Ratdog gives workingman’s performance at the Wolf
I recall reading something once said about Bob Weir, attributed to a friend of his. The friend said he had never seen Weir in a crowd of more than two people where he didn’t feel uncomfortable.
You could sense what he meant in seeing Weir, former singer and guitarist with the Grateful Dead, perform with his band, Ratdog, at the Howling Wolf Saturday night. Of all star-status musicians of long standing in the world, Weir may be the most unlikely and unassuming of them all.
Weir is a star by circumstance, not by design or force of his personality or through astounding musical talent – much like the Dead as a group. The Dead, for all the talents of the late Jerry Garcia and songwriter Robert Hunter and their ability to create something greater than the sum of the parts, were as much a product of their time and place and following as of their musical gifts.
At the Howling Wolf Saturday, Weir showed just how low-key a performer, musician and person he can be. Despite the crowd located inches from his face – much closer than he has become accustomed to – Weir had no friendly exchanges with the fans, made no apparent eye contact except the occasional glance at his fellow musicians. More like a workman intent on getting the job done, Weir put his head down and, with no flash, and only brief flashes of artistic satisfaction, set about the task of getting through a mostly well-played nearly two-hour set.
Weir and his mates – bassist Rob Wasserman, guitarist Mark Karan, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, drummer Jay Lane and saxophonist Dave Ellis – started off on a high note. The opening song, “Hell in a Bucket,” was one of Weir’s more appreciated contributions to the Dead repertoire, and the way it was performed – appearing out of a loose instrumental groove – showed that Ratdog was no soundalike for the Dead. The next tune, “Playing in the Band,” and the subsequent jam, proved a perfect vehicle for Ratdog to stretch out and show off their jazz chops. A version of Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” was welcomed by the crowd, but Weir could not approach the emotion that Garcia used to bring to the song.
Ellis, a straightahead jazz player in his time off from Ratdog, emerged as the musical strongman of Ratdog. Early in the “Playing in the Band” jam, Weir fired off a lick of repetitive notes; Ellis picked up on it and mimicked Weir’s improvisation, earning a round of smiles and some energized response from the rest of the band.
Following the instrumental interlude, Ratdog eased into a sequence of songs that didn’t live up to the beginning of the set. Playing several new Ratdog tunes, plus several blues standards that had formed part of many a Grateful Dead show, the show devolved into a series of barely distinguishable tunes, all seeming to sport the same middling tempo, a similar loose groove. Weir has written some outstanding tunes over his career, but his last few contributions to the Dead, and these recent Ratdog compositions, don’t seem destined to be among them. Like Weir himself, they just blend in, seeming to not want to be noticed. Perhaps, in the tradition of the Dead, the songs need, more than anything, time to develop their personalities. A Deadhead can hope.
A Deadhead could have also hoped that Weir would break out something fresher than versions of “Little Red Rooster” and “It’s All Over Now,” two well-worn blues numbers that the Dead wore out with repeated playing. But it didn’t happen.
The show ended on a high note with the political-social warning “Throwing Stones” and the rousing rocker “One More Saturday Night.” It was one of the best stretches of the night; not coincidentally, both songs were borrowed from the Dead songbook.
As an event, the highly anticipated appearance of Ratdog was as much as one could hope for. One concertgoer, Neil from Virginia, claims to have seen some 140 of the approximately 220 Ratdog shows to date; the next most intimate venue, after the Wolf, for a Ratdog concert was in a 400-seat theater, he noted. For the gathered Deadheads who could get face-to-face with Weir simply by wiggling past a few dancing bodies, it was a rare experience. Far from the frightening crunch of bodies that might have been, the Wolf was a comfortable place to be for the club appearance by Ratdog.
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