Fool for Love

Ratdog - Vic Theatre - Chicago

April 1, 2005

First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2005, Volume 12, #4

Written by John Metzger

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The past few years have held their share of challenges for Bob Weir and his band Ratdog. While the ensemble has weathered several personnel changes since its debut in 1995, none have held the potential for causing such critical structural damage to the collective’s foundation as the departure of Weir’s longtime collaborator, friend, and bass player Rob Wasserman, who announced in early 2003 that he was leaving the group in order resume his solo career. Then, just as newcomer Robin Sylvester was beginning to become firmly entrenched within Ratdog’s heady swirl of disparate sounds, Weir succumbed to exhaustion in late 2004, forcing the collective to cancel its ambitiously extensive fall tour just moments before it was about to begin. With the change of seasons and the dawning of Spring, however, comes new hope, and on April Fool’s Day, the rejuvenated ensemble settled into Chicago’s Vic Theatre for what would prove to be an evening that playfully featured a variety of ruminations on love and loss. From the celebratory medley of The Champs’ Tequila, Bob Dylan’s Silvio, and James Crawford, Jr.’s Iko Iko that opened the show to the solitary stroll through Black Muddy River that concluded it, Ratdog managed to weave together two sets of material, none of which ever strayed from its single-minded, thematic purpose. The raucous carousing of Hell in a Bucket, the bittersweet memories of This Time Forever, the cautionary Deep Elem Blues, and the bubbly amorousness of Bombs Away perceptively explored relationships from every angle imaginable.

Not that one needed to comprehend the concert’s cerebral overtones in order to enjoy it. Indeed, being the quintessential collective, Ratdog delivered a performance that also was perfectly suited for the hard-partying, Friday night crowd. Fusing feel-good rhythms with mind-expanding jams, the ensemble effortlessly surfed from one genre to the next, leading the audience through a sing-along of Dylan’s folk-fueled Masterpiece and delving into both the soulful blues of Sugaree as well as the percolating ebullience of Scarlet Begonias. With each song, the group seemed to re-calibrate itself, and although it sometimes stumbled — the segue that was meant to link the biting edginess of Bury Me Standing with the soft-spoken balladry of This Time Forever nearly collapsed — more often than not, the band discovered a path that permitted a seamless passage into its next selection. The defiant swing of Bobby Womack’s It’s All Over Now, for example, mutated into the slinky R&B groove of She Says by latching onto the familiar strains of the Rolling Stones’ Beast of Burden, while Iko Iko, with its textured accompaniments of Dixieland-style saxophone and Professor Longhair-inspired piano, emerged from within the head-bopping bounce of Silvio.

Perhaps, the biggest challenge for Ratdog is keeping its material sounding fresh and vibrant. Yet, despite the fact that 10 years have passed since its inception, the group has managed to utilize its improvisational interactions as well as its diverse knowledge of music history to perpetually smash its predictable patterns, thereby reinventing both itself and its catalog. Rather than force its songs to fit within some pre-determined constraints, the ensemble allows a spontaneous, organic progression to occur, and more often than not, the seeds that are planted blossom into an array of possibilities. It's this very notion that cuts to the heart of what is missing from most live performances, including those within the jam band community. Of course, it also is the reason that the Grateful Dead was such a formidable outfit. In other words, by steadfastly refusing to take the easy route of rote reinterpretation, Bob Weir has remained true to his former band’s original vision, and as a result, he continues to build and expand upon a legacy that otherwise might have become extinct.

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Copyright © 2005 The Music Box