Thursday, December 01, 2005

Deadheads grateful for RatDog: Bob Weir's band, now 10, plays plenty of Grateful Dead stuff
By Cathalena E. Burch


Tucson, Arizona | Published: 12.01.2005

Guitarist and Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir has a confession: He's afraid to go on stage.

"I put off going on stage as well as I can," he admitted. "My entire crew knows all about that, every trick I'm going to pull. They just get me on on time and that's that."

Weir's stagefright has haunted him throughout his storied 30-year career. You never would have thought one of the men responsible for starting one of the most respected and revered rock bands in the history of popular culture would be scared to stand before an audience.

But in a voice that conveys some of that insecurity, the 58-year-old father of two young kids quietly confesses that that fear and being away from his family are the two things he hates most about being a musician. All the rest is gravy, and Weir and his 10-year-old pet project RatDog are swimming in it.

RatDog has been billed as a Grateful Dead tribute band of sorts, and there's truth to that. Weir said the bulk of the group's performances are drawn from Dead material. The blues-rock group - Weir on lead vocals and guitar, Jay Lane on drums, Jeff Chimenti on keyboards, Mark Karan on guitar, Kenny Brooks on sax and Robin Sylvester on bass - also follows the old Dead modus operandi, he said.

"We state a theme, we take it for a little walk in the woods," explained Weir, whose band returns to the Rialto Theatre for its first Tucson show since early 2003. "We try to cover as much ground as possible. If you come to a show in a given town, you're not going to hear anything you've heard the last two or three times we've came through. We mix it up pretty well."

But RatDog has evolved into much more than a Dead cover band. The group has developed its own style, crafted its own material and nurtured its own personality. Every night, once the Dead ride is over, RatDog, a superb jam band, continues with its own ride of improvisation that crosses rock and blues and jazz.

The audience each night will be a mixed bag of Deadheads and "Dogheads" - those are the "aspiring Deadheads . . . because they never heard the Dead," Weir explained. Somewhere in the middle, the two camps meet, and RatDog produces a sound that's a perfect blend of Dead and Dog. That's nirvana. "When we hit the right chord and everybody's pleased, the place rises," Weir said.

By the time the band gets to Tucson, Weir suspects they'll have finished writing a few new songs and will be ready to road-test them. How brave, you might comment. Bands today would never dare spring new material on audiences even before the ink has dried.

"That's how it grows up," Weir responds. "It's all I've ever done. We've very rarely written stuff then taken it cold into the studio." Weir says his audiences indulge them largely because that's the way the Dead always did things. Write a song then play it for an audience with all its rough edges jutting about.

Weir and RatDog are in heavy writing mode and hope to "eventually get around" to recording a new album. It would be their second release of original material; their first was the critically acclaimed studio album "Evening Moods" in 2000. Since then, they've recorded live efforts, but they haven't made it back to a studio.

Weir doubts they'll make it to one this time, either. "We have the technical ability now to do it on the road, and I think the band's probably going to be, performancewise, a level hotter than it could ever be in the studio," he said.

That means one more chance to shake the frights and face the fears.
"I'm not the only guy in the band who has horrendous stagefright," Weir is quick to clarify. "Once I get over that, which happens on a nightly basis pretty much, there's nothing I'd rather be doing. Period."