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It's impossible to know what we're going to be doing on any given night," Bob Weir declares.
Some things never change, at least where lengthy set lists and voluminous back catalogs are concerned. The quote isn't from Weir's days with the Grateful Dead, the band he cofounded in the mid-'60s and copiloted through its last days in 1995. Instead Weir is referring to his current project, Ratdog, with which he begins a U.S. tour Wednesday in Pompano Beach.
"We have a pretty big book now," he continues, "and by the time we get to your town, it will be bigger. That's our m.o. right now, whether it be new tunes or new old chestnuts," Weir says of Ratdog, which, though it is sometimes considered a Grateful Dead tribute band, was actually formed before Jerry Garcia's death.
But the 53-year-old guitarist knows it's in his best interest to strike a balance that, not surprisingly, favors the roasted-on-an-open-fire fare over the lesser-known new material. He can't afford not to cater to his core audience: Deadheads who want to twirl to their favorite songs. Therefore he hopes he's arrived at a happy medium.
"I feel an obligation to play enough of the old songs so that people get a grip on the music, so they're familiar with a fair bit of it. That seems to work as well for us as it does for them," he notes.
"As it is now, I'm not gonna say what the percentages are, but close to half of our tunes are Grateful Dead tunes, and that's at this point. We started out doing none. But with Jerry's death and the demise of the Grateful Dead, we started working stuff up. But we're not exclusively a Grateful Dead cover band by any means. We also do a number of tunes we've written ourselves, and we're writing more constantly."
Those recently written songs include a batch of material released last fall on the group's debut, Evening Moods. Weir is well aware that Ratdog has a tough row to hoe, to be sure: establishing an autonomous identity while faithfully carrying on the Dead's tradition of spontaneity -- yet stopping short of rehashing it too roughly.
But beyond that, he says, "We tend to write the stuff we want to hear and the stuff we want to play."
Deadheads will recognize older Weir standards like "Cassidy" and "Sugar Magnolia" but may also be surprised to hear him adopt Garcia's lines in songs like "Eyes of the World" and "Mission in the Rain," two of the many Garcia songs Weir has added to Ratdog's potential set lists. And Deadheads may be the most likely to understand the rather cryptic way he explains his choices.
"I think I know where those songs live," he offers. "Those tunes are open-ended. We can play within them. It's not like we're just cranking 'em out for the pure purpose of pandering to Deadheads. I love those tunes. We started doing them again because I started to miss them. The architecture of those tunes is open so that we can play within them and do what we do, which is be a band."
Unlike Weir, who practically grew up with the Grateful Dead (with a few private lessons from legendary blues fingerpicker the Rev. Gary Davis), most of the other members of Ratdog come from jazz backgrounds. Bassist Rob Wasserman is a former member of the Grisman Quintet (founded by jazz-blues mandolinist David Grisman) and has recorded with acts ranging from Branford Marsalis to Les Claypool. Saxophonist Kenny Brooks joined the group after his predecessor, Dave Ellis, left. Ellis and current drummer Jay Lane had come over from the Charlie Hunter Trio, a pioneer in the acid-jazz movement. Finally keyboardist Jeff Chimenti joined the band after Weir saw him play with Ellis' straight-ahead jazz quartet.
Prior to Chimenti, Ratdog featured pianist Johnnie Johnson, legendary for his work with Chuck Berry. "Johnnie lived in St. Louis, and he wasn't about to move out [to California], and we weren't about to lean on him to do that. We were trying out other keyboard players, and Johnnie sort of selected Jeff for us, and said, "This is your guy.' Jeff picked up on what Johnnie was about and was able to do that with a fair degree of authority, though to be fair, nobody does it like Johnnie does."
The band is rounded out with axman Mark Karan, whom many Deadheads will recognize as one of two lead guitarists from the Other Ones. (More than any other post-Garcia amalgamation, the Other Ones brazenly capitalized on the Dead's momentum. The band included Weir, Karan, guitarist Steve Kimock, and Bruce Hornsby -- who himself performed enough shows with the Dead to be considered a semiofficial member -- as well as Dead drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart.)
Karan's nimble choppery aside, the major difference between the Dead and Ratdog is that Weir is now the only one driving the bus. He has to sing every single tune. He doesn't have the liberty of taking a break while Garcia sings one, and he's still adjusting to this demanding position. "The instrument that I'm learning to play is not so much my guitar or my voice; it's my band," he says. "And I'm trying to learn to write with it. I'm trying to learn to get out of that band the most music I possibly can. And everybody else is coming at that instrument the same way. It's an instrument that needs several people to play."
Toward that end Ratdog pieces become family affairs, as Weir often incorporates the others in the songwriting process. "If we all get started with a song, it gets to the point where it's soup. Everybody's invested in it."
This was a hard-learned lesson for Weir, who spent almost 30 years in the Dead having his songs assimilated into the band's central jam-processing unit. "As far as I was concerned, it was getting mangled. The look-what-they've-done-to-my-song-Ma syndrome," Weir recalls. "[But] everybody else was real happy with it.
"Actually I was evolving toward this in the Dead in my final days with stuff like "Easy Answers' and "Corrina.' [In] those tunes I tried to involve other guys in the band as much as I could, get as much collusion as I could from the guys, and get as big a ball rolling as I possibly could before I even started to try to make a song out of it."
Coming from a band where change was virtually the only rule, Weir's evolution is somewhat surprising. After all, he didn't start incorporating his newfound writing approach until the early '90s, when he'd already been at it for 25 years with the same group of guys.
Of course other factors have since played into his evolution. Now married, Weir has a three-year-old daughter at home. "It's given me a little different perspective to write about, because I'm seeing the world through new eyes. I'm loving that. You can't not, especially if you like a little adventure."