When pontificating about the Grateful Dead, it’s usually safe — especially in a supposedly Dead-savvy town like Asheville — to assert that Jerry Garcia was something like The One when it came to that band’s long, strange musical trip. It’s sure ground to stand on, as far as these things go — whereas not quite so many folks, one might observe, are as staunchly supportive of the inevitable Bob Weir in that role.
During the Dead’s endless road years, you could occasionally find a bit of tongue-in-cheek parking-lot propaganda poking fun at Bob and especially Bobby fans. Still, love or hate the ever-boyish face of perhaps the single most influential American band of the last 40 years — the same guy guilty of short-shorts, pink guitars and various other incarnations of cheesiness — Weir plays second fiddle only to Garcia in the number of singing, songwriting, and, yes, axe-shredding contributions to the Dead’s sprawling catalogue.
And he’s still here, making music, to boot.
But, as mild Jose Carreras (aka “The Other Guy”) is to high-profile tenor fellows Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, so goes Weir — always “the other one” in the Dead’s ying-yang-skewered, poly-genre musical adventures.
That title recalls one of Weir’s first, and certainly finest, original songs. “That’s It for the Other One” is a dirty, rollicking number toting a Viagra-esque durability you can still hear Weir springing today — nearly 40 years after its debut — with his coyly named, long-time touring beast Ratdog.
The now six-piece band “started out as a little vacation from the Dead,” Weir tells Xpress from tour in Toronto. Despite some lineup shifts over the years, Ratdog has grown into one of the most intriguingly vital post-Jerry Dead projects. It’s certainly more relevant (at least according to Weir) than the two revamped versions of “The Dead” which toured in 2003 and 2004, to mixed reviews. On the second batch of those tours, a pair of Southern stalwarts in Jimmy Herring and Warren Haynes filled Garcia’s mostly unfillable shoes around the surviving “basic core four” and a couple of keyboard players, including Ratdog’s dynamic Jeff Chimenti.
Asked if he considers those lineups satisfying and/or successful ventures, Weir responds with characteristic matter-of-factness: “Well you know, compared to Ratdog, I’d have to say no, because Ratdog has been playing a lot for a number of years, and we’re tight — the Dead never got that way.”
Weir unsurprisingly concedes that some of the reborn Dead’s finest moments came when Haynes got hold of the reins. The Asheville native brought new juice to seemingly untouchable Garcia-dependent compositions like “Morning Dew” and even such long-gone, Pigpen-era standards as “Mr. Charlie.”
“Warren’s not exactly a blues guy, but if he’s gonna fall off the fence, that’s where he’s gonna land,” confirms Weir. “And when we sort of leaned in that direction, it got strongest, I thought.”
Much to the sorrow of a few overly nostalgic Heads, there are no reunion plans for the supposed 40th anniversary of the Dead’s inaugural year. The surviving band members, including Weir and bassist Phil Lesh, appear happiest now with their own pet projects, both of which are touring extensively this fall.
And no one can exactly pinpoint a date, for that matter.
“Fortieth anniversary of what?” Weir muses rhetorically. “I started playing with Jerry 42 or 43 years ago. I was 16, and we played regularly from that point on. … So, in that case, the 40th anniversary has really come and gone a while back.
“It’s kind of an arbitrary deal,” he adds with a laugh. “It’s hard for me to get real worked up about it.”
Instead, the 58-year-old, perennially underrated Weir gladly tends to Ratdog, appearing now in smaller, more intimate venues. His band, like the original Dead, still dishes monster two-set performances — and impressive new Ratdog originals like “Ashes and Glass” sprinkle sets buoyed by various Weir-centric Dead tunes and covers.
A number of precious Garcia tunes — including the unforgettable “Mission in the Rain” — also find their way into rotation. And while he obviously selects such tracks with delicacy, Weir services the music more than the legend.
“It’s a great song, is the deal,” he says with a nearly audible shrug. “It’s well-written, so I just go straight for the character in the song. I don’t think about any of the rest of it at all.”
[Freelance reporter and editor Stuart Gaines is based in Chattanooga.]
Bob Weir and Ratdog play the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) on Monday, Nov. 14. 9 p.m. $30. 225-5851.