Since Jerry Garcia died in 1995 and the Grateful Dead disbanded, the living members of the Dead have splintered off to pursue other projects and form groups of their own. Lead singer and rhythm guitarist Bob Weir has reincarnated himself as pater familias of the band Ratdog, which kicked off its spring tour at O’Shaughnessy Auditorium on Friday night, raising the roof with a three-and-a-half-hour show clearly designed to both preserve the legacy of the traditional Dead concert experience and allow Ratdog to claim some musical territory of its own.
Rumor has it that Weir and friends chose to begin their tour in St. Paul because Al Franken is a Deadhead. To underscore the point, Weir and drummer Jay Lane spent part of the afternoon playing for a select group of Franken supporters at the home of Archie and Tina Smith, where they played, among other things, “Friend of the Devil” and “Brokedown Palace,” both of which could certainly be heard as oblique as references to the Bush administration. At O’Shaughnessy, rumor had it that Franken was in the house, but the only politico I saw in the flesh was Minneapolis mayor R. T. Rybak.
Ratdog—whose fans call themselves Boneheads—has been doing its thing for more than a decade now, but has had a strange evolution. In the late 1990s, Ratdog was an experimental vehicle that frequently flew off the rails and wrecked itself in an almost unlistenable cacophony of bleating saxophones and spastic rhythms. Since then, however, the band has abandoned most of its crazier inclinations and become a reliable fixture on the jam-band circuit, primarily playing tunes from the Grateful Dead vault re-tooled with a jazzier groove.
Friday night’s concert at O’Shaughnessy almost felt like a regression in a sense. The band only played two actual Ratdog songs; the rest were songs either the Dead or The Jerry Garcia Band used to play. The show felt almost too much like an actual Dead show, in fact, as if Ratdog thought it was somehow necessary on this tour to back up the train and hitch it more securely to the past before chugging ahead into the future.
The band’s opener, "Truckin’ ", the the best-known Dead song of all time, made it feel as if Ratdog was reaching out to anyone who had ever heard a Dead song in their entire life, which is most of the known universe. They followed it with a few other Dead tunes—“Loose Lucy,” “Señor” (Dylan), “Crazyfingers,” and “Big Boss Man”—before throwing in a couple of their own—“Lucky Enough” and “Jus’ Like Mama Said”—all mid-tempo tunes played ten or fifteen clicks of the metronome slower than the Dead did them, and with loping, leisurely solos that seemed calculated to ensure that no one would get lost along the way. It wasn’t until the end of the first set, with a barely recognizable rendition of The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” that Ratdog kicked it into third gear and gave the crowd a taste of the brilliance to come.
Deadheads know this pattern all too well. The Dead often played a listless, unremarkable first set to get warmed up and allow the various intoxicants the audience was ingesting to take effect. Then they would come out and blow your mind.
Ratdog followed a similar if somewhat mellower formula, playing an hour-and-forty-five minute second set that began with a couple of acoustic sing-alongs—“Dark Hollow” and “Me and My Uncle”—before kicking into high gear with an extended-jam version of “Corrina” which included a blistering solo by guitarist Mark Haran, a towering, contrapuntal turn on saxophone by Kenny Brooks, and a collective jam that had to convince long-time Dead fans that Bobby’s flame is far from burning out. These days, Weir is sporting a gray, well-trimmed beard, and wears nice slacks onstage instead of jeans, but he’s singing and playing as well as ever—though he doesn’t scream nearly as much or as loud—and is guiding this band with consummate professionalism. The new, improved Ratdog is tight and disciplined (which one could not say of the Dead themselves), and they have found a sound that is keeping those all-too-familiar Dead tunes fresh and alive.
The big bone Ratdog threw to Deadheads last night was the classic Dead closer of “Throwing Stones” into Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” a staple of their performances in the 1980’s and early 1990s that always ends with the audience singing the chorus “You know our love will not fade away,” along with the shave-and-a-haircut Bo Diddley clap that accompanies it. “Throwing Stones,” written by Weir, is probably the most political song the Dead ever played (it’s the politicians who are throwing those stones), so it made a kind of musical sense given the Franken connection.
Ratdog wasn’t about to bum anyone out with too much politics, though, so it sent the crowd into a frenzy with a boisterous, rafter-rattling encore of “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad,” which, paradoxically, always makes everyone feel good. If you missed the show, don’t fret too much: Live CDs of every show on the tour are being sold here. Enjoy.
Jus’Like Mama Said
Tomorrow Never Knows
Me and My Uncle
Standing on the Moon
Not Fade Away
Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad