Over the Weekend: Ratdog at Chautauqua
Bob Weir & Ratdog
Sunday, August 30
Better Than: Parts of the reunited Dead's performance in Denver a few months ago
For those of us who were introduced to the Grateful Dead as elementary school kids in the late-1980s by the San Francisco band's ubiquitous MTV hit "Touch of Grey," here's some news: a white-bearded member of that polarizing '60s group is still traveling the country singing "Touch of Grey" for ecstatic audiences, but it isn't the late Jerry Garcia. It's his famously youthful sidekick, Bob Weir.
Sunday night at the unique, antiquated 1,200 capacity Chautauqua Auditorium at the foot of the Flatirons in Boulder, Weir and his band Ratdog played a near-two-hour set of Grateful Dead classics for a sold-out crowd that ranged from middle-aged Deadheads seeing Weir for the first or second time since the Dead's demise in 1995 to teenagers who were in preschool or kindergarten when Garcia died but now somewhat live their lives according to the Zen-like lessons in Robert Hunter's lyrics and spend a portion of every year following post-Dead bands like Ratdog across the U.S. and back.
Eighteen-year-old Derek "Spiritfingers" Pyle, a Naropa student and Oregon native, followed the most recent Grateful Dead reunion band earlier this summer for six or seven shows from Denver to Los Angeles and up to Washington and back; he was outside Chautauqua last night selling crystals and show posters, and inside dancing wildly to Weir's eccentric nostalgia.
I was actually poised to leave the auditorium during the customary drum-solo-cum-group-jam when Pyle appeared to tap me on the shoulder and point at my notebook, saying, "The proper term for this one is 'Stuff.'" Indeed, the Dead had "Drums and Space" as a term for the improvisatory section of their concerts, and Ratdog has "Stuff." Ratdog rarely gets as weird as the Dead's sometimes-captivating feedback and MIDI freakouts, but I decided to stay, impressed by the band's ability to conjure the coda from the Rev. Gary Davis's "Samson and Delilah" from powerful chaos.
"Stuff" was immediately followed by "Black Peter" (from 1970's Workingman's Dead), and it's not every day that the highlight of a jubilant musical performance (especially for the tie-dyed set) is a song about a guy dying of cancer, but Weir's version of "Peter" was incredible. Much of the rest of the show saw Weir and company as sort of an elevated bar band, much like the Grateful Dead of the early '70s, but with a good helping of L.A. sheen. "Black Peter," however, revealed what stripped-down Dead music often can: deep and beautiful music juxtaposing deep and beautiful lyrics, making you wonder what more could you want than "a little peace to die and a friend or two you love at hand."
Music geeks can gripe forever about the Dead's jams rarely going anywhere, and Ratdog (which started as a blues band and only recently turned into a full-on Dead cover band) certainly does less interesting and exciting things improvisation-wise than the Dead. But when you hear six talented singers taking on an ageless ballad like "Candyman" (from 1970's American Beauty) like the members of Ratdog did on Sunday, you realize that the staying-power of the Grateful Dead will always be its songs.
The funny thing is, Ratdog released a remarkable album of originals in 1999, but "Easy to Slip" (from Weir's 1978 solo album Heaven Help the Fool) was the only song the Chautauqua show featured that wasn't a part of the Grateful Dead's regular repertoire at some point.
Personal Bias: I interviewed Ratdog bassist Robin Sylvester recently and quoted him as saying "I'm not one of those bass-players who loves stand-up, I'm afraid." The London-born bassist pulled out a gorgeous upright bass at Chautauqua last night and played the hell out of it.
Random Detail: I've been to many metal and hardcore punk shows in the past few years that didn't feature such annoying bumping-into as Ratdog's gig. The unfortunate violence usually goes like this: first a greasy, unwashed hippie dude falls asleep all stoned on someone's shoulder, then he accidentally elbows or headbutts some poor soul when jarred awake by a soaring guitar solo.
By the Way: It's been maybe 35 years since a member of a Grateful Dead-related band actually looked like the people in their audience, but Ratdog drummer Jay Lane's dreadlocks definitely make him look like a Deadhead.
Bob Weir & Ratdog
Easy to Slip
I Need a Miracle
Playin' in the Band
Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodle-oo
Samson and Delilah
Touch of Grey