Former Grateful Dead Guitarist Bob Weir Keeps Doing What He Loves Best
Posted on: Friday, 20 June 2008, 18:00 CDT
It would be tempting to simplify Bob Weir's career as a long, strange trip.
And, certainly, it has been that.
But as one of the founding members of the Grateful Dead, Weir always has sought outlets for his creativity beyond being one of the originators of the world's most famous jam band. And he did it for a simple reason; he loved it.
"The M.O. (of playing through the years) is pretty much the same," he told the Vancouver Province last year. "For me, it's doing what I love to do. It's not a matter of establishing an identity or anything like that."
Weir and his band, RatDog, will perform as part of the Ironstone Amphitheatre Summer Concert Series on June 27 along with the band Gov't Mule.
Weir's first and most famous band, the Grateful Dead, was founded in San Francisco in 1965 and became an icon of the 1960s thanks to its eclectic, free-flowing mix of rock, folk, bluegrass, blues, reggae, country, jazz, psychedelia, space rock and even gospel. Weir distinguished himself playing rhythm guitar alongside the fluid lead solos of Jerry Garcia. He also sang lead vocals on a number of tracks.
Still at the height of the band's popularity in 1972, Weir released his first solo album, "Ace." Through the years, he has released seven solo albums. His independent streak continued in 1975, when the Grateful Dead took a year off and he took the time to record and tour with a number of groups, including Kingfish and Bobby and the Midnites.
Weir stayed with the Grateful Dead until Garcia's death in 1995. Shortly before that, he also had started a new band, RatDog, with bassist Rob Wasserman. The band, like the Grateful Dead, was a jam-based group that toured incessantly and developed its own following. Also like the Grateful Dead, RatDog has a revolving lineup with Weir at its center.
RatDog's music is a mix of rock, blues, Americana and jazz. The group also performs Grateful Dead songs and covers during its live shows.
The group released its first studio album, "Evening Moods," in 2000 and followed it the next year with "Live at Roseland."
Since Garcia's death and the Grateful Dead's disbanding, Weir has worked with his former bandmates on various projects, most notably in reunion tour stints in 1998, 2000 and 2002 as The Other Ones and from 2003-2004 as The Dead.
But the jamming spirit of the Grateful Dead is alive and well in RatDog, too. Weir also told The Vancouver Province that his shows can be epic events, like the old days.
"We're open," Weir says. "We have an enormous set list. We play a long show -- three to three and a half hours. You remember a song and really lean into it because this might mean you won't get another crack at it."
Jamming out with RatDog on a double bill at the Ironstone show will be Gov't Mule. The Southern rock jam band was founded in 1994. Ostensibly, it was an Allman Brothers Band side project.
Founded by Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes and its former bassist Allen Woody, the group charted a top 5 Billboard Blues Album hit with its self-titled debut in 1995.
Last year, its independently released "Mighty High" landed on Billboard again, this time in the top 10 of the Independent Albums charts.
With RatDog, Bob Weir tries to keep things fresh
BY SERENA MARKSTROM
Published: June 20, 2008 12:00AM
A guy like Bob Weir has done countless interviews in his day.
Weir’s a founding member of a little band that a lot of you have heard of: the Grateful Dead. And last year, for the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love, Weir was one of the people the news media tapped to be a voice for that mind-bending era.
He plays in many bands with other Dead alumni, and he brings one of those projects to the Cuthbert Amphitheater tonight. RatDog plays original music, covers and Dead songs.
With his busy touring schedule, it is not surprising to hear that the former young buck of the Grateful Dead, now 60, works at keeping in shape. But he may be on the forefront of another Eastern fitness trend: Indian clubs, used for strengthening his back and shoulders.
For this story, RatDog publicist and Grateful Dead biographer Dennis McNally sent recordings from two recent shows: March 22 in Milwaukee, Wis., and March 30 in Upper Darby, Pa. They contained such classics as “Dire Wolf,” “Jack Straw” and “All Along the Watchtower.”
With so many Weir interviews on the record, I thought I knew what to expect when asking questions on behalf of you, fair readers. But when Ace picked up his phone, graciously allowing a recording session to be interrupted, he said something that caught me off guard. Seems he’s working on a hip-hop album.
Question: So you’re working on a project for RatDog?
Answer: No, it’s actually for our drummer. He was doing a project called “Deadbeats.” It’s hip-hop versions of a bunch of our — a bunch of Dead tunes.
Question: That’s great. What’s your role in that? Are you an MC?
Answer: No. Mostly just guitar work, but I might do a verse here and there. ... They are extrapolations.
What the guy that Jay and I are working with, who is spearheading this project, what they’re doing is they take samples and rearrange the stuff so it’s vaguely familiar but really different. They try to keep a little flavor of the tune.
Question: Well, since I started talking to you, a co-worker stopped by, and he happens to be big into the festival scene and a huge fan of yours. He wanted to know how you pick which festivals to play with so many to choose from now.
Answer: It’s mostly a matter of routing. You know if we aren’t going to be in the area and have to travel a hell of a long way, then it’s not worth it to go. We try to organize our touring so everything gets done all at once.
Question: Do you have a different approach to playing a festival versus playing a Cuthbert, where a captive audience already is familiar with you?
Answer: When we play a festival, the first part of our first set — if we get two sets — or the first part of our show is our sound check, and we don’t (always) get sound check. And it’s kind of important to us to get a sound check to sort of tune the band to the room, tune the P.A. to the room and get everything working just exactly like a Swiss watch.
But that opportunity is not afforded when you play a festival. You are pretty much up by your bootstraps, and it requires a different approach.
I use different songs to open up the show, songs that I know are going to be easy for our sound man to deal with, for instance. Stuff that doesn’t involve a lot of complex choral settings.
Question: When it comes to a venue like the Cuthbert, how do you come up with the set list?
Answer: I generally look at what we played last time we played that given place, or the last couple of times, and I try to avoid stuff we’ve played there the last couple times through. And then I also eliminate the tunes we have done in the last week or two, you know, and then start working on a set list from there.
I try to take the crowd (into consideration). A festival crowd tends to be younger, and I do more upbeat stuff ’cause the younger folks like the upbeat stuff. If I am playing a town where the people that are going to be listening are going to be older, I will play the more deliberate tunes.
Are there any songs that you remember getting sick of and retiring?
Answer: Well, you know, songs get hot and then they cool off. For instance, I retired “Me and Bobby McGee” for a long time, a number of years, and then finally brought it back out. I got lonesome for it.
Question: Now I saw on your MySpace page, which I am sure you don’t maintain personally, but I saw that Barack Obama is your No. 1 friend.
Answer: He is?
Question: He is, yeah, ahead of Gov’t Mule.
Answer: I didn’t know that. That’s news to me.
Question: I figured it would be. But more than just that. I saw YouTube endorsements and that kind of thing, and I just wondered if you wanted to say why you are supporting him?
Question: Well, because he is committed to getting money out of politics and special interests out of politics. And when you have a lot of special interests running the political show, what you have is not democracy but rather plutocracy — a government of the people by the elite for the elite.
That’s what we’ve had for the last few years, and it’s not really working. It’s time for us to try democracy. I think it’s going to work for us. Obama represents an opportunity to go back that way. Once money gets a hold of government, it doesn’t want to let go.
Question: Are there any plans for another RatDog studio project, or is that just not necessary?
Answer: Well we’ve got enough material to make a record, but we have to figure out what we are going to do with it, because we can’t sell them.
We live square in the middle of a file-sharing demographic. As soon as the first record is sold, everyone who wants one has it.
So we go to a lot of expense and effort to make a record but see nothing back for it. So we’re going to try to work on that one. To find a way where we can actually get paid for making records.
We actually do sell a lot of records, but they are the ones that we make at our shows.
Question: File sharing isn’t going away anytime soon, so are you looking at the Radiohead model or what kind of ideas do you have?
Answer: We’re going to kick it around. There are a number of ideas.
One thing is just offer the stuff copy-protected in download form. I’d say 99 percent of our audience is computer literate ... whereas if you are a country musician or rap artist ... they aren’t faced with that same problem because their audiences aren’t all that computer literate.
Question: With an interview like this, when the music and the artists are pretty well-known, I want to bring readers something they don’t already know. Is there anything you want to share with readers that you don’t think they know?
Answer: What people don’t know, including us, is what it’s going to be like the next night we play. That’s our modus operandi is to try to keep everybody, including ourselves, guessing.
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