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Music Preview: Meir's Ratdog has the bark of the Dead

Friday, November 07, 2003

By Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Like most members of the Grateful Dead, Bob Weir never could commit to being a one-band man. Even when the mothership was cruising at 100-plus shows a year, the singer-guitarist could be found filling the downtime with solo projects (from his treasured debut "Ace" to the lesser regarded "Heaven Help the Fool") and side projects like Kingfish and Bobby and the Midnites.


WHERE: Byham Theater, Downtown.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today.

TICKETS: $38; 412-323-1919.


When Jerry Garcia died in 1995, snuffing out the Grateful Dead as we knew it, Weir found refuge in Ratdog, his side gig with bassist Rob Wasserman.

Originally, Weir says, "it was just me and Rob on acoustic instruments. It was a vacation from the Dead."

With the Grateful Dead out of the picture, Ratdog needed to put on a little weight, enough to flesh out a Dead song, and so Weir built it into a full electric ensemble.

Now, at 56, and with the Dead back on board, the restless Weir has chosen to keep Ratdog on the road, with a lineup of keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, guitarist Mark Karan, drummer Jay Lane, sax player Kenny Brooks and bassist Robin Sylvester replacing Wasserman.

"Rob is much better suited for smaller ensembles," Weir says. "He's a fabulous bass player when he has room to be who he is. But in a sextet, that wasn't working."

Ratdog is up to speed on all things Weir, from the blues rockers like "Little Red Rooster" to solo pieces like "Josephine" and "Bombs Away" to the headier jams of "Cassidy" or "Sugar Magnolia."

"It's the same modus operandi [as the Dead]. We take it for a little walk in the woods," Weir says, adding that "generally speaking, it's five or six nights before we repeat a song. Sometimes more."

In later years, the deep-voiced singer who co-fronted the Dead rarely got through a Dead set without a Dylan cover, and the same goes for the Ratdog shows. Despite touring with Dylan in the '80s, though, Weir says he never got Dylan's feedback on the Dead's covers of his songs.

"I never have asked him about that," Weir says. "I shared tunes with him. One time we were on stage and I asked him if wanted to do 'Desolation Row.' And he said sure. And I said, 'You gonna remember the words?' And he said, 'I'll remember the important ones.' So I asked, 'Do you want a little help with it, 'cause I do know the words,' " Weir says, laughing. "He was good with that. Working with him is a gas."

Dylan's songs, Weir says, held their mystique despite his closeness to the man.

"Oh, absolutely," he says. "He's just a regular guy. When he's on stage, he's just a performer, just another musician. When he's writing, he's an oracle."

While he might venture into Dylan or old cowboy or blues songs, you probably won't find Weir dipping into more contemporary material for covers. Weir avoids listening to modern rock, choosing to load his iPod with jazz and classical pieces.

"If I'm going to listen to some music," he says, "I want to go as far from where I live as possible. Anything I listen to I'm going to be influenced by and I don't want to be influenced by anything that's contemporary. It's sort of an arbitrary decision of mine. I'm not going to say that I wouldn't enjoy listening to current stuff and I can't say that I don't, for that matter. But if I'm going to be influenced, I want to bring outside stuff into popular music. Let's face it, I'm a popular musician -- how popular is a matter of question -- but I play in the vein of a popular musician, so I like to think of myself bringing something outside into the party."

In the latter days of the Dead and shortly after, Weir saw a huge jam-band scene rise up to fill the void. Among those bands was one, the Dark Star Orchestra, that specializes in playing Dead shows straight through. Weir has actually taken the stage with Dark Star, thus offering his blessing.

"If they're having a good time doing it, it's cool with me," he says. "If they're doing it just to make a buck -- which they're obviously not 'cause they're all fairly accomplished musicians and could make a living elsewhere -- that's another thing. But if they're finding fulfillment in that, more power to them."

As for Ratdog, the band released "Evening Moods" three years ago to a lukewarm response. In the future he doesn't think he has much use for studio recordings, preferring to capture any new material live.

"You can cut your basics on stage in front of people, which has always been for me a much more satisfying way to play. The studio is a sterile environment. Some people excel there and have a good time there. I like having people to interact with. That shows up in how I play."

His work with the Grateful Dead, meanwhile, has been plentiful, finding its way out in a constant stream of live recordings from the "Dick's Picks" archives and DVDs, like the recent "Grateful Dead: The Closing of Winterland."

"I don't listen to a lot of it," Weir admits. "I just don't have time. If I'm going to take time to listen to something, it's going to be something that's going to get me further down the road. I'm not going to listen to something I've already done. That's not to say there aren't little surprises in our older recordings."

Scott Mervis can be reached at or 412-263-2576.

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