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Published: 2014/02/14
by Mike Greenhaus

Bob Weir Ramps Up RatDog

Photo by Dean Budnick

Bob Weir has had quite an eventful 12 months. After an infamous onstage fumble last spring and the surprising news that his primary project Furthur would take a hiatus for most of 2014, the Grateful Dead guitarist managed to overcome his various speed bumps and gear up for one of the most varied years of his half-century career. In August, Weir rebooted RatDog and will take the long-dormant group on the road for the first time since 2009. Like last summer’s reunion at The Peach Music Festival, this incarnation of RatDog is something of an all-star revue, bringing together both founding bassist Rob Wasserman (who officially left the group in 2002) and his replacement Robin Sylvester, occasional RatDog contributor Steve Kimock, and steady members Jay Lane and Jeff Chimenti. The band has spent the past few weeks woodshedding in Marin County and plan to tackle as much of Weir’s vast repertoire as possible. (Kimock is also reportedly urging the band to change their name back Scaring the Children in the coming months.) In addition, Weir’s friendship with indie-Americana stars My Morning Jacket and Wilco has blossomed thanks to last summer’s AmericanaramA tour, and he has also started work on an album of cowboy songs with singer/songwriter Josh Ritter and Yellowbirds mainstay Josh Kaufman. Plus, he is also shopping ideas for a few classical music projects and hopes to revisit his successful Weir Here talk show in the coming months. As he prepared for RatDog’s winter tour, Weir ran us through his myriad of projects and also explained why is practicing up on his Spanish.

You are about to launch your first tour with RatDog since 2009. What led you to reform the band and hit the road this spring?

Well, we reassembled last summer when we went out and played the Peach Music Festival. That was the offer they made us so we decided to go with it [RatDog also reconvened for shows at Weir’s TRI Studios and Sweetwater Music Hall in 2012 and laid the groundwork for this year’s tour with a few partial reunions with Jonathan Wilson on guitar in 2013]. It was, I guess, kind of a warm up. And we had a lot of fun, and I mean a lot of fun, so it just seemed natural to go with this.

You gradually rolled into the new RatDog configuration through a series of Marin County underplays and a TRI broadcast. After stepping away from RatDog for so many years, what was the first thing that struck you about this particular configuration of the band?

One of the things we did was we decided we’re gonna minimize the backline volume to try to make the onstage sound as listenable as possible and that worked for us. We were able to hear each other a lot better than we have in the past when it’s been louder. And what that brought to the party was a lot more interaction. [We also have both] Rob Wasserman and Robin [Sylvester] playing bass, which is new. It’s working so far. It’s a work in progress but so far, so good.

In term of the song selection, RatDog obviously has a huge canon of material that includes Grateful Dead songs, over an album’s worth of originals and some covers that have become RatDog signatures. Though you played some of those songs with Furthur or on your recent solo acoustic tours, are there any particular areas of your repertoire you are going to focus on specifically during this RatDog outing? Maybe some songs you thought belonged more to RatDog than some of your other projects recently?

No, we’re gonna try to get to all of it, and we eventually will. That’s what we’re up to right now. We’ve got a list of all of the more complicated arrangements and we’re hitting those first.

One of the members of RatDog who has had the most varied career while RatDog was off the road was Jay Lane. He has played with everything from the first incarnation of Furthur to the rebooted Primus, a band he actually helped cofound. Have you noticed any differences in his playing since RatDog started up again?

Well, Jay changes his style weekly. If you went back and looked at pictures of him, you’d notice that he changes his hairstyle quite frequently, too. The same pretty much applies to his drumming style, so you get what you get that month. And if you don’t like it, you abuse him a bit.

You were recently down in Mexico with Furthur and stayed a little bit later to play with My Morning Jacket, who you first played with on the AmericanaramA Festival this summer. What were your initial impressions of them as a band and how has your friendship with MMJ developed?

Last summer I was opening up acoustic and then, I was playing with MMJ and Wilco, and I had a lot of fun playing with MMJ. I didn’t get a chance to really hear them that much of them on the AmericanaramA tour. If I wasn’t playing with them, I was probably backstage working up material and whatever I was gonna be doing with Wilco. And while I was down in Mexico I had a chance to hear a bit more of them, and they’re an awfully good band. How many rock and roll bands have a pedal steel? I’ve got to say this about MMJ: It’s a sound you just don’t hear, and it’s great. It’s great for ballads; it’s great for all kinds of stuff. And then the last night I played with them, we also brought on a bunch of guys from the Preservation Hall Band, who I also got to sit in with. Then we played with a bunch of the brass and that was sublime.

When it came to choosing the songs with My Morning Jacket, were they familiar with the songs from the Grateful Dead repertoire? Or was it more finding some common ground covers that you both knew?

A little of both. They were kind of familiar with the Grateful Dead canon, but at the same time we looked for songs that might be fun to learn together.

You also played with Wilco regularly on the AmericanaramA run. The collaboration that stuck out the most to me was when you joined them for a medley of the Woody Guthrie/Wilco number “California Stars” and the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star.” You even changed the key to “California Stars” so that it could sit in the middle of “Dark Star.” Can you walk us through how that collaboration in particular happened?

That came from those guys. [Jeff Tweedy requested the song and came up with the medley.] I wasn’t familiar with the song until I learned it. Wilco and My Morning Jacket are not jambands but they can both go on for a while. If you’re on tour with them, one thing is you’re not gonna get bored with them. They like to mix it up when they play, and they like to keep the songs fresh. They have big repertoires and they use them. It’s all Americana music at the end of the day.

While we are on the subject of Mexico, one of the covers that I saw you did with Further was “La Bamba” in the middle of “Good Lovin,’’ just like the Dead did a few times in the late-‘80s, as a nod to your setting. How did you feel that bust out turned out?

Not sure we’re gonna be busting that out real soon. My Spanish isn’t quite up to it [Laughter] but I’m working on it; both my kids are taking Spanish and so I’ve got to kind of attempt to do a little catching up with them. So maybe I’ll throw that up as an exercise.

Speaking of your daughters, a few years ago they took you to some Justin Bieber shows. Have they introduced you to any new music recently?

My fifteen year old is into…it changes. She’s gone through her Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift phases, and I think she’s kind of getting into indie kinda stuff. Also, pop stuff. The younger one, she’s twelve and she’s still into Taylor Swift. [Justin Bieber’s guitarist and musician director] Dan Kanter has become a friend and he’s awful good; he’s a good musician.

Last year another thing you really spent a lot of time on was your Weir Here broadcasts. Is that something we can expect more of this year, either at TRI or on the road?

We’re gonna get back to that. We’re working on a deal with a streaming outfit that reaches a huge audience. And we’re going to—I think—plug into their network. I’m not sure that I’m at liberty to talk about it a whole lot yet. But when we come back to it I think it’s looking like we’ll even have stuff like a budget to work with.

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Comments

There are 12 comments associated with this post

Gardening is Never a Crime February 14, 2014, 15:40:07

..and so they never stopped Rockin, going round and round.

Mole February 16, 2014, 19:33:27

WE LUV U BOBBY!!!

Softball journalism February 16, 2014, 22:12:39

Were there limits on what you could ask Bobby? Why is there still no real explanation on Bobby’s health and what happened? I get people’s privacy, but an open dialogue to the “family” that has supported these musicians forever would be nice. We care and we’re concerned. Why no Mark Karan with Ratdog/Scaring the Children? Is he not healthy enough to tour or was he not asked? Why no sax player? What is the rationale for two bass players? I am fine with whatever the answers to these questions are, but why are they not even asked? I followed Bobby for many years and think he is underrated and under appreciated in this scene, but in an interview like this I’d like a little insight into his thinking as this project has train wreck written all over it.

JIm February 17, 2014, 08:55:47

Bobby and THE DOG were great at the Peach Festival last August. If I remember correctly one song he did start over or dropped. The band along with Bobby solo (though with somebody else) for part of the set on a Sunday brunch did quite well. As during the Black Crowes set, he was called the mayor of Peach Fest with his numerous playing times. Looked very healthy and moved well also when playing and when not playing.

Wounded February 17, 2014, 17:50:24

BOBBY fans are people too!

Who gives a fuck what the name is February 18, 2014, 23:25:16

For anyone that thinks bob is washed up, this project will be a train wreck, or whatever qualms you may have. Listen to a single show from these opening 4 shows of this tour. It will only get better. If you don’t like what you hear, you don’t like Bob Weir’s music. PERIOD.

Todd February 19, 2014, 12:09:06

@ softball. So your telling me that If you got the chance to interview bobby fucking weir you would seriously ask him about how he passed out on stage less than a year ago? If so your an idiot. Give me a break

Softball February 19, 2014, 14:22:50

So asking a person if they are ok from a very public misstep makes someone an idiot? I am saying no one has ever asked a question about the giant elephant in the room and I am wondering if Bob/Bob’s camp has intentionally kept people from asking it.

itellsemlikeismellsem February 19, 2014, 15:15:24

If you ever write something along the lines of “your an idiot,” the real idiot is you.

Adam February 19, 2014, 16:58:04

2/18 yesterday at the Lincoln in DC was the best Ratdog show I’ve ever seen holy cow! Excellent setlist, excellent venue, amazing sound! Wow thank you Bobby n crew!

joe February 20, 2014, 16:14:55

i think kimock is in the band instead of karan, because thats what bobby wanted.
and i also think he left out the sax, to give kimock more room to solo.
and the 2 bass players, is so Wassy can play colors and shit, while robyn holds down the low end. listen to some of the recordings so far. this band is great. if you dont like it, dont go to the shows.
but if you like it, like me, you gotta be cheesin ear to ear.
THANKS BOB

chris hunt February 23, 2014, 19:09:49

seeing ratdog mon. and tues. in boston.i’ve never seen ratdog, but they’re good. seeing phil & friends with John K in April at Port Chester,NY,5 out of 8 shows, because John K is SOOO good! it’s almost like Jerry’s back,a little.

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