Ratdog, Jam on the River, Philadelphia 5/25
The sun was just beginning to set, and a cold wind was kicking up off the river, as Ratdog took the stage before a crowd of a few thousand collected on a pier in the City of Brotherly Love. The band was headlining the first night of the Jam on the River, which also included acts such as Levon Helm and the Barn Burners, Papa Grows Funk and Little Feat. As with most such "city" music festivals, the band was limited to a single 90-minute set, but the Dog hit the stage right on time, so as not to waste a minute.
The ensemble opened with a customary, noodly tuning-jam. Beginning with Jay and Kenny, each member added to a loose idea that hinted at Bird Song. Instead of solidly establishing a tune that often perforates Ratdog sets, Bob signaled, and the group fell into a somewhat sluggish Bucket. Bob’s vocals were nice and clean, and Mark tossed in a couple fine licks, but there were really no noteworthy fireworks. As soon as the tune ended, however, the music slipped back to Bird Song for a second before veering off toward the Other One. Jay’s drums called out with thundering rolls early on, but he settled into a quieter vein as the jam became spacier and began to wander. It was one of those very loose, detailed Other One jams that is obviously not going to full materialize; nor is it meant to. There was some great harmonizing from Bob and Kenny- Bob starting a line and Kenny picking it up a few notes in. The interplay built into a movement, and eventually rose to an intense crescendo before dropping into Tennessee Jed.
Hardly a favorite song, I was pleased to hear nice piano fills from Jeff almost immediately, fills that would continue throughout the song. The first short jam was a three-way effort with Bob, Mark and Kenny all lending short bursts of color to the painting. The lengthier, second jam continued to exemplify Ratdog’s textural playing, but also featured Mark at the forefront. His solo just kept going, Bob stepping out to lean toward the lead guitarist and add fuel to the fire. Karan snapped a string about half way through, but he continued to drive his solo into the ground without the slightest hesitation.
After a switch of equipment for Mark and Bob, the latter pulling out his twangy, chrome hollow-body, the band strutted into a restrained Bury Me Standing. Like the Bucket opener, the playing was solid, some strong, funky bass and cool wa work from Mark here, but the x factor was missing. In this case, Bob’s singing simply did not push the song to the next level. Also like the opener, however, the exiting jam was intricate and interesting. Mark pulled out cool leads as Bobby played aggressive slide. The music became mellow, but continued move. Jeff set on the vibe with the electric piano as Bob switched back to the black guitar. Effortlessly, the band slid into a welcome Fire jam, raising the bar and drawing the audience along, too. By the time the movement matured into Scarlet Begonias, the anticipation and focus on both sides of the rail were at a peak. Jay and Rob worked as a single unit, establishing a round, loping stride. The vocals were strong, and the instrumentation under them was rich and involved. Mark’s solo was incendiary at the outset and went solar in mere moments. And it just kept going. Again, Bobby stepped over to egg on Mark, who responded to every prompt by reaching a new plateau. After the final verse, Kenny took the reigns as the band churned below in trademarked Ratdog style. Mark stabbed in with a series of bright leads from the other side of the stage, while Bob took control with some excellent rhythm work right at the end of the song.
That classic rhythm work continued through Help on the Way. Rob joined with a very straight, clean bass line, and Mark played throaty guitar. The transition to Slip was tight, Kenny dominating with his tenor sax. The amorphous instrumental lit up the sky with wild, atmospheric storms. Cracks and sizzles at one moment, rumbles and screeches at the next, the sound was packed full and bursting at the seams. The band tightened up for the end composition, tearing through the narrow straights with stunning precision. Instead of Franklin’s, the band left Jay and Rob alone for the shortest Bass/Drums I’ve ever heard. Rob had just enough time to play a succession of sharp, percussive notes using his bow, followed by a progression of piercing bowed notes, before the band returned to the stage en masse. A cacophonous roar glared back at Slip, but deflated as Peter Garrett from Midnight Oil entered from the flanks. Bob headed into Wharf Rat, a tune Midnight Oil recorded for the 1990 tribute release Deadicated. In an interesting arrangement, Garrett sang only the role of August West, which added extra emphasis to the song’s plot. The performance was huge, every member of the band seeming to feed off the guest’s energy and anxiety. The end jam soared with organ washes and crazed guitar, echoing through the enormity of the whole song. The performance was intimidating in size, and the band had to stop, even if just for a second, to let the electricity leave the stage- it threatened to overwhelm us all.
But it was just a second’s pause before Jeff, all alone, teased Ashes and Glass and launched into 2 Djinn with the rest of the band. Again the band excelled through the tightest passages, every note sounding clearly at just the right moment- a vibrant, booty shaking orchestration. From percussion fills, to brief Middle Eastern lines from Kenny, to growls of, "It’s the dreaming that’s real," this was a shining version of an incredible song. The end was lightly reworked, a very slight stop/start series having been added in the last vocal bed, which also helped the groove boil over.
As expected, the group quickly tagged Slip for the last time and galloped into Franklin’s. The crowd was uniformly lost in an ecstatic, loose-limbed jangle as Jeff took the first solo on organ and played off Bobby. Interplay is everything for this band. The second round of instrumentals still had Jeff at the lead, this time with a more distinct theme, now playing off Kenny, who danced a little shuffle step all the while. The song climaxed with Mark scorching the path to the Tower, Jeff adding some nice accents before Bobby dropped low for the last chorus, and then brought it all home. People often argue about whether Ratdog or the Quintet is a better band, or which one truly represents the legacy of the Grateful Dead, but it’s always a pointless argument. The bands are vastly different, despite their common roots, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. I will say this, though: while I often leave PLQ shows mentally, if not physically, exhausted, I usually leave Ratdog shows excited and inspired.