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Published: 2017/10/14
by Mike Greenhaus

Bob Weir at 70: Bob Weir’s Gamelan: One Instrument With A Lot of Players (2008)

Photo by John Parick Gatta

Though he is the youngest member of the Grateful Dead’s 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 Garcia’s 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 Dead’s 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- Let’s start by discussing your current tour. RatDog spent the first part of the summer on the road with Gov’t 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- It’s 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 couldn’t see the individual faces. I don’t 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 don’t 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 I’ve 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 festivals, some 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 RatDog’s 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 don’t 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 RatDog’s 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 Phil’s 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 I’d 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. You’d have to ask Phil why we chose those albums.

MG- It has been eight years since RatDog’s 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 on, well, more than an album’s worth of material. But, though we have a bunch of material, I’m 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 haven’t 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 don’t 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.

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