes from the band's Evening Moods album released in 2000.

The addition of bassist Robin Sylvester a year ago has been a significant factor. Sylvester occupies a less melodic and deeper musical space than founding bassist Rob Wasserman, whose brilliant playing on acoustic and electric uprights was right out front. The change solidifies the band's foundation, giving more muscle to Weir's rhythm playing while also allowing Weir, lead guitarist Mark Karan and sax man Kenny Brooks to take flights of improvisational fancy.

Karan has always played lead from the sidelines for Ratdog, but musically he was stronger and more confident than ever, ripping away clean leads while never dominating on the jams.

This was all apparent early in the second-night's first set, which began with an opening jam of the psychedelic gem “Dark Star.” The second tune, “Jack Straw” built from a long intricate interplay between Karan and Brooks, through a reggae passage, and into an exuberant rhythm monster with driving power chords.

Derek Trucks, who opened the show, joined on guitar for the next three tunes. He played his wickedly precise rhythms and searing leads on Bob Dylan's “All Along the Watchtower”, another segment of “Dark Star,” and Ratdog's rock-stomper “Odessa.”

What's notable about the Ratdog songs now is that the fans welcome them as enthusiastically as many of the Dead classics. On the first night of the D.C. stand, the ballad “Lucky Enough” highlighted the first set as a showcase of Ratdog's sheen. The “Two Djinn” closer on the second night's first set was another favorite, with its mystical, harmonic chorus.

The second sets differed widely between the two days. The first night's crowd got a reggae-flavored “Uncle John's Band” -- a nod to the opening act of Toots and the Maytalls. Then the band launched into a big run of psychedelic classics, beginning with the “The Other One” and going through a “Space” jam and  “Wharf Rat.” The rush climaxed with “At a Siding,” the whirlwind portion of the “Terrapin Station” opus.

On the second night, the second set was heavy with material from later in the Grateful Dead era, such as “Corrina,” and some of Ratdog's stronger tunes including the Delta-blusey “Bury Me Standing.”

Weir has been getting more political since Garcia died, and the capital crowd got a subtle earful to close out the set, with Ratdog's post-apocalyptic lullaby, “Ashes and Glass;” the Grateful Dead's wistful look at a battered Earth,  “Standing on the Moon,” and the defiant “Throwing Stones.” There was also a voter registration booth in the back staffed by volunteers from HeadCount, a new group aimed at signing up jam-band fans.

In a March interview with “The Grateful Dead Hour,” Weir said, “I think if people value democracy, they had damn well better get out and exercise their right to vote while their vote still means something. Because it's pretty clear to me that otherwise, corporations are gonna take over our government and that's gonna be that.”

Ratdog last fall sold soundboard CDs of its shows by mail order. For the latest tour, fans could pick up nicely-mixed recordings within half an hour of the last note. Quite a few thought it was worth the wait, with several dozen fans, including at least one apparent taper, standing in line at the pick-up desk as the bartenders cleaned up after the show.