At the Crossroads


Riviera Theater - Chicago

November 4, 1999

First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2000, Volume 7, #1

Written by John Metzger


Since the death of Jerry Garcia and the subsequent demise of the Grateful Dead, each of the Bay Area band's remaining members has found himself standing at a crossroads, wondering just what to do with his new found freedom. Not surprisingly, each has continued to tour and record, though as time has passed each has done so with varying degrees of regularity. What's been the most interesting to watch, however, is how each musician has returned to the music of the Grateful Dead and sought to reinvent it in new and different ways.

For Bob Weir, the logical choice was to continue to delve into the partnership with bassist Rob Wasserman that began in 1988. Over the next several years, the duo developed a remarkable relationship built around a common love of old folk and blues songs as well as several selections Weir had penned for the Dead. By the time Garcia died, Weir and Wasserman had already begun to evolve and take their project in some new directions. Calling themselves Ratdog, they added saxophone player Dave Ellis, drummer Jay Lane, and a keyboardist first Mookie Siegel and then Jeff Chimenti. Following a reunion with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Mickey Hart, which was dubbed The Other Ones, Weir tapped lead guitarist Mark Karan to join his band, thus completing the line-up.

On November 4, Ratdog returned to Chicago's Riviera Theatre with several fresh, new songs and also sounded tighter than ever. Gone were the initial communication problems that last year resulted in hesitant moments between Karan and the band. In fact, Karan has now begun to articulate his own voice within the context of the group, allowing the ensemble to put some exciting twists on familiar material. The result is that Ratdog is delivering exactly the kind of expressive musical conversations that fans have come to expect from Weir.

However, there are still some similarities to Weir's old group. Like the Dead, Ratdog seamlessly dropped the bottom out of their songs, leaving a vast open terrain in which to explore. The sound of individual instruments drifted and glided past one another, yet fit together perfectly to form a cohesive whole. Songs would disintegrate into a murky fusion of jazz and blues only to reform as a more familiar melody. Shakedown Street effortlessly evolved into Minglewood Blues, and Estimated Prophet slowly grew into The Wheel. Throughout the show, Weir kept his band focused, guiding them with obvious hand signals and subtle eye contact as well as with the chords that sprang from his unique brand of rhythm guitar.

Even the set list was laid out with a sense of precision and deliberate intent that certainly seemed to capture the essence of Weir's life story. The show began with songs dealing with the quest for love and ensuing heartache, but it ended with the themes of fidelity, childbirth, and hope for the future. At the nucleus of these were several new compositions. The slow blues groove of Bury Me Standing continued the quest; the emotionally powerful Welcome to the World was an enticing reception for the newly born; and Ashes and Glass, a hopeful call-to-arms for a new generation, is clearly a sequel to another Weir-penned song Throwing Stones.

Weir has debuted a number of other selections over the past few months, and he has finally begun work on a new album. If the three songs performed at the Riviera are any indication, Weir is well on his way to releasing what will surely be a tremendous effort.

Box Set opened the show with a superb set of folk-fueled anthems. Regularly appearing as a five-piece band, they have joined Weir for several dates as an acoustic duo. The musicians' aggressive approach and carefully interwoven harmonies served as the perfect male counterpart to the Indigo Girls, while containing the same undercurrent of Pete Townshend-inspired song structure.

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Copyright 1999 The Music Box