Hard to believe that the Grateful Dead offshoot, RatDog, has been at it for almost 20 years. The band, formed by Bob Weir not long after the death of Jerry Garcia, has become the longest running gig for any founding member outside of the Dead. In that span, guitarist Weir has taken on the appearance (and the role) of elder, bringing along a younger fan base that never experienced Winterland, Oakland or MSG. RatDog is a kindred unit, well suited to Weir’s truly unique guitar talents (inspiring legions of kids to be “rhythm” guitarists, myself included). Jay Lane on drums helped get the whole thing going with Weir in 1995, Furthur’s Jeff Chimenti provides the keys, Rob Wasserman is a wonderful bass player and frequent Weir collaborator, and Steve Kimock an important figure in the jam band world and occasional member of other Dead related projects. Brit Robin Sylvester fills out this version of the band on bass as well. With Furthur on hiatus, both RatDog and Phil and Friends shows take on more importance and delight, with both bands diving headfirst into the Garcia canon, adding a twist on interesting covers and exploring their leader’s compositions with abandon.
The Greek is always a gorgeous setting and has been Furthur’s LA home for some time. It’s only appropriate RatDog follows suit, having last played the venue in 2009. The Chris Robinson Brotherhood in all its Black Crowes meets jam band glory was a bonus pairing, and got underway early. CRB hit many Dead-esque passages with some satisfying trippy explorations and fine twin guitar interplay between Robinson and Neal Casal. Robinson’s distinctively raspy vocals were driven by material much closer in bloodlines to the headliners than the Crowes. The rousing closer, “Rosalee” from their 2011 debut, capped a surprisingly enjoyable set. By the time RatDog took the stage around 8, daylight lingered and the crowd was certainly primed.
I confess to being a Deadhead of a certain vintage and reasonable mileage, yet had not come around to a RatDog performance until now. My expectations were modest, but with Kimock in the lineup I was feeling potential. While Garcia’s spirit will never depart, and Dead incarnations both past and present may embrace or flee that musical elephant, Kimock brings a little of both that is a particularly good fit. True to form, the band settled into a nice loping groove that landed on “Feels Like a Stranger”. The vertically unchallenged Bill Walton was all grins adding mallots to Jay Lane’s kit in the early going. Kimock swapped his Explorer for a fat hollow body Vega on the Weir staple “New Minglewood Blues”, while Weir switched from his Hoeg Strat to his vintage sunburst ES-335, a guitar I swear he’s had for at least 45 years. “Used to Love Her” quickly hit its stride as I’m thinking these guys are on to something. There is an ease and churn to their feel that I rather enjoyed. Dropping into Garcia’s “Mission in the Rain” felt right. Chris Robinson came to the stage for Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle”, one of the most identifiable Crowes tunes and one covered early by the Dead with Pig Pen. This was a sly and slippery take with Weir and Robinson trading vocals. The gal holding the “it’s my birthday – Lovelight, please” sign had to be pretty happy as Robinson stuck around to close the first set and coincidentally honor the occasion (it was on the set list).
The second set had an unplugged start with Dylan’s “Paint My Masterpiece” and “Friend of the Devil”, Chimenti adding riverboat rolling piano flourishes to the latter. We all have our Weir favorites, mine has to be “Playing in the Band”. Lucky the night not long into a second set, the Dead and audience would explore the further reaches together only to come back light years later to the chimey guitars and foot stomping celebration of the coda. This was not that night, but it was still solid. Besides, ”Lady With a Fan/Terrapin Station” followed, so this was turning out to be pretty good all around. The band fell into a blues like strut (simply billed as “Stuff” on the set list) before closing with “Dear Prudence” and a feel good “Going Down the Road”. A “Touch of Grey” encore spoke to 80% of the crowd (and maybe even some their kids).
So, RatDog delivered the goods. Those of us who lived the Dead knew that while the bus would eventually stop, the music wouldn’t. With Phil in his fit 70s and Weir getting deeper into his 60s, these gigs really matter. Yes, they are still a band beyond description, they’ve just assumed different form. All the more reason to appreciate each and every show – strong, scattered or middling. This one was enjoyed by all, especially me.