The last time I saw RatDog I was living in Syracuse. I came home that night and found all my belongings sitting in the hallway. My fiance at the time had kicked me out, for reasons I won’t get into here. But ask me about that night and I’ll tell you this: I never thought so many good things could happen in the space of a few hours. Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist Bob Weir and bass ninja Rob Wasserman had put together an ensemble that soared above and beyond any of Weir’s other ventures outside the Dead. And I was finally free.
Of course, good things often happen in close proximity. And that goes double for Asheville: Bob Weir’s RatDog rolls through town on April 6, stopping long enough to play two sets at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. Close at their heels, on April 19, comes Dead bassist Phil Lesh with his heroic quintet, Phil and Friends. Both musicians took time out recently to talk to Xpress.
PL: This band goes beyond chemistry. … It really is a collaborative, cooperative effort. With these guys, it’s possible to keep the openness and that group-mind phenomenon where everyone is just a pipeline for the spirit that is just descending and flowing through to create this music, which is a living thing.
Both bands draw on the wealth of tunes from the Grateful Dead’s 30-year musical pilgrimage — but while RatDog and Phil and Friends may have similar approaches to playing, they yield staggeringly different results.
BW: What we’re looking for is THE SONG. … You can get there from any number of approaches. You can get there from a highly structured [piece of music]. There are moments when a symphony orchestra, when people who are reading stuff off a page, reach those moments. John Coltrane got there in his later albums — you know, A Love Supreme and beyond. It was the glorious cacophony … you could hear it fall together and become the song. We try to bring as much from both of those avenues of approach as we can. But we don’t go all the way to heavily arranged, and we don’t go all the way to complete free-form — well, we do from time to time, but we’ll at least start with a rhythm, generally speaking, something that people will be able to hang their lines off of. We don’t completely abandon form, and we don’t completely nail ourselves to it.
Along with Weir and Wasserman, RatDog sports Kenny Brooks on saxophone, Mark Karan on guitar, Jeff Chimenti on keys, and Jay Lane on drums. These musicians produce an interplay that gives fresh takes on familiar Dead tunes, as well as razor-sharp attacks on new material, much of it written by Weir (sometimes in collaboration with other musicians and lyricists).
BW: Basically, all the songs, at least that I do, are character-driven, and I’m exploring different characters to find out who they are and what they’re up to. They come and introduce themselves to me, and I’m not sure where they come from. They’re probably all living inside me at all times. Half of what makes me up is spirit-driven and half … is flesh-driven, to one degree or another. I guess that’s probably the same for just about everyone. I’m not going to celebrate all my demons as well as all my angels, but I probably should. I probably should be comfortable with all the components, with all these guys who are living inside of me.
I’ve been a harsh critic of Weir in the past. He’s a brilliant songwriter with unique takes on his subject matter, but his solo work is spotted with rough patches. However, without the Dead taking priority in Weir’s pursuits, he’s been producing some of his best songs ever. You can hear it on RatDog’s recent debut album, Evening Moods (Arista/Grateful Dead Records, 2000). Nevertheless, the music will sound familiar to patrons and casual fans of the Dead — Weir hasn’t strayed too far from familiar territory.
Offering a taste of what Phil and Friends serve up, Lesh has been releasing soundboard copies of recent shows on the Internet (check out www.philzone.com). One need only listen to a few shows to know that the Cosmic Hand of Heavenly Jams is about to slap receptive Ashevilleans silly.
PL: Most of the time music is a temporal, ephemeral phenomenon. … It lasts for the length of time you can hear the sound, and then it’s gone. The greatest music stays with you. Bach. I can hear Bach in my head at will … or Coltrane. … If there’s anything that I’m listening for, it’s a little door opening somewhere that will widen out into some superhighway and take us over into the next galaxy, and it’s so subtle sometimes, just some little micro idea … the tiniest little rhythmic relationship.
On the road with Phil Lesh is staple drummer John Molo (would-be shamans of skins should come have a listen — you’ll get a clue as to what you might aspire to), keyboardist Rob Baracco, and guitarists Jimmy Herring and Warren Haynes. You might know Haynes as one of Asheville’s native sons, the driving force behind power trio Gov’t Mule and the former guitarist for the Allman Brothers. Along with Herring, Haynes and Baracco take flight from the furious rhythmic quest of Lesh and Molo, journeying into places that are familiar yet beautifully exotic.
Since his liver transplant a little more than two years ago, Lesh has gone from being a great bass player to becoming High Temple Priest of God’s Own Church of Merciless Bass. His melodic underpinnings — which helped form the musical axis the Dead spun from for so many years — have raged into a miniature Norman Conquest of The Jam. There’s a new intensity to Lesh’s playing, a vigorous searching that I’d previously heard only in tapes from the first half of the Dead’s long odyssey. He’s also become a credible spokesman for organ-and-blood donation, making frequent appearances at blood drives to boost community participation.
PL: It’s like being reborn. … Before, I didn’t know how much more performing I wanted to do. Given that I’ve had a second chance, I wanted to give something back. I felt like I’ve been given a chance to continue to do the work that I’m supposed to be here doing and that I wasn’t finished doing yet.
Fueled by his reinvigorated performing, Lesh is writing songs again. Even the casual fan knows that many of Lesh’s songs were among the most musically adventurous the Dead ever attempted. He’s now gone a step further on his musical journey.
PL: I create these musical structures, and deep inside there are the lyrics. It’s more fun for me to dig in there and get those lyrics out and find out what they are. In fact, it may be that the way it … work[s] is that different people will find different lyrics in there. Which is a fascinating thought.
Weir and Lesh have both assembled bands more likely to travel roads inaccessible to their previous collaborations (including, blasphemy of blasphemies, the Dead). Expect a more aggressive intensity from Phil and Friends, thanks to Herring and Haynes. RatDog, meanwhile, tends to be mellower, weaving melodic, atmospheric jams that accent Weir’s craftsmanship as a songwriter. (However, with the possible addition of a few other as-yet-unnamed horn players, Bobby could be dipping into his own brand of primeval cosmic space funk.)
If you can only go to one show, stay home. Or better yet, get a second job, borrow the money, or beg in the streets. Do whatever you have to.