Ratdog's Rebirth

Riviera Theatre - Chicago

November 5, 2000

First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2001, Volume 8, #1

Written by John Metzger


Bob Weir has long been the most underrated member of the Grateful Dead. Granted his solo work hasn't always been up to par, but since he connected with bassist Rob Wasserman in the late '80s, he found both his confidence and his voice. In fact, since the duo formed Ratdog in 1995, Weir has been making some of the best music of his career, reinventing many of his old songs as well as a variety of Grateful Dead standards.

The real story, however, is the latest batch of songs Weir has penned, which made their concert debut last year and found their way to Ratdog's recently released album Evening Moods. All of the new material draws upon the rich and fertile ground that Weir helped to cultivate with the his former band. Consequently, it is familiar enough to instantly strike a chord within most Deadheads, but it also serves to take this legacy in some exciting and fresh directions.

Take, for example, Ratdog's November 5 concert at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago. While the band performed only four songs from their new album, each fit snugly and comfortably into the show. For example, the ensemble recast New Speedway Boogie amidst a sea of slithering bass, blues-inflected guitar, honky-tonk keyboards, and wailing saxophone, and used it as a launching pad to seamlessly shift from its juke joint jive to the New Orleans, smoke-filled bars of October Queen. Similar to the recorded version, the song faded like a dream into the tumultuous sway of an Other One-style jam before softly slinking into the ethereal strains of Even So. Later, the band embarked on the mystical Two Djinn before drawing the set to a close with a rousing Corrina.

On past tours, Ratdog has increasingly relied on songs from the Grateful Dead's repertoire, and while this hasn't been necessarily a bad thing, their hesitant approach to some of the material has hurt more often than it has helped. In addition, since joining the band, guitarist Mark Karan has often mimicked Jerry Garcia's style rather than expressing his own personality, and this further diminished the potency of the group's performance.

This time, however, things were quite different. While past Ratdog concerts certainly have been enjoyable affairs with moments of greatness, this visit to town was truly something special. It topped The Other Ones. It topped Phil Lesh and Friends. It topped Phish, Widespread Panic, Leftover Salmon, and every other jam band that has made its way to the Windy City in recent years. It even topped many of the Dead's own appearances in the '90s. Ratdog was that good. It was as if the group was reborn and somehow liberated by the new material.

Instead of forcing familiarity on an old staple, Ratdog allowed the songs to emerge of their own volition freely flowing wherever it is that they wanted to go. Terrapin Station was a majestic anthem, embellished with trumpet and saxophone to highlight the song's inherent orchestral ambience; the trilogy of Help on the Way, Slipknot!, and Franklin's Tower organically traversed their mellifluous melodies as the band incorporated elements of The Beatles' Dear Prudence and Lou Reed's Walk on the Wild Side into their joyous grooves; and with the help of The Persuasions, the group turned Liberty into a gospel rave.

Weir may have formed a new band, but he's not yet ready to let go of the tunes that he performed for years as a member of the Grateful Dead. Nor should he. For awhile, it appeared as if he was struggling with this not quite feeling comfortable with all of the Garcia-sung material that he had begun presenting. Simply by revisiting his past, however, Bob Weir has paved his future. He's written new songs, reinvented many old ones, and he has done it in his own way. By balancing solid songwriting with just the right amount of inspired improvisation, Ratdog turned in the best jam band set in years. Evening Moods is just the beginning Bob Weir has found that he still has a lot more to say.

The Persuasions, who are touring in support of their recently released Might as Well, opened the show with a superb set of a cappella music, which unfortunately was lost on the inattentive audience. Despite the group's exquisite interpretations of a number of Grateful Dead songs, such as Ripple, Brokedown Palace, and Black Muddy River, they struggled to be heard above the din of the crowd. Credit the quintet, however, for masterfully drawing the fans back into the music through direct interaction and a truly compelling performance.

Those that listened were treated to an enchanting set that linked the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Drifters, and the Temptations to the Persuasions' own lengthy career. The voices of the five singers intermingled perfectly, blending together to form a single shape-shifting entity. As it moved, it revealed its multi-dimensional layers of beauty, which filled each phrase with a deep-rooted spirituality that transcended the song.

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Copyright 2000 The Music Box