Bob Weir and RatDog keep the Grateful Dead spirit alive
by Ben Horowitz/The Star-Ledger
Friday November 14, 2008
Bob Weir and his band, RatDog, are doing an effective job of keeping
the Grateful Dead's legacy alive, or at least, one side of his old
The Dead had two main sides: There was the psychedelic, spacey,
experimental Dead, the king of the jam bands; and there was the tight
yet imaginative group that produced and performed a number of
timeless, well-crafted roots-rock songs.
Weir, the Dead's rhythm guitarist whose rich baritone made him the
band's most natural singer, thrived in the latter setting. So it was
no accident that Wednesday night's concert at the New Jersey
Performing Arts Center in Newark achieved its most powerful moments
when Weir and RatDog focused on the songs, and didn't go overboard
with the jamming.
With the Dead, Weir sang lead on about half the songs. Today, at 61,
he sings lead on every song. His booming voice was fully intact
Wednesday not only on his own songs, but on strikingly credible
versions of such chestnuts as "Brown-Eyed Women" and "Cold Rain and
Snow" that were sung by the Dead's legendary lead guitarist, the late
RatDog's lead guitarist, Mark Karan, is a solid player, but he's no
Garcia. Karan does a respectable job of exploring Garcia's high,
darting flights of fancy on guitar, but RatDog, for the most part,
couldn't reach the sonic instrumental heights of the Dead. So that
side of the Dead didn't fully come across.
The opening song, an 18-minute "Truckin,'" was a good example. The
number began as a casual yet engaging jam that evolved into this Dead
favorite. The band hit a danceable groove for the song itself, and
the crowd, which didn't need much encouragement, was pumped for the
evening. But when the verses ended, Karan and the band went into a
purposeless jam that was at least five minutes too long.
Fortunately, that didn't become a pattern. During two sets of music
that clocked in at a generous 2 hours and 45 minutes, the only other
needless jam came when RatDog attempted to parallel a Dead concert
with "Stuff," an instrumental break centered on a drum solo that came
midway through the second set.
But the highlights outweighed the low points. A lively, fun-loving
rendition of Bob Dylan's "Silvio" seamlessly integrated Kenny Brooks'
saxophone solo on "Tequila," delighting the crowd.
Three songs that originated with RatDog showed the six-man band has
something to offer of its own. Particularly noteworthy was "Bury Me
Standing," a slow, funky, mysterious number abetted by
tension-building flourishes from the sax.
RatDog finished the first set in style with a snappy, rousing
"Greatest Story Ever Told" that segued into a euphoric "Scarlet
Begonias" on which Karan's guitar solo was just right.
An attention-grabbing, acoustic "Me and Bobby McGee" kicked off the
second set with authority. And the band pulled itself out of the
"Stuff" jam to end the concert on a high note. A stripped-down,
atmospheric "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" led to an exhilarating
set-closer, a no-holds-barred rendition of the Dead/Weir
show-stopper, "Sugar Magnolia."
For its encore and final song, RatDog chose a moving ballad,
"Brokedown Palace," a song Garcia co-wrote and sang for his mother
after she died. Weir sang the song back to Garcia, showing his
respect and affection for his mentor ("Fare you well, fare you well,
I love you more than words can tell").
The song sent the Deadheads, young and old, exiting the elegant
building in a mellow, reflective, satisfied mood.
Ben Horowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Grateful Dead drummer Hart creates artwork from old-growth redwood
Erstwhile Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, already a hall of fame
musician and author of four books, now joins his late bandmate, Jerry
Garcia, in the world of fine art.
Next weekend, the indefatigable 65-year-old makes his debut as a
visual artist with an exhibit of his paintings and sculpture, "Tao of
Wood," at the Dennis Rae Gallery, a San Francisco dealer specializing
in celebrity painters such as Grace Slick, Tony Curtis and Dr. Seuss.
Most striking in this premiere show are Hart's iridescent images of
skeletal "psychopomps," spirit guides to the land of the dead
inspired by Hans Holbein's "Dance of Death" woodcuts.
Hart's pieces, gouache on paper, are in the spirit of the playful
illustrations - skeletons in top hats and skeletons with roses - by
poster artists Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse that became the band's
iconography, branding familiar to generations of Deadheads.
Like their creator, Hart's tribal figures - with names like Hortator,
Jester and Shaman - are invariably drawn with drum sticks and
percussion instruments in their bony hands.
"These are my buddies," Hart explains. "These are the guys from the
other side, guides of the soul. They're skeletons dancing with the
universe. They're from my dream world, revolving inside my
consciousness. They're not scary when you get to know them. They're
actually friendly fellows that I can dialogue with. We talk."
Hart's sculptures are twisted pieces of redwood, sculpted primarily
by time, weather and insects, that he collects from Northern
California Sequoia forests. Guided by their shapes, he gives them
names like Squid, Ramrod, Coral Reefer.
"I try to stay out of their way," he says. "I clean them up and they
reveal themselves. The wood is old growth, hundreds of years old, and
very sonorous. It has these extremities that make different sounds.
They're beautiful instruments. Over the years I've started to play on
them. I've actually performed on a couple of them in concerts."
In the decade before his death in 1995, Garcia became a celebrated
artist, creating paintings, drawing and prints, including designs for
a line of ties. Hart wrote the foreword to the 2005 book, "Jerry
Garcia: The Collected Artwork."
I asked him if Jerry ever gave him any painting tips, whether he
showed him any tricks of the trade?
"One of his tips was to go slow," Hart recalled, which, in the
hyperkinetic drummer's case, would be like asking a hummingbird to
stop beating its wings so fast.
"He'd see me painting and he'd say, 'Go slow and go light.' That was
the Zen of painting. And that's what I love about it. It takes you
into a zone. It's a real great high."
Hart's exhibit opens Nov. 22 and runs through December.
"Hopefully, other people will like it," he says, not sounding too
worried. "If they don't, that's all right. It's not my day job."
IF YOU GO
- What: "Tao of Wood," premiere of sculpture and paintings by
Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart
- When: Through December; opening reception 7 to 9 p.m. Nov. 22nd.
Exhibit open to the public
- Where: Dennis Rae Fine Art, 781 Beach St., San Francisco
- Information: 292-0387