Thursday, February 03, 2005

weir are you going, Weir have you been?
SPM talks to Grateful Dead guitarist about Jerry Garcia and his upcoming concert in Phoenix
by Vic Vela
Photo courtesy of Alvarez
Bob Weir of the bands Grateful Dead and Ratdog. Weir and Ratdog will be in Phoenix this Saturday for the second concert on their new tour.

Planning ahead is something Bob Weir and his band mates from the Grateful Dead never did very well. "Whenever we tried planning for the future, we found that whatever we planned was more or less an exercise of futility," says Weir from his home in Mill Valley, Calif.

"We were never really thinking about the future. We were more concerned with what we were up to at the time."

It was 1965. Sixteen-year-old Weir and the other musicians, including rock icon Jerry Garcia, were embarking on a journey that would span four decades and would eventually prove the Grateful Dead to be the most successful touring band in rock 'n' roll history.

Weir, now 56, is no longer the baby-faced, rhythm-guitar-playing rug-rat in a band of misfits. He is the distinguished gentleman and elder statesman for the jam band circuit, which has spawned such bands as Dave Mathews, Phish and Widespread Panic.

While memories of the Dead are certainly present, Weir's work keeps him far too busy for nostalgia. This Saturday, Weir will bring Ratdog, his band of 10 years, to the Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix. While the songbook is heavily saturated with material Deadheads know all too well, the sound should not be confused with that of his old band.

"It's a very different collection of musicians, so it's necessarily going to sound differently," Weir says. "You'll be able to tell the song, and it will be somewhat familiar to you, but we've found new places to take it."

The concert -- to borrow from one of Weir's songs -- will be a "rainbow full of sound," as Ratdog supplements the familiar trademark jamming with Coltrane teases and acoustic cowboy songs.

While the members of Ratdog have changed enough over the years to make the producers of "Law and Order" seem consistent, Weir says the current make-up of the band is as good as it gets.

"I like what we're up to," he says. "We're a hell of a lot looser now and a hell of a lot freer-footed than when Ratdog first started."

With Ratdog on tour once again, Weir fans are relieved.

Last fall, fans worried about Weir when he suddenly cancanceled a tour. But Weir downplays the cancellation, saying it was simply exhaustion from a relentless schedule of touring with both Ratdog and the Dead.

"I couldn't play and expect to take money for it," he says. "Leaving my wife and kids yet again -- I wouldn't have been thrilled about that. I would not have been very good out there."

While Weir's health is currently good, fans can hardly be blamed for assuming the worst after what the Grateful Dead went through during its historic run.

In November 2002, Spin magazine referred to the Dead as one of the 13 unluckiest bands in rock 'n' roll history -- a deserved distinction considering three of members' deaths resulted from too much drug or alcohol use.

The most infamous death was that of Dead leader Jerry Garcia. Struggling with a 20-year heroin addiction, Garcia checked himself into a California rehab clinic in the summer of 1995 and died of a heart attack the same day.

The night of Garcia's death, Ratdog played on in a New Hampshire concert. An emotional Weir altered the lyrics of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," singing, "It seems like such a damn waste."

A waste of life, it was. But, Weir has never held ill will toward his fallen friend.

"You can't be upset at a guy for being who he is," Weir says. "The pity of it is that Jerry took himself out by being too ambitious about trying to clean himself up. His heart just wasn't up to it."

While Garcia is firmly planted in the rock 'n' roll music scene, Weir's status is uncertain. Several writers have referred to him as being underrated and underappreciated. Weir says he could care less.

"Everybody tends to be a bit underappreciated until they check out," he says. "But I do get a lot of people saying I'm a major influence on them. When someone tells me this, I get kind of spooked because I've never really known what it is I've been up to."

Weir says if the surviving Dead members are to tour again this year, it will be a "modest summer run."

Besides touring, Weir also has workshopped ideas for a musical he wants to write about baseball legend Satchel Paige and remains politically active. He serves on the board of directors for HeadCount, the most successful, privately funded voter registration group of the 2004 election.

Although Garcia is gone from Weir's life physically, his presence remains.

"I can hear him when I play," he says. "When you spend that much time playing with somebody, in your heart and in your head, it just doesn't go away."

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