Bob Weir’s Gamelan: One Instrument With A Lot of Players
Though he is the youngest member of the Grateful Deads classic lineup, Bob Weir has gradually aged into a stately role as unofficial voice of the Dead Universe. So it makes sense that since Jerry Garcias passing 13 years ago, Weirs longtime band RatDog has evolved from a primarily blues-and-roots-based collaboration with Rob Wasserman to viable keepers of the Grateful Dead torch, gradually digging deeper into The Deads canon and, more importantly, developing a unique style of group improvisation. Weir has also continued to collaborate with many satellite members of the Grateful Dead cosmos, from old friends to Levon Helm to more recent companions like Warren Haynes, with whom RatDog has spent much of the summer on the road. Below, Weir waxes poetic on his summer tour with the Allman Brothers Band, current fascination with Wilco and why Obama is Americas last, best chance.
*MG- Lets start by discussing your current tour. RatDog spent the first part of the summer on the road with Govt Mule and will spend the rest of August on the road with the Allman Brothers Band. Do you remember the first time the Grateful Dead crossed paths with the Allmans? *
BW- I guess it was 1969. We were playing in Atlanta at the time and played some old wrestling rink. That was back when they still had Duane and he was pretty amazing. I think they were opening for us. *MG- Obviously you have collaborated with the members of the Allman Brothers a number of times since then. Is any performance particularly memorable? *
BW- Well, of course there was Watkins Glen [The Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, a 1973 festival featuring The Dead, The Band and Allman Brothers Band]. Some estimates have the attendance at almost a million at that one. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that festivals were first gathering steam after Woodstock. There were actually a lot of festivals between Watkins Glenn and Woodstock and Watkins Glen was actually a disaster. I think it was declared an official state disaster because of the traffic and the fact that people were stuck there for days and days and days. After Watkins Glen, of course, all kinds of laws and jurisdictions were put in the books and festivals like that were never allowed again. And that is probably a good thing. *MG- Its strange to think music festivals used to be that large. These days 80,000 fans at Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza feels like a lot. *
BW- Watkins Glen was way more than double what is at Bonnaroo. You could easily see a million folks from the stage and then the hill dropped off. From what I can see, from the aerial view I saw on TV, after the hill dropped off it was still packed and, apparently, you can still hear back there. But, no camera got a shot of all the people I saw on TV. It was packed from frame to frame and you couldnt see the individual faces. I dont think there has been a crowd like that since, though I guess they get crowds like that in India on a yearly basis. But I dont think there has been a crowd like that at a music festival in the Western world before or since. *MG- RatDog is actually playing the site of the original Woodstock this summer. Cultural implications aside, from what Ive heard The Dead was never happy with its Woodstock performance, correct? *
BW- Well, Woodstock was a great festival musically. We drew straws to see who got the closing spot and all that kind of stuff and we came up with the short one. There have been so many festivalssome good ones and some not good ones. These days, festivals run fairly smoothly, but back then there was a learning curve involved. So, for us, Woodstock was our big learning curve festival and, of course, Altamont was another big learning curve for us. We never even had a chance to play that one, though we were supposed to play right before The Stones. But they wanted to get on, get off and get
out. *MG- Shifting back to RatDogs current tour, in general how much time do you spend rehearsing before heading out on the road? *
BW- Not a whole hell of a lot. Well put in a few days this week and run some stuff down. It is sort of will of the whim. This tour is going to be a lot easier for us because we dont have the closing spots. Last summer, wed have a 1 PM soundcheck and then stay at the venue all night until we closed things out. This time around, we get the last soundcheck and go on first, so it will be a little more leisurely. But, if you are hanging out in front and hear us working on something, you are probably not going to hear it that night. *MG- Over the years, you have slowly worked a number of Grateful Dead songs into RatDogs canon. In fact, you recently played both Cream Puff War and Morning Dew for the first time. What led to the decision to bring back those songs specifically? *
BW- Really, we just got around to them. Cream Puff War I played with Phils band in April at the Warfield here in San Francisco. He was doing songs from a number of albums in order and that was on the docket and he asked me if Id sing it. It was amazing how quickly it came back to me after all those years. There is not a whole hell of a lot to the song—-it is not a very complicated song—-so I worked it out in about ten minutes. *MG- Speaking of those Warfield shows, how did your cameo come about? Did you choose which album you helped reinterpret? *
BW- He said, We are thinking of doing these albums, how would you like to do these songs, and I said, Sure. I did a little homework and showed up for soundcheck. Youd have to ask Phil why we chose those albums. *MG- It has been eight years since RatDogs last studio album. Do you have any plans to enter the studio? *
BW- Well get around to it. We have a bunch of new songs we are working onwell, more than an albums worth of material. But, though we have a bunch of material, Im not entirely sure what to do with it. We are squarely in the middle of the file sharing demographic, so I am not sure I want to go through all the effort and spend all the money to make a record since as soon as the first one is sold everyone who wants it has it. So, we are going to try to figure out what to do with it. I mean we make records and sell a couple hundred or thousand a year and sell them at the shows, but it is a different time. *MG- Do you see any common threads or themes in your latest batch of songs? *
BW- There is no telling, really. It gets harder and harder for me the more themes I explore. So, you know, you make do. You find places to go and visit or live that you havent been. *MG- With that in mind, have you discovered any new bands recently? *
BW- I am a big fan of Wilco, but that is not a new band by any means [laughter]. I dont listen to a lot of current popular music. Nels Cline from Wilco played with us [in California]. We were just in the same place at the same time. They have the same sensibilities as we do. They just distill them a little differently. *MG- Mark Karan recently returned to the fold after winning a bout with cancer. Have you noticed a change in Marks playing since his return? *
BW- Well, all the guys in the band are constantly evolving. So, yeah, I noticed it, but it just seems evolutionary to me. What Mark and the guys have been doing really well is refining their parts and finding registers that other people arent occupying. They are finding ways to support a line that is sort of carrying the ball, and they are finding ways to run interference or support it. Basically, what it boils down to is that people in the band are getting less concerned with what they are playing and more concerned with what everyone else is playing and interacting with that. As you get to know the songs better, you kind of know what you are up against, stop checking yourself out and start checking everyone else out. So, the balance starts to drift as you start to own the song.
Practice makes perfect and the instrument we are playing is the band. It is kind of like a Gamelan: one instrument with a lot of players. *MG- RatDog has changed a great deal since its earliest, more blues-based incarnation. In certain ways, it parallels The Deads shift from the blues in the mid-1960s to more psychedelic-based music. How do you view your own relationship with the blues? *
BW- Well, we were sort of blues-orientated when Pigpen was the frontman of the band. Then Jerry and I started getting into songwriting and we started to drift in the Workingmans Dead direction. I didnt sort of come back around to the blues-oriented stuff until I had Matthew Kelly in the early RatDog. That was sort of his forte, so I was basically playing to his strong suit and then we had Johnnie Johnson, so that took us all the way there. We were playing to the seat of the master, so I personally had to go there. I had no choiceit was such an amazing opportunity. So, we sort of stayed there for a few years until it was time for Johnnie to take it easy. It was tough for him on the road. *MG- Who are some of your own blues influences? *
BW- Well, I listen to older recordings. I am a big fan of Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters. *MG- I was actually listening to the Grateful Deads last run at the Fillmore East the other day. Its interesting to hear The Dead during that transition from the blues to American Beauty. *
BW- Well, Pigpens health was starting to decline and we had to do something about it. Around that time Jerry was catching his stride and I was beginning to as well. We were growing upwe were kids. Pigpen had been at it for a while, so we were pretty refined and pretty good at it. He knew what he was up to, so we went with that. *MG- Actually, one of the things Ive always loved about your collaborations with Warren Haynes is that he is able to sing some of those more blues-based Pigpen songs like Operator or Alligator. *
BW- Yeah, I think the first time I ever played with Warren is when he shows up at a gig we called RD3 at Wetlands. It was me, Rob Wasserman and Jay Lane. He shows up for the first gig and had a great deal of fun and then we had Hanson, a little something for the kids. That was one fun gig. I havent heard from them in years now, so I wonder what has become of them. They had a good thing going. They could be the new Bee Gees. They have that sibling vocal blend. I hope they hang in there. *MG- Like Hanson, you started playing music professionally at a very young age. In general, do you find it hard for child musicians to overcome their early stigmas? *
BW- Well, anytime you make any sort of mark in music you have to outgrow that, no matter who you are or what you do. If you have a big record, for instance, and you are ready to move on there is always going to be a little chafing with your audience. That is just a fact of life. People get comfy and a real artist is never comfy. So there is a little rub there, but our audience is a little more forgiving in that regard. *MG- Or a little less forgiving depending on how you look at it. *
BW- Right, it all sort of depends on where we are playing. When we are in the Northeast in college towns, for instance, theyll take anything well throw at them. But, when we are playing to an older audience, you dont get much response to the new stuff, you get a response to the chestnuts. So, you have to play each crowd differently, depending on how you feel it. *MG- Is there any particular Grateful Dead show or tour youd like to see unearthed from the archives? *
BW- Well, it really is endless. At the rate we are going, unless we get the vault digitized soon I dont expect to see all the shows I want released in my lifetime. But, for what it is worth, I am not all that familiar with the catalogue that is already released. *MG- Weve discussed technical developments a few times today. Do you consider yourself much of a tech guy? *
BW- Im not a huge tech guy. We use pro-tools to record and stuff like that and, for that matter, my rack is kind of sci-fi. So, I guess I really am kind of a tech guy [laughter]. But, through all that tech, I try to achieve stuff that comes across upfront as a clearer representation of stuff. For that matter, I wonder why I even do interviews for print media anymore. I wonder what percentage of our audience even reads newspapers. *MG- Information definitely spreads a lot quicker thanks to the Internet. *
BW- Right, the immediacy and the back and forth is a lot more fun with the Internet.
But, in the old days, when there was tape trading, the tapes were handed around. The people in the community knew the color of each others eyes and each others voices and stuff like that, except when traded through the mail. But, these days, that is all changed. People know each other by their Internet names and whatever posts and blogs they know each other by. The community has evolved to a less-personal place. It seems to me to be less personal, at least, since there is less human and more digital contact. But, I guess thats the way the worlds going *MG- At the same time, people can communicate more freely and regularly. *
BW- Thats true. I guess in this day and age there is considerably more conversations between all the traders because, besides the phone back then, it wasnt possible.
*MG- Finally, you have been both an important member of the HeadCount Board of Directors since 2004. Do you feel younger voters will truly make a difference this November? *
BW- Well, I guess people tend to know where I stand politically. But HeadCount is non-partisan and necessarily so. Everyone has got to have a chance. What we have to try to do is reestablish democracy in this country. We need to have everyone registered and become aware of the issues and then they should vote their hearts and minds. Id love to see money out of politics. People are throwing a lot of money at getting money out of politics strangely enough. *MG- Have you had a chance to meet Barack Obama? *
BW- No. I was on a conference call with him, but I we have not met yet. I met some of the people in his campaign. He may be the last, best chance we have in our lifetimes to bring democracy back to this country. And not just my lifetime, but younger peoples lifetimes too. I have said it a number of times before and Ill say it now, but what we have now is not a functioning democracy. It is a plutocracy run by the elite for the elite and we need to do something about that. This is not what the Founding Fathers had in mind.
_Mike Greenhaus stores his typos at www.greenhauseffect.com