Rising from the Dead

When Ratdog played the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on June 2, I was prepared to encounter some manner of drugs and free love — and Dead-sure I’d see hippies of all ages at the downtown venue. And indeed, I found all of this — along with, more importantly, new insight into what rock ‘n’ roll is about.

First, for those who don’t own tie-dyed T-shirts or other standard components of the uniform, Ratdog is a five-year-old band led by former Grateful Dead member Bob Weir and Grammy-winning upright-bass player Rob Wasserman. Members of Ratdog have made a valiant effort to become something other than the Dead, Part Two, but for many reasons (still-heartbroken Deadheads not least among them), that’s been decidedly difficult.

I’m intrigued by this “Ratdog quandary,” because of the fundamental question it raises: How much of rock is about image, and how much is about the music? It was my mission as an objective journalist to go to the show, talk to band members and fans, and discover the answer.

I went armed with knowledge culled to balance the more than 30 years of Deadhead stereotypes I’ve collected. Never having seen any incarnation of the Dead, I dutifully listened to live Ratdog shows on the Internet ahead of time, and pored over articles in which Weir adamantly insists that his latest group is not a Dead cover band.

Yet, despite all the preparation, my objectivity went out the window when I first saw the sea of love beads, Technicolor garb and doobies. I had come face to face with the core of my hunch (let’s call it image vs. substance), but I nonetheless hung in there for a while, asking a sampling of loyal concert-goers why they’d come.

“Well, you know, I was a Grateful Dead fan, but since the Grateful Dead isn’t really playing anymore, I’m a Ratdog fan now,” said Lee Blackburn, who has seen Ratdog 10 times and was only able to experience six Dead shows before Jerry Garcia’s death. “The other [Ratdog] shows have been pretty Dead-ish; that’s the appeal to me, for sure. … Bobby Weir is the man. But I’m also a Phil and Friends fan,” he hastened to add, referring to ex-Dead member Phil Lesh’s band.

Other samples fans sang the same song, with few variations. Lachelle McCormick, 17, and Alex Friedman, 21, seemed as Dead-icated to Ratdog and Garcia’s group as anyone present, though of course neither, young as they were, had ever seen the latter. Yet the bond with Weir had extended through the bands’ “Rainbow Family.”

“We’re not always the most accepted people in cities that we go to, so we just try to take care of our people and take care of our own,” Friedman explained. “A lot of these people, it’s the closest thing to a family that they have.” For her part, McCormick grew up listening to the Dead, thanks to her parents, but had never heard of Ratdog until Friedman asked her to go to the show. “He said, well, you’ve got to go see it, it’s Bob Weir’s f•••ing new band!” she revealed.

Ray Pask, among the minority of fans there above age 35, saw the Dead 25-30 times, even managing to attend shows during his time in the army. He and his wife, Tracy, were also there because of Weir, but recognized Ratdog as having risen from the Dead, praising Wasserman’s music in particular: “The first time I saw him, I was in Washington, D.C., and him and Bobby played an acoustic thing on the Mall. … they just tore the place up.”

Finally, I was ready to face the music. Ratdog is currently a band without an album, yet it still managed to fill a little more than half the seats in the spacious venue that evening. I hoped that the band would get by on more than hype, slicing through the auditorium fog that was part marijuana, part clove, part dry ice, but mostly nostalgia. Although the band’s loyal (and frequently stoned — but, hey, who’s judging?) fans would probably cheer for anything Ratdog played, the group is, in truth, outstandingly tight. I venture to predict that when its debut album appears this fall, people other than Dead fans might actually take notice. (In fact, since Ratdog is the only band I’ve ever known that allows its audience to tape shows, non-family members might be the only ones buying the disc.)

Even apart from Weir’s guitar and vocals and Wasserman’s spellbinding bass, the San Francisco-based band is diverse and exceptionally solid. Drummer Jay Lane is a veteran of Bay Area bands like the Freaky Executives and the Uptones; saxophonist Dave Ellis was named Best New Talent by Jazziz magazine; and Jeff Chimenti (from Ellis’s jazz quartet) plays some mean keyboards. Finally, Mark Karan, who has played in Weir’s other band — called The Other Ones — made a distinct impact with his lead guitar.

The band’s set did include a heavy dose of Dead covers, such as “Throwing Stones” and “Shakedown Street.” But those songs sounded different from the Dead’s versions, and they were augmented by a mix of Ratdog originals, cowboy ditties like “El Paso” that I caught myself crooning along to, and other classics like “Johnny B. Goode.”

Fan Ray Pask summed it all up when he said, “It’s different — the music’s tighter, a little more jazzier. ‘Course, it’s what Bobby’s doing. It’s all Bob Weir’s project, and … he’s only one piece of the Dead. You’re never going to get that feel again, so you go see the part you can see, see what you can, and enjoy what little piece of it you can still grab.”

After the show, I caught up with Wasserman, a warm, intelligent fellow who sounds like a less-obnoxious version of the guy who does Garfield’s voice. Would he speak honestly about his feelings about living amid The Dead, and wax to my satisfaction about his on-stage stints with his other legendary pals?

“With Lou Reed, everyone had parts,” he began. “There wasn’t much improvisation. There was some, but within a certain rigid framework. We played the same tunes every night. … It was more like an orchestra. It was fun, but it was more of an urban, street kind of thing, as opposed to this. … We’re much looser, and don’t rehearse a lot.”

Wasserman spoke about his new CD, Space Island (Atlantic Records), slated for an Aug. 1 release. After many years of touring in support of others, he’s embarking on his first solo tour. “It’s about time, I guess,” says Wasserman, who tends not to look at the crowd during a performance. “I’m getting a little nervous about that — I’ll actually have to say something.” And while he doesn’t mind the current Dead-minded crowds, he’s looking forward to the change.

“For me, it would be nice to get away from the Grateful Dead tone, you know, being in that world, and bring [into being] something that we all do, because there are a lot of good players in the band and we can create our own world. … I’ll be interested to see what people think of the Ratdog album. I also think it will be fun to see what people think of my album.”

Wasserman said his favorite part of being in Ratdog is his work with Weir, whom he met at a benefit in 1988. “We just hit it off, musically and personally — I guess that’s why we’re still working together. … We played as a duo for seven years before doing this. But it’s fun to be able to be in a band like this, because it’s really not tense or anything — it’s loose, and it’s different from a lot of bands. … We’re all partners in this thing.”

Music is more about the moment than anything else. It’s the show that’s on now, or the feeling you get when you listen to the music alone, at home. Rock ‘n’ roll is a business, no doubt about it. And unromantic as that truth is, it’s also true that professional detachment can enable musicians who’ve been in the business awhile to live safely apart from their fans’ unwavering image of them.

Because even when musicians aren’t on the same wavelength as their fans, everyone’s happy if the music has soul. That’s probably why even staunch Garcia fans whisper that the Dead got kind of lame toward the end, and why I say, “Thanks, Ratdog,” for a night of guidance to ease this long, strange trip.

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