Only Ratdogs and Puddleducks
Out in the Midday Sun with Mark Karan
First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2007, Volume 14, #3
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Photos by Mark Davidson and Alan Hess
Itís only the middle of the afternoon, but it already has been a long day. After playing for nearly three hours in Seattle the night before, Ratdog hopped an early bus ride and arrived at the Canadian border at eight oíclock in the morning. Getting to the club a few hours later, Ratdogís traveling road show begins to lay down its footprint, and by nightfall, Vancouverís Commodore Ballroom will be transformed from a Depression-era dance hall into a state-of-the-art psychedelic environment.
Roaming with more equipment than seems possible to fit in its truck, Ratdog hauls enough gear around to make a high school gym sound like the Paris opera. For the band, however, the extra tonnage is not overkill; itís simply the technology that is necessary for Ratdog to communicate its own special brand of magic realism without losing any of the integrity that goes into its creative process. The music that the group concocts might be ephemeral, and it might feel unplanned. Thereís nothing spontaneous, however, about the way that its method of transmission is established. It is within this devotion to capturing each aural permutation as perfectly as possible that the decades-old love affair between the musicians and their Deadhead audience flourishes most fully. Like whispered confidences shared in the dark between lovers, the subtle nuances that waft through the undercurrents of Ratdogís sonic sojourns are made available to those who care enough to hear the implied music that rests inside and between the notes. The setup is the foreplay and the pre-concert conversation that makes the encapsulating experience unleashed later in the night possible.
The musicians arrive early for sound check as the technicians continue to fuss all around them. Excited band members compliment the availability of decriminalized, British Columbian marijuana while trying to remember the name of the Indian restaurant at which they ate the last time that they were in Vancouver. Bob Weir discusses the finer points of chipotle sauce with a roadie, while bass player Robin Sylvester stops in his tracks in the middle of the stage as heís taken over by a visceral memory. "Yeah, it was here that the sound manís girlfriend gave me that beautiful velvet shirt. Where is that shirt?" he queried.
These and other questions are left to hang delicately in the balance as the band members slowly take the stage to begin the sound check ritual. And, itís a ritual like no other in the music business. Aside from a fastidious attention to detail, where every possible sound combination is checked and rechecked, the pre-show run-through also exists as a way of mapping out the emotional and sonic terrain that will be explored in the upcoming show.
Listening to a Ratdog sound check is as good a "jam band 101" course as any fan could ever hope to witness. After so many years, as with everything else Weir does, the preamble is no mere walk-through or tuning of instruments. It is an essential part of the Ratdog experience.
Beginning with High Flyer, Weir stops and starts the ensemble repeatedly in an effort to obtain the right intro to the final chorus. Small details, those which otherwise might escape all but the most careful listener, seem to be absolutely essential for the band to clarify. Moving into Foolish Heart and noodling with it for a good 15 minutes, Weir stops the band again and says, "I think I might try rearranging that. Can we come in again after the first verse?" Ratdog works through the song a few more times before shifting gears to focus upon a vocal rehearsal of Candyman. Foolish Heart is left behind, and it does not appear in Ratdogís set that night. The sound check concludes as the ensemble tackles Donít Ease Me In at four different tempos. This tune also fails to appear in the nightís show. These are the lessons that are learned and saved for another time.
Half an hour later, Mark Karan seems oblivious to the chaos around him as he relaxes in a leather chair backstage and offers his reflections on playing guitar in Ratdog as well as on the state of jam band music in general. Itís clear that the position in which he finds himself can be a paradoxical one as he obviously loves the music he plays. Considering that he occupies the same iconic, lead guitar spot that was once filled by Jerry Garcia, he also quite often finds himself in an unenviable predicament that is fraught with judgement and expectation. "I get extremely polarized opinions about my playing," he commented. "I saw somebody online the other day making some comment about Karan having a more blues-y style before and now he sounds a little like a Jerry clone. I donít really know what to say to that because for me Iím a clone of everything Iíve ever listened to because I think all of us are a product of our influences."
Karan is philosophical about tackling material about which people have so many preconceptions. Trying to strike a balance between finding his own muse and honoring the music heís playing can be an absorbing occupation. Because the style of a band like the Grateful Dead is so imprinted on popular culture, itís a constant challenge to find a method for delivering the music that not only is new but also satisfies purists. He attempts to explain this with an example: "There are a lot of bands now that play music in the Ďlanguageí of The Beatles. They donít sound quite like The Beatles, but the vocal approach, the chordal approach, the production tricks, some of the choices of instruments . . . itís a language. The Grateful Dead like The Beatles, or Jimi [Hendrix] ó and a few other key people ó really developed so much of a sense of their own language that itís hard not to evoke some of it."
"When I play the songs by the Grateful Dead," Karan continued, "they were the songs to which I was listening from the time I was 11 to 15 or so, while dropping lots of acid and seeing lots of concerts. The songs have a certain language, and Iím not going to be able to play guitar in a way that isnít pretty evocative of Jerry [Garciaís] approach in those tunes. So, that really old Grateful Dead stuff, to me, is kind of sacrosanct, and it is really embedded in me as Jerryís approach. On the other hand, when [Ratdog] starts throwing Lost Sailor, Saint of Circumstance, Terrapin Station at me, I didnít grow up with those tunes so I wind up playing more of my own things. My whole approach to music is to pretty much play what comes naturally to me and not to over think it or try to make it into anything in particular. So, what I hear in my head and what my heart is connected to in that old music is, melodically and approach-wise, evocative of Jerry."
Born and raised in San Francisco, Mark Karanís Deadhead connections evolved naturally. As a young kid, some of his first musical memories are of playing with friends in Golden Gate Park as the Grateful Dead performed for free in the background. When he began learning the guitar around the age of eleven, the Grateful Deadís music was inevitably an early source of inspiration. "From í66 to í72 or í74, thereabouts, I was a freak for the Dead," he stated. "I was a total fan. I went to a lot of shows and jammed at a lot of parties where weíd be playing Me & My Uncle or whatever else."
As time went on, Karanís musical tastes diversified. "By the mid-í70s, I lost interest and went on to discover Tower of Power, Sly Stone, and a bunch of funk. I moved from that into other stuff. I explored a lot of different kinds of music," he said.
Coming back to the Grateful Deadís work, after being asked to play with The Other Ones on the 1998 Furthur Tour, has allowed Karanís creative development to come full-circle. Touring for years with artists such as Paul Carrack and Sheena Easton, he became locked into performing a more commercial style of music for a living, and he didnít have a lot of opportunities to stretch out. While the creative challenges involved with performing with his mentors were immediately rewarding, Karan was not prepared for some of the changes that had taken place in the lifestyle and fan base since he had been part of the scene as a teenager. Realizing that he was treading on delicate ground, Karan carefully explained, "The new audiences, a lot of them, havenít seen the Dead. In some ways, it doesnít serve us, only because I think that a lot of kids have had this passed down to them as a lifestyle more than as a real connection to the art. Itís the gathering, the community, and the sense of joy and freedom in the experience of a live show. Thatís all wonderful stuff that I fully support, but I donít think thereís as much connection now as there was in the earlier days. Thereís not the connection to the songs themselves, the stories, the heart . . . what these people are trying to say and where theyíre coming from."
Karan appears visibly frustrated as he tries to explain how devotion to the perceived jam band lifestyle has replaced an understanding of what it was that made The Grateful Dead such an essential outfit in the first place. "One of the things that the Dead really had as one of the originators of the whole Ďjam bandí concept," he stated, "is that they had really deep roots in American music. What they were drawing on was a hell of a lot deeper than just listening to what their contemporaries were up to and aping it. Out of that, they wrote some interesting songs, and there is this great improvisational jam legacy. But, itís built from songs of a caliber that we just donít see much of anymore. That is whatís missing."
"Itís also that, in our current times, peopleís attention spans are really short," Karan continued. "They donít want to think about things. They donít want to take the time to have something really seep into their consciousness ó to read a poetic lyric; to search for its meanings and its multiplicity of meanings, and to explore the depth of a story and what its history might be. Iím fascinated by that shit. Frankly, I have talked to a lot of younger people and when I start to talk about this stuff, they kind of glaze over. The audience is more interested in arguing about whoís a nice person or who has better weed."
Karan blames much of the ennui in the jam band scene on having to do with a lack of imagination on the part of the players themselves and on a failure on the audienceís part to demand musical innovation. The jam band genre, like any form of music, has been busy creating its own clichťs. "Itís an enclosed world and frankly a lot of the music leaves me pretty cold," he agreed. "I like the concept a lot of times more than the realization of it. Playing without any concept or discipline isnít that valuable. If you just go ĎIím free to do whatever I wantí, thatís fine, but what are you doing? A melody is a good thing sometimes. If youíre Miles Davis or Bill Evans, you could probably play So What for 45 minutes and keep everybody entertained, but not everyone can do that. Truthfully, I run into it even here with this band. Iíll be the first one to say that Iím no Jerry Garcia. Iím Mark Karan. I do what I do, and itís heavily influenced by my history around this music. In certain tunes, Iíll be inspired to go on and play with inspiration and feel comfortable. In other tunes, if Bobby is used to playing with Jerry and having him stretch out, heíll go, Ďdo moreí, and Iíll say, ĎIíve said what I have to say about this. Done!í"
When asked why Ratdogís recorded output has been so slim and whether having new tunes might not be the best way for the band to keep challenging itself, Karan is, again, philosophical. "Weíre always writing," he said. "Itís a constant state of doing this and not doing that. Occasionally, this process actually comes up with a song. We write collectively, in pairs, by ourselves. On a couple of occasions, Jeff Chimenti has come in with something that was fairly complete that weíve then beaten up and made into a song. Sometimes, if something occurs on stage thatís particularly inspired, we all remember it. Or, if it inspired just one of us, then that person will remember it. Thereís a lot of stuff thatís borderline. For example, the other night we played a new song called Money for Gasoline. That song was written from a sound check jam that stemmed from something weíd done the night before coming out of The Wheel. We came into this African high life-influenced thing spontaneously. Rhythmically that just happened, and we had a new tune. I rarely go back and listen to shows, but I feel that it is a discipline I really should develop. I think there are a lot of ideas that come out spontaneously that could be developed a little bit into something worthwhile."
Karan admits that Ratdog is "pretty anti-arrangement." He explained, "We arrange spontaneously every night, and reinvent it as we go. We donít spend much time recording. Therefore, weíre pretty stiff in the studio."
To counteract this, when Ratdog got together to record Evening Moods, its only studio album to date, the band entered the studio immediately after completing a tour. Said Karan, "We wanted to be in top form for improvisation and communication. The idea was to lay down the tracks for each tune as spontaneously and urgently as possible to try and capture the raw liveliness [of our shows]. Well, we did do that and almost everything got replaced. They were good blueprints, but Iím a fan of warts and all. On my favorite old records, the time is all over the place. Theyíre not cut-to-click tracks. There are glaring mistakes all over The Beatlesí records as well as the old R&B records, too. I just adore that. Old jazz records ó itís just stick your microphones up and do your thing. Unless youíre a machine, your thing is not going to be perfect."
When asked about the role of his side projects, such as Jemimah Puddleduck and Mark Karanís Buds, and how they play in his musical development, Karan is forthcoming. "Theyíre very important to me. Iíd be happy to do everything with Ratdog, but the main thing for me is that I love to record and arrange, and I love to write. So, if Ratdog isnít going to do that too often, I have to find a way to do it myself. I donít feel like a second fiddle, but letís face it, this band is Bobbyís vision first and foremost. Iíve got my own shit to say, and Bob has shared the stage most of his life with people in addition to himself that were focal points. Whether it was Jerry and Phil [Lesh] in that band, or [Dave] Torbert and those guys in Kingfish, or with Bobby Cochrane in the Midnites, heís always had people in his various bands who also sang, who also were the focal point. Years ago, we had the conversation. He knows me as a singer and a writer, and he knew that I was kind of hungry to jump in there ó a Ďcan I sing too?í kind of thing. Iíve never asked him since. He was straight up and pretty generous about it. He said ĎYouíre pretty talented, but this is the first time that Iíve ever had a band where Iíve been able to chase MY muse without any dilution.í And, I canít ask him to give that up. So I need to have something else outside of this, so I can continue to sing and write and express the way I need to."
As technicians continue to move lights and adjust sound levels for the umpteenth time as Karan talks, itís easy to wonder if the routine of traveling, setting up, and playing ever gets to be too much to live with on a regular basis. After all, Karan recently performed his 500th show with Ratdog, and Weirís schedule shows no signs of easing up. "Iím not your average 52-year-old. Iím still pretty excited about playing. I donít care that much about the dollars attached to it. Itís nice to have them, but itís not my motivation at all. I like a challenge, and this band keeps me on my toes. This tour, we very intentionally havenít done any repeats. We just wanted to see if we could do 11 shows with totally different set lists. More than anything else, itís all just a lot of fun. And, itís the last show of the tour. I think we might just make it."
Of Further Interest...
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