Friday, June 09, 2006

From Marin Independent Journal:
Grateful Dead survivors keep keeping on despite sorrows
Paul Liberatore

Bob Weir and the Grateful Dead family have had their share of sorrow lately.
They lost their beloved head roadie, Ram Rod Shurtliff, to cancer a few weeks ago. Then, last Friday, Vince Welnick, the band's last keyboard player, was found dead in Sonoma County after taking his own life.

"It's nothing but sad," Weir says from his Mill Valley home.

"I wish I were qualified to have been of more help to him, but I'm not. All I could be was his friend."

Welnick never could accept the disbanding of the Grateful Dead after Jerry Garcia's death in 1995. He played with his own group, the now eerily named Missing Man Formation, and for a while with Weir's band, RatDog, until severe depression forced him to quit.

"All the rest of the guys are doing other things, and we're all happy doing what we're
doing," Weir says. "But I guess Vince wasn't."

After the tragedies of recent weeks, a change of scenery would probably do Weir some good. So RatDog's summer concert tour is starting at a propitious time.

He and the band play tonight at the Harmony Festival in Sonoma County. After that, the 58-year-old singer/guitarist packs up his family, wife Natascha and daughters Shala, and Chloe, and heads off for a series of festivals and shows across the country on double bills with String Cheese Incident.

For the Weirs, it's kind of a rock 'n' roll version of a family vacation.

"We live on a bus," he said. "There's a new swimming pool every day."

In recent weeks he's written a clutch of new songs to add to the RatDog repertoire, which includes the band's renditions of Grateful Dead classics like "Playing in the Band," "The Other One," "Cassidy" and "Sugar Magnolia."

"It's a legacy," he says of the Grateful Dead's music, "and I still work within that framework. I think I've got something to say within that framework. I've still got work to do there, in my own legacy and in RatDog's legacy as well."

As a founder of the Grateful Dead, the inspirtation for the new generation of jam bands, Weir is treated with a certain reverence that he's not all that comfortable with.

"I prefer not to be seen as an elder statesman, as a godfather, I prefer to be seen as a game pup ready to let her rip," he says.

"I'm real good at brushing that aside."

Asked to look into the future, he sees himself taking some time off after being on the road for more than 40 years.

"RatDog is really spitting fire these days, and I want to see where that goes," he says.

"But I have never taken a sabbatical, and, at some point, I'm going to have to. There's a two-chords to the bar classic jazz style of rhythm guitar, and I want to learn that. I want to get that in my bones. So I'm going to need to take six months or a year and learn to do that."

Since Garcia's death, Weir and the three other surviving Grateful Dead bandmates - bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann - have played together sporadically, first as The Other Ones and more recently as the Dead. Both bands featured a host of other musicians.

The Dead hasn't performed in some time, and Deadheads were disappointed when the band didn't reunite last year to celebrate the Grateful Dead's 40th anniversary.

But that date doesn't have the same significance for Weir as it does for them. He counts the band's anniversary from New Year's Eve 1963, 43 years ago.

"That was the night I met Jerry in the back room of Dana Morgan music shop in Palo Alto," he recalls.

"We played all night, and thought it was too much fun to walk away from. So we started a band that week."

If the Grateful Dead survivors do reunite, Weir would like to see them reform with just the four of them, no one else, as a stripped down rock quartet.

"That would be the most meaningful way for us to go back into the heart of our music, to rediscover what it is that we have," he says.

"I would love to take the Dead out as a quartet. I'm totally up for that."


What: Bob Weir and RatDog perform at the Harmony Festival

When: 8:30 tonight. The festival continues through Sunday.

Where: Sonoma County Fairgrounds, 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa

Tickets: $10 to $35 per day

Information: 707-861-2035 or go to

Paul Liberatore can be reached at