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Published: 2004/01/29
by Joshua Sabatini

Mark Karan’s Permission Slip

After wrapping up last year's RatDog tour of 67 shows, Mark Karan is back in Marin County at his hillside home a modest tree-house-like abode, a flight up a bunch of weathered wooden steps.

On this rainy December morning, he is at his laptop, barefoot, in jeans and a vibrant short-sleeved shirt showing a pair of tangerine and yellow Chinese dragons. A number of guitars are standing by the window. On a wall hangs a framed picture of Muddy Waters. There's another picture, a photograph by Robert Altman, showing an ecstatic audience at a concert, with the main focus, a beautiful, youthful woman, whose face beams with joy. I say, "That looks like an audience at a RatDog show." He concurs.

This February, RatDog heads out on a West Coast winter tour, and Karan is as enthusiastic as ever about getting back on the road. The number of shows was pared down last year because of the Dead tour. The year before RatDog took to the stage on more than 100 nights.

It's been a long journey for Karan, who was once a wide-eyed kid seeing Bob Weir from the audience's perspective at Grateful Dead shows.

Karan is a San Francisco native who's been playing the guitar since he was about 8 years old. He recently celebrated his 49th birthday, which was the day he walked aboard the Jam Cruise II.

A bright light shone on Karan after passing a tryout to head out on tour with the Other Ones back in 1998. The tour gave the guitarist nationwide recognition and eventually helped him launch a band of his own, Jemimah Puddleduck.

His passion for the guitar began early on. "Oh God, I have been playing all my life. I started to fool around with it during the folk craze, with "Lemon Tree," "If I Had a Hammer" and all that stuff. When the Beatles came out, I was, Okay, I want to do that,' " he says, ending his sentence with a familiar deep laugh and a flash of a smile.

He's comfortable on the coach, and he answers each question fervently, sometimes pausing to reflect.

When he graduated high school and moved out of his parents' home, he started playing professionally and never looked back. It wasn't an easy road to travel. But his talent carried him through.

"I ran the gamut from living in houses to living in my car," recalls Karan. "I played with everything from bands I was hopelessly in love with to bands that were just prepared to offer me a paycheck for my skills."

His distinctive rhythm-and-blues style, the soulful noodling, grew out of his influences. Early on, it was the Beatles and other British rockers. But soon his interest drifted toward the wave of psychedelic bands of the Bay Area. "The Haight kind of exploded on the scene and then all of a sudden it went from the Beatles and Herman's Hermits, stuff like that, to Grateful Dead, Quicksilver and Jefferson Airplane," says Karan.

Karan was like most listeners at a Dead show: he would re-experience Jerry Garcia's solos driving home.

"Jerry is a big influence, certainly," says Karan. "When I was a kid I was really into the Dead, from the early to mid-'70s. Afterwards, I still enjoyed them, but you develop other interests and curiosities about other things so around that era I shifted my attention to Sly Stone and Tower of Power, kind of the funk thing.

"Jerry had been pretty completely logged into my brain from the time I was 11 until the time I was 16."

Strangely enough, it was the trip six hours south to Los Angeles that would bring him face-to-face with the Grateful Dead mystique.

There wasn't much work for guitarists in the Bay Area during the late '80s and early '90s so Karan headed south to the L.A. scene. He says, "I just wasn't finding any work, and I knew there was a lot of music work in L.A. I always avoided it, you have the Bay Area Eww L.A.' stigma thing. But I moved down there and I was there for about 11 years. If I hadn't gone to Los Angeles, I wouldn't be here right now."

When he was in Los Angeles, Karan happened to play with drummer John Molo. When Bruce Hornsby signed on to play with the Other Ones, Hornsby hired Molo to be the band's drummer, and Molo suggested Karan as a guitarist.

The call came out of the blue. There was a message: "I had been on vacation in Mexico when I checked my answering machine the last day of vacation and there was a message from the Dead's manager saying, Do you have any interest coming up to the Bay Area and playing with Bobby, Mickey and Phil, and Bruce Hornsby?' " Karan didn't hesitate.

Karan tried out with the band in Marin County, taking part in a "ridiculous amazing jam." Although, he didn't think he would land the spot.

"But lo and behold I got the call," he says. "So all of a sudden I was up from Los Angeles, back on my home turf, playing with one of my all-time old favorite bands, and then we went on this tour. It was just ridiculous, it was stupid. I had never played in the headline slot in a 20,000-seat amphitheater."

Wide-eyed, Karan says, "Looking around on the stage as I was playing these songs that I grew up listening to, looking to my right seeing Bob and Phil standing right next to me and turning behind me and seeing Mickey, it was, Wowwww."

It was his role with the Other Ones that sparked the incarnation of Jemimah Puddleduck. The band played shortly before the '03 holidays at the renowned Sweetwater saloon in Mill Valley, Calif.

Karan says that there was a guy who had been hosting Dead-family-oriented shows at the Ventura Theater, in Ventura, Calif., and he gave Karan a call. The guy asked Karan if he wanted to come play. "I didn't have a band, but I said yes," he recalls.

That's when he called up some of his friends.

Things went good, something happened. "We had so much fun," remembers Karan. "That night when we had all gotten home, we were all on the phone going to each other: This is a band.'"

The band is what Karan does when not out on the road with RatDog. The band members are Molo (Phil Lesh and Friends, Modereko); keyboardist John "JT" Thomas (Bruce Hornsby, Modereko); and bassist Bob Gross. Since these guys have a lot to do besides Puddleduck, the band's getting together is "catch as catch can."

"It's hard to find the time to get together," says Karan. "So when we do, it is really rarefied. It's a truly valued experience."

The band continues to grow. There are the foundation songs, but likely the band will add new material. "We have been kicking the same tunes, we love the tunes, but we all've been feeling like we need to update the set lists a little bit and add some stuff we haven't played before," Karan says.

Since they are busy, the band members talk via phone and e-mail about material as well as send MP3s back and forth. Jemimah Puddleduck plans to finish a studio album before next summer's end.

The Other Ones' gig also got Bob Weir looking at Karan for his own band. "I first met Bob the day I auditioned for the Other Ones," says Karan. " Bob, Phil, Mickey and Molo were there. Bob is a fairly shy guy, believe it or not. And so we didn't have a whole lot to say to each other. There were a few shy smiles and hellos exchanged. Phil was actually more gregarious. He made a special trip across the complex while I was talking to management about whether or not I was going to be available for the tour if they chose me. He made a big journey to the management office to say Hey, we didn't know if this could be fun anymore. And now we do. Thanks.' "

After the Other Ones' summer '98 tour, there was talk about RatDog adding a guitarist to the band. Karan recalls, "Oddly enough I tried out along with four or five other guitar players then and I didn't get the gig." Instead, Dave McNabb got the spot.

There was one tour with McNabb, but the chemistry didn't seem right. When the band got home, Karan received a phone call and he signed on.
"My very, very first show in front of people with RatDog, was the RatDog quartet of me Bob, Rob [Wasserman] and Jay Lane," Karan remembers. It was October 29, 1998, in Las Vegas.

Karan's work with the Dead opened up a vista for his craft. He explains, "I got to a point with my music prior to coming to the Grateful Dead thing, where I was doing a lot of writing, producing and arranging and playing with bands that were doing kind of more what the Beatles were up to, very concise three- and four-minute tunes, very arranged. It had gotten to a point where I kind of felt I had a handle on the guitar as much as I needed to for what I was doing with it.

"So when I came into the Dead scene what it did was rekindle this really hot flame in me to learn about the guitar not about production or all those other things, which I am still very much interested in and passionate about. But it rekindled a real interest in the music of the guitar and what it is capable of and where you can go in solo land, and no, it's not necessarily all very simplistic rock statements with memorable melodies. You can actually do some pretty interesting stuff."

Such interesting stuff is what Karan exhibits with RatDog. The band has morphed over the years, but perhaps the most unexpected change for fans was when Wasserman left the band last year.

"There were a lot of years with Wassey in the band, and I really enjoyed playing with him," says Karan. "But I think when he and Bob initially hooked up it was just the two of them and Rob had a lot more room to move all over the bass and do his thing, what he really does. And the more RatDog turned into a rock-'n'-roll band I think the less happy Rob was because he was getting limited in his options and the less happy we were because we were wanting to limit his options and that doesn't feel good. So we amicably split."

Karan speaks highly of Robin Sylvester, the bassist who took Wasserman's place. He first appeared with RatDog at its Fillmore Mardi Gras show last March.

"As far as being a rock band that can groove and has high rock-'n'-roll energy Robin Sylvester coming to the band has made it take a continent-leap forward," says Karan.

RatDog has become a unique entity and has captured a growing fan base. "RatDog has some pretty hardcore loyal fans that remind me of old school Deadheads. It's a pretty warm, fuzzy family," Karan says. "Everybody really knows each other and watches each other's back. There's not a whole lot of drug dealing and crap like that going on in the lot."

RatDog's edge has gotten much sharper over the years and continues to embark on an adventure each night. "The beauty of RatDog is you have the songs as your jumping off point, but every single time you play the songs you are reinventing them so it is always fresh," says Karan. "The chords stay the same, the lyrics stay the same, the basic concept stays the same. But I don't ever play the same rhythm parts. I don't ever play the same solo and nobody does. So the interaction creates a fresh canvas every night."

As the band grows together, the communication lines open up even more. Any fan remembers the early stages of RatDog: Weir at the forefront, affecting a Beethoven-like conducting style[.

Karan says, "He definitely has been a traffic cop, periodically. But one of the nice things about the tour that we just did is that all of us noticed and told him how much we were enjoying that we have gotten telepathic with each other. He is not having to signal as much. He is not feeling the need to tell us where to go. He gives us a little nod of the head and invites us to go with him and we will go."

To that end, Karan says, "The ethic is pretty identical to early Grateful Dead. There is a sense of living on the edge."

This edge, this freedom to be adventurous, stems from the band's form. "I spend a lot of time being pretty exploratory with RatDog," says Karan. "One of the beauties of RatDog is that I, any of us, can play with that band, in a solo context and get completely lost and make an utter and absolute ass of ourselves and nobody minds because everybody knows that you wound up there because you were trying something and if you weren't trying something then it wouldn't be interesting. By the nature of the band and our fan base we are given blanket permission."

RatDog also remains creative. Karan reports that the band plans to record another studio album. RatDog, he says, already has a half-dozen new tunes, some ready to go, and others waiting for completed lyrics.

An hour slips away, and I ask Karan if he has any comments about the current state of world affairs. "I'm very, very afraid," he answers. "I am sitting here looking at the ingredients for another set of '60s unrest. I don't know if we will get it, because I don't know if the public chooses to be as awake. In the '60s you didn't have a choice, you were kind of forced awake."

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