Blooming Like a Red Rose

Ratdog and From Good Homes

Riviera Theatre - Chicago

November 7, 1997

First Appeared in The Music Box, January 1998, Volume 5, #1

Written by John Metzger


Bob Weir's Ratdog had been nothing short of spectacular this Summer in their hour-long set as part of the Furthur Festival. Saxophonist Dave Ellis, a newcomer to the ensemble, provided a powerful twist to the songs that Weir and bassist Rob Wasserman had been performing for years. This time out, the band had gelled further, and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti found his groove, giving the group a rich, complex sound upon which to dance.

This is Chicago, and since the blues are one of Weir's favorite motifs, he offered a wonderful Walkin' Blues to open the show and a stellar Little Red Rooster at its midpoint. These were clearly audience favorites, but though they were well played, they were hardly Ratdog's strongest statements for the evening. No, the group had much more to say, and that it did throughout the show. Everyone in the ensemble was clearly having a blast, mixing long-time Weir/Wasserman standards with classic Grateful Dead tunes. Weir playfully altered his vocals, using a variety of facial, body, and lyrical expressions to convey the emotion in each song.

This past Summer, Ratdog delivered an awesome Saint of Circumstance. Just how do you go about topping that? Start with a space-filled introduction that hangs on the familiar chords to Lost Sailor. For a moment, as the chords were suspended in mid-air, building the anticipation, it seemed as if the group would plunge into the opening riff of this long, oft-forgotten song, but suddenly Weir led the band, full-throttle into a raging Saint of Circumstance. Ratdog had methodically punched holes in what was left of the audience's collective reason and quickly filled them with beautiful, mighty melodies that rained down from the sky. Ellis magically scattered notes in the air, which rang sweetly from his soprano saxophone.

During West L.A. Fadeaway, Chimenti and harpist Matthew Kelly developed a groovy blues-based rhythm which Weir proceeded to shred with a funky guitar solo. Weir is not, in any way, a typical lead guitar player. In fact, Ratdog doesn't have a true lead guitarist. Instead, Weir takes his fantastic rhythm style and mutates it into a unique, punctuated solo that will wreaks havoc with logic and reason.

The acoustic portion of the show was short and sweet, featuring Weir, Wasserman, and Kelly dueling their way through KC Moan and Heaven Help the Fool. On the latter song, Kelly pounded away on conga drums, while Weir and Wasserman built the tune to a feverish pitch. Weir refused to let the jam end as he strummed a powerful chord sequence repeatedly while Wasserman split the sky in two with a thunderous bass run.

Yet, Ratdog was merely warming up. He Travels the Fastest, also known as The Winners, flowed into Jay Lane's tribal drum beat. Out of nowhere, Weir led the group into a sparkling cover of Little Feat's Easy to Slip before launching into the biggest, most ferocious Supplication Jam imaginable. This version was the Energizer bunny-rendition that kept building in intensity, at times blowing wide open into a roaring cascade of sonic white water rapids and at other times merging into a calming ripple of musical expression. Chimenti was the first to plow into a jazzy groove, but the rest of the band quickly followed. Ellis was brilliant in how he surfed the music in a manner that frequently was reminiscent of John Coltrane.

Gradually, the song dissipated as each member of Ratdog left the stage, leaving Wasserman to take a bow to his bass, creating an eerie solo with an Eastern feel. After Wasserman ripped through St. Stephen and Satisfaction, Lane returned and tore into a wild drum solo. After a brief pause, he slowed the pace as the band returned. As the sound of a tribal drum beat that had preceded Easy to Slip returned, and the group plunged into an incredible Corina. Ellis took turns between tenor and soprano saxophone, dancing around the melody and lighting the song with sense and color. A brief space interlude led the way out of Corina, as the ensemble slipped its way into Sugar Magnolia.

What a perfect ending. On that final, fateful Summer tour of '95, Sugar Magnolia was certainly the song of joy, and this version was just as incredible. A happy, celebratory feeling pervaded as the audience danced wildly, and Ratdog built the song to a feverish pitch. It threw a few twists and turns into the middle of it, lifting our spirits higher and higher, carrying us where the wind goes. Singing, I'll walk you in the morning sunshine, Weir, the audience, and the band cast a bright light, a beacon of love out to Jerry Garcia who would have smiled at the communion that was taking place.

Ratdog quickly returned to conclude the two-hour, five minute show with a blistering Johnny B. Goode. Chimenti stole the spotlight with a New Orleans-flavored solo that contained just the right amount of spice.

From Good Homes opened the show with a 45-minute set of enjoyable original material. Its songs blended elements of The Eagles with Bob Dylan and The Beatles with Peter Gabriel. Leftover Salmon fans also would enjoy the group's bluegrass and country undertones. The ensemble's saxophone player was the one who grabbed the audience's attention. His soprano saxophone solos shaded the collective's songs with colors like those employed by Branford Marsalis.

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Copyright 1997 The Music Box