Bob Weir & RatDog

September 5, 2009
Greek Theatre

Los Angeles, CA

Review by Shawn Perry
Photo by David W. Clark

I don’t know if anyone’s noticed, but Bob Weir has gone the extra mile picking up from where his old compadre Jerry Garcia left off. Of course, all the surviving key members of the Grateful Dead — Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart — have done their part collectively and individually in keeping the memory alive. Lesh regularly tours with a revolving door of “Friends,” playing oodles of selections from the Grateful Dead songbook. But when I think of RatDog, the band Weir has maintained since the mid 90s, I never realized it had become such a grand tribute to Captain Trips. Let me explain.

Less than a month after Garcia passed away in 1995, I saw RatDog perform at the Warfield in San Francisco. It was the first show the band had played in the city since Garcia’s death and it was an extremely emotional evening. Weir, along with bassist Rob Wasserman, guitarist Matthew Kelly, drummer Jay Lane and Grateful Dead keyboardist Vince Welnick, played a set of mostly covers. Any Dead songs that were played were written by Weir. The evening’s closer, Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” was dedicated to Garcia. Two years later, RatDog with pretty much the same lineup, played another show I was at. It was filled with covers, some Weir-written Dead tunes and a couple from other Weir side ventures.

My subsequent encounters with Bob Weir were when he was back in his old spot on stage with the Dead. I was at a one-off he did by himself at the 2006 NAMM show. It was only a few songs and most everyone but me seemed more interested in the free drinks than the intimate version of “Cassidy” he laid down. There was also something different about Bob Weir: he was looking a lot older. This was largely due to the bulky, graying beard and hang-gliding mustache dripping from the bottom part of his face. It was almost as if Bob Weir was turning into Jerry Garcia.

Tonight, after seeing a new and different RatDog for the first time in 12 years at the Greek in L.A., I might have stumbled onto a new discovery: Bob Weir has effectively taken it up notch for all matters of Jerry Garcia. And he’s done it for all the right reasons. Weir still has his own identity, and RatDog is a young and stellar band with chops to spare. But when it came to song selection, Weir seemed more drawn to key Hunter-Garcia compositions than some of his own. After looking over set lists and witnessing a powerful one unfold at the Greek, all I could think about was how come it had taken me so long to see this band again.

Jackie Greene and his band, whose been supporting RatDog on their current summer tour, was loose and limber as they got the audience into their own brand of free-from jam band rock. After a spin around the Beatles’ Taxman,” musicians and road crew personnel began scuttling around the stage. The music continued as equipment disappeared and replaced by new equipment. Greene was joined by Weir and some of the other RatDogs. The first set began with the one-two-three punch of Hunter-Garcia's “Franklin's Tower,” “Help On The Way” and “Slipknot” medley.

“Minglewood Blues” was next, and the crowd was swept away by the tight interplay of Weir and RatDog — drummer Jay Lane, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, guitarist Mark Karan, bassist Robin Sylvester and saxophonist Kenny Brooks. After a run through Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs To Me” and “Loser,” another Garcia tune, the jazzy intonations of RatDog originals “Even So” and “October Queen” shook down the house for an extended jam that ended with “Hell In A Bucket.”

The second set began with another strong Weir number from the Dead canon: “Victim Or The Crime.” Weir picked up his acoustic for a second Dylan classic, “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” before diving headfirst into “Terrapin,” “The Other One” and “Days Between.” It was a trip to hear Weir’s take on “Days Between” because it was one of the last songs Garcia and Hunter ever wrote together, and the Grateful Dead never released it while they were together [a live version can be found on the 1999 box set So Many Roads (1965-1995)]. Could Weir sustain the feel that Garcia was able to instill in the song? Absolutely, and then some. But the drain didn’t last as “Going Down The Road Feelin’ Bad” and “Almost Saturday Night” lifted everyone to their feet as the band drove it home.

For the encore, more passages from “Terrapin” were explored, and I was stunned at how much time and space RatDog were spending in the hazy confines of such a Dead epic. I thought of all the Grateful Dead songs Bob Weir has written, songs built for creating openings and devising detours. But tonight the guitarist was grooving in another area of the catalog, tracking familiar wonderlands set up by a fallen comrade.

By the end of the night, I was convinced RatDog was every bit as ‘Dead-like’ as the resurrected Dead — the group with Weir, Lesh, Kreutzmann and Hart I had seen at the Forum in May. Perhaps a different animal, but heading in the right direction. As far as I’m concerned, they all can keep playing.

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