When I tell my musically-literate friends that Grateful Dead guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir’s band, RatDog, is the hottest band on the planet, I routinely get glazed-over looks of skepticism, incredulity and outright derision. They just don’t know any better — and they would see things differently if they had been fortunate enough to catch the band’s three night run at New York City’s venerable Beacon Theater last week.
In short, Ratdog’s marketing guys and fans alike have every legitimate right to characterize this run as “historic” – and the Thursday and Saturday night shows, in this listener’s opinion, even surpassed the blowout energy level of the prior “threshold” Beacon show: 10/25/03. That, in and of itself, is a major feat. And luckily, unlike past Beacon gigs, these three shows are available from www.ratdoglive.com in soundboard/matrix. There are also plenty of high quality auds already proliferating on the internet.
With Bobby Weir’s sixtieth birthday just around the corner, it’s impossible not to have been inspired and uplifted by his utterly contagious energy and vigor; he was a happy man, with a happy band, intent upon blowing the roof off the Beacon, and that was accomplished the first night with monster renditions of the Grateful Dead classics, Estimated Prophet and Sugar Magnolia. Interesting song placements – Black Muddy River out of “stuff” and Uncle John’s Band as the encore – added to the show’s irresistible appeal.
On both Estimated and Sugar Magnolia, Weir and guitarist Mark Karan came right down
to the front of the stage to shred both tunes, and the crowd was treated to several intense, perfectly- timed Bobby lunges that sent the crowd into a collective frenzy. Weir has generally avoided charging the crowd in this manner, for all practical purposes, since the 80’s, and watching him come down front from our 8th row seats – especially on these two tunes — was a time warp rush. It was great.
But as hot as the band was for the 3/8 and 3/10 shows, one of the big headlines of the entire three day run is the still under-appreciated Mark Karan, who has stepped up in a huge manner over the past several years. With all of the other mesmerizing aural chaos being generated around them by Kenny Brooks on horns, Jay Lane on drums, Robin Sylvester on bass and Jeff Chimenti on keys, the ability of Weir and Karan to lock so singly into soaring sonic jams is spectacular.
In this Beacon run, and as he does now routinely, Karan demonstrated he can summon the power of an incendiary Jerry Garcia guitar solo, but without mimicking Garcia’s signature style and sound. Karan’s own sound is huge, and the ever-growing size and sophistication of his rig is bringing out the best in him and his band mates. Several years back, Weir, in an interview, likened Mark’s playing to an unfolding flower. He’s now in full bloom.
Other Beacon run highlights:
Despite the fact Kenny Brooks’s talented trombone-playing buddy, Josh Roseman, didn’t show up, Chuck MacKinnon’s improv trumpet playing during the pre-Other One jam on 3/8 was a mind-blower. He’s damn good, and unfortunately didn’t have as much room or time to stretch out during the 3/10 show. The only other trumpet player I’ve seen play like that with RatDog is New Orleans jazz superstar, Irvin Mayfield.
A different version of Stagger Lee was played each night: a generally botched acoustic version on 3/8; a rockin’ traditional electric arrangement on 3/9; and a Grateful Dead-style electric version on 3/10. The fact the band has the self-confidence and chops to throw these three versions out there before being perfected in successive sound checks speaks volumes about the creativity we’re seeing on this ’07 spring tour and the just-completed west coast run.
The return of Gloria, Bobby’s Vegas “lounge act” version of My Funny Valentine, killer versions of Looks Like Rain and Black Throated Wind, a Quinn the Eskimo breakout, a super-slithery Althea into da bomb version of Scarlet Begonias, Jerry Jemmott on Milestones>Lovelight, and Tom Pope’s percussive explorations with Jay Lane all three nights, rounds out the highlights. Just too many to list.
One other thing that’s apparent over the past year is how well RatDog’s three new tunes – Jus’ Like Mama Said, Money for Gasoline and Tuesday Blues – have, with such facility, worked their way into the set lists. The jam in Money for Gasoline is different and interesting, and the band clearly enjoys working this tune over as it evolves. The 3/8 version was creative and rippling with energy.
In 1976, some young teen-age friends and I went to see Kingfish at the Beacon, and one year later, saw my first Grateful Dead concert at the Boston Garden. I was hooked. And now, some 30-odd years later, this special ensemble rolls up and down the east coast, west coast and through the American heartland, year in and year out. The fact this still occurs, and does so at this lofty level of performance, is an amazing testament to Bob Weir’s talent, work ethic and spirit; that he’s been able to draw such talented and passionate musicians into his post-Grateful Dead musical universe is special in and of itself. Enjoy the ride while it’s still here.
Photos courtesy of Butch Worrell via ratdog.org