Ratdog Revue Rewarding
Riviera Theatre - Chicago
November 4, 1998
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 1998, Volume 5, #12
Written by John Metzger
Bob Weir's Ratdog returned to Chicago's Riviera Theatre on November 4 and brought guitarist Mark Karan along for the ride. Karan, who burst onto the Grateful Dead scene as guitarist for The Other Ones, is still struggling to learn the material, and at times this slowed down the group's momentum. However, there were many more bright spots for Karan on this tour as he is beginning to get his arms around the songs and become familiar with the musical personalities of his bandmates.
The best moments for Karan happened when he infused his own personality into his guitar playing, which helped to lift the jams to another level. At his worst, Karan laid low, throwing cloned bursts of uninspired Garcia riffs into the open-ended musical terrain sculpted by the rest of the group. Fortunately, as the concert progressed, Karan's confidence grew — allowing him to invest more of himself into his solo excursions.
The evening began with an extended bass solo by Rob Wasserman. One by one, the other members of Ratdog took the stage and joined him in producing a jazz-oriented groove. With a nod from Weir, the band changed direction and surged into a rousing Hell in a Bucket, which featured Dave Ellis' soaring tenor saxophone and a biting, bluesy guitar solo from Karan. As the group continued with Weir's Salt Lake City, Ellis approached the song with a fury reminiscent of Clarence Clemons' contributions to Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.
The band twisted their way through the introduction to Bob Dylan's Queen Jane Approximately, but at the last minute they veered into Playing in the Band. The central jam floated into a maniacal and edgy space, punctuated by Weir's electrified rhythm and Jeff Chimenti's jazzy keyboard chords. The essence of the excursion was more about capturing a mood than about soloing, as each performer contributed to the musical tension of the song. Eventually, the jam gave in to a scorching All Along the Watchtower, which in turn led back to Queen Jane Approximately. The circularity continued as the band later took a melodic jam, featuring Ellis' beautiful soprano sax solo into another space segment followed by a reprise of Playing in the Band.
Midway through the evening, Weir and Wasserman turned in a short, but inspired acoustic duet. These two talented musicians have been performing together since the late '80s, and therefore it's no surprise that they feel quite comfortable together on stage. While Weir spent a tremendous portion of the evening directing musical traffic and guiding his band through the fine art of improvisation, this segment of the show allowed him to focus solely on his own guitar playing, and it clearly showed. Wasserman's ominous, rumbling bass lines provided the perfect framework for Weir's rhythmic excursions. A tender rendition of The Beatles' Blackbird transformed into a haunting Victim or the Crime with nearly effortless precision.
It was near the end of the show when Karan really came alive, exuding a level of confidence rarely seen during the first 90 minutes. As the band rode Jay Lane's forceful drumming into China Cat Sunflower, Karan finally managed to bring his own voice to the sweet guitar sound perfected by Jerry Garcia. Karan tore through a series of potent solos, punctuated by the driving rhythm of Weir and Wasserman. Chimenti added the familiar keyboard riff from the original version of the song, which was recorded nearly 30 years ago.
The band continued to propel China Cat Sunflower straight into the traditional I Know You Rider. As the group reached the apex of the song, Weir guided them through a few thunderous teases of Greatest Story Ever Told, before drawing the set to its colossal conclusion. Before the evening was over, Ratdog returned to the stage for a blazing rendition of Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad. Once again, Karan seemed more at ease, allowing his fiery guitar solos to mesh with the lofty aspirations of the rest of the band. Weir allowed a huge smile to cross his face as both the band and the audience were clearly pleased.
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