Feelin' Groovy

Bob Weir & Ratdog

Vic Theatre - Chicago, IL

[February 23-24, 2002]

First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2002, Volume 9, #4

Written by John Metzger

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For one brief weekend, it was just like the old days. The smell of patchouli hung in the air blotting out the stench of cigarette smoke; the Technicolor, tie-dye masses twirled, bobbed, and swayed, reinterpreting music as a rainbow-hued dance; and artist and audience merged into one single-minded entity capable of mutating with amoeba-like movements towards some invisible higher power. No, Jerry Garcia wasn’t found hiding out in Chicago, but the Grateful Dead have indeed given birth to a child named Ratdog — an outfit not surprisingly fronted by the Dead’s rhythm guitarist Bob Weir.

Over the past several years — and despite a handful of personnel changes — Ratdog has slowly, but surely, evolved into a formidable force. However, while the band’s previous visits to town have been nothing short of amazing, its recent two-show engagement at the Vic Theatre on February 23 and 24 was better than anything anyone possibly could have imagined.

Although a large portion of Ratdog’s repertoire still relies heavily upon that of the Grateful Dead, it appeared as if the band — which in addition to Weir now features bass player Rob Wasserman, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, guitarist Mark Karan, drummer Jay Lane, saxophonist Kenny Brooks, and special guest DJ Logic — had completely found its niche. The ensemble has always tried to reinterpret the Dead’s material to suit its own image. But, even if it often turned in stunning arrangements, the songs also felt a little forced into some preconceived mold, and occasionally, the musicians seemed a bit unsure of themselves.

Now, the very essence of the Grateful Dead — the adventurous spirit, the positive vibrations, the eloquent lyricism — still remains firmly in tact. And Ratdog’s hesitancy in delivering the songs is completely gone. The band has bonded together so strongly that Weir no longer needs to spend significant energy directing every passage that is played. Instead he can focus on his unique rhythm guitar style. Even better, Weir has expanded his vocal prowess, turning into a gruff, old bluesman during Little Red Rooster, a young Van Morrison on Gloria, and a refined crooner for Eternity. As a result, the band’s delight in early jazz, folk, and blues now bursts forth in a brilliant light that, when merged with the funky undercurrent provided by DJ Logic, made timeless music for a contemporary age.

Quite frankly, Ratdog put the bulk of the jam band movement to shame. There was no endless droning; there were no pointless, go-nowhere jams. Though each set revolved around a series of recurring musical themes (the dance groove of Shakedown Street, the intertwining beauty of Bird Song and Cassidy, the blues and gospel motifs that pervaded the Sunday show), it never became repetitive. Instead, the improvisation was mind-boggling and full of promise, not only connecting with an idea, but also taking it as far as it can go in a myriad of different directions. In other words, both the concert and the songs were everything that they demanded. And more.

That Weir not only is still able to find something new to say with material he’s performed countless times but that he is also able to seamlessly wind his way through new selections with equal strength is quite a testament to both the talent and the creativity of he and his band. Yet, that’s exactly what Ratdog did. Candyman was recast as a slow, back-porch blues excursion, while Friend of the Devil became a country-pop tune befitting of The Beatles’ Rubber Soul. The funky refrains of Shakedown Street reemerged to embrace both a broiling Maggie’s Farm and a magnificently executed acoustic Corina. Odessa rampaged like the Rolling Stones, even as Karan’s Beatle-esque guitar riffs alluded to a later performed Dear Prudence and reverberated through the next evening’s Tomorrow Never Knows. Even the oft-ridiculed clichés of One More Saturday Night, Truckin’, and Samson and Delilah were re-energized as vital compositions. As for the sequence of Ashes and Glass, St. Stephen, The Eleven, and Touch of Grey, well, they formed a fitting conclusion to two evenings of epic performances. They became a ray of hope, a beacon of light, and as Weir sang, "We will survive," a glance around the room was all that was needed to see that we had.

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Copyright © 2002 The Music Box