RatDog, The Beacon, NYC- 10/24 & 10/25
As shocking as it may seem, Ratdog's recent two night stand at the Beacon was their first multi-night gig in New York. Some will remember that on the group's inaugural tour in 1995, they opened for the Band in Central Park the night before Garcia's passing. For many years to come the band made its home at the Hammerstein Ballroom, where the security is armed with shoehorns, neighbors are pressed tightly against neighbors and dancing is all but impossible. (To be fair, there was also the odd gig for NBC, the Jammys or down in Battery Park.) In 2002, however, the band found a new home at the Beacon, a venerable old room just begs for strings of shows. And so, finally, in 2003, Ratdog graced the city for two full nights of music, both of which ended early enough to allow music fans to enjoy the many, many weekend offerings that were part of the CMJ festival, including Soulive, former Ratdog bassist Rob Wasserman, Sanjay Mishra, and Project Logic, among others.
Friday night’s show opened right on time with a big, smooth Shakedown Street. For most fans, this was the first gig with Robin Sylvester on bass, and he did an admirable job. He’s a rather straight forward, rock n roll-style player, very different from Rob, but able gel easily with the band. He picks his moments to shine, and doesn’t overpower the already often dense soundscape, but most importantly, he keeps the groove moving. Ratdog ’03 has less of a jazzy quality, although classic dog deconstructed-space jams are still staples. Instead, the music is flavored with more traditionally jam-oriented movements, and rising passages. The individual character of each straight jam, or transition jam, was also a striking change. When jam is listed on a Ratdog set list, don’t think soupy psychedelic sounds, but tight, spontaneous compositions.
Also noteworthy was the increased presence of Jeff Chimenti, both in terms of playing, and guidance in jams and solos, as on his super bad lead that brought Shakedown’s funk into Minglewood, or his interplay with Kenny during the song itself.
An early highlight came with the back to back pairing of Mission in the Rain and Loser. The former shimmered nicely through the initial verses and built to a swollen ending, Jeff sliding over to the B-3 at the very last moment to add just the right effect. The latter number was dominated by a wild, blistering solo from Mark, his eyes fixed on Bobby all the while- a truly amazing performance. The psychedelic meat of the set was Birdsong, a long time staple that shows off what Ratdog does best. Jay’s big, warm drums defined the song, and allowed the others to float freely above it. The group began to pick the composition apart, bit by bit, falling into space all the while. There was a breadth to the movement, a vastness of sound and potential that was cut short by a shift into a rather blasendition of Odessa.
But the energy was back for the closing couplet. The smoothness and vibrancy of Shakedown returned for a stellar She Says, with everyone tightly packed around the groove, and pushing the jam harder and harder. A splice suddenly plunked the band and audience into a happy, happy Liberty, as fine a GD ditty as any out there.
"I’ve got to find my own way home."
Barely a half hour passed before Bob, Mark and Robin returned for an acoustic El Paso, followed by another highlight, Black Throated Wind. Bobby’s vocals here were electric, complemented with idyllic precision by Jeff’s piano work. When he began to scream and shout at the end, the theater resounded with the crowds fevered response. As great as all BT Winds are, this one was Great. The transition between the Ratdog classic Even So > October Queen was a bit more jarring than usual, but when Josh Roseman walked on stage flaws were forgotten. The trombonist’s solo was solid, but overshadowed by Mark’s playing on the Deep End jam. Half Step followed close on the Queen’s heels, and received the biggest cheers of the night; as Mark busted out across the Rio Grandeo, the room rumbled with applause. Karan’s great talent is that of timing; he knows just when to tear into a solo, and just when to push it to the next level, taking the song, the band and the dancers with him.
The song drew to a close and Bobby switched to an Other One jam, but Josh simultaneously stepped up for an extended Half Step solo. The combination worked surprisingly well, creating very interesting layers of music that didn’t quite fit, but didn’t fall short either. As Josh finished, the band flared up the Other One lick one last time before rolling into the Wheel, and back out into a reggae jam. Bob left the stage, slowly followed by the other band members until just Jay, Kenny and Josh were on stage for a fantastic bit of free blowin’. Kenny and Josh combined perfectly, organically, reading each other and responding to individual notes and larger patterns- absolutely stupendous musicianship. While Bob and crew returned for a nice Standing on the Moon and Sugar Magnolia > Sunshine Daydream to close, the second set’s strength lay in the pre-drumz portion, and peaked with the horns. Ratdog often has horn players sit in, but Josh Roseman fit the vibe the better than any other, and he was warmly welcomed back for the next night’s festivities.
A beautiful fall day set the mood for Saturday night: a warm, buzzing sort of energy that filled the Beacon and manifest on stage with a clav laden funk jam to open. Soon enough the jam railroaded into Help on the Way and the journey had begun. Mark was scorching right out of the gate, running over line after line, while Kenny toyed with a sequencer set up next to Jeff’s keyboard pit. Even Robin stepped up to drop in some nice fills at the end, before the jam slipped into Jack Straw. In mid-song Bobby’s guitar gave out, and while literally three techs were on stage adjusting his equipment, Mark again rose to the occasion and led the ensemble through a raging jam. Once Bobby was fixed, the movement dropped low and built again, a classic Ratdog moment, to an even more potent climax.
Rob Barraco slid out next Jeff at the very beginning of Dark Star and stayed for most of the show. The initial composed passages of the psychedelic masterpiece were incredibly meaty and rich, and melted into an equally full jam. Moving, but moving none too fast, it had width, but also more of a shape than is usually associated with Dark Star. Drama marked the first verse, Bobby singing with force and pressure as Jeff’s B-3 flared up over the tumbling rhythm. The following jam was joyous, no darkness encroaching on the bright spread of yellow lights that covered the stage.
Unfortunately Bob didn’t turn over vocals duties on Bertha to Rob, but it, like literally everything else on Saturday night, was a strong version, and it moved quickly into Cassidy. Karan’s mid-song solo marked a move toward a rowdier tone that would continue to resurface throughout the rest of the night. A full Ratdog freefall began the ending jam, but the band quickly began putting the song back together and soon crested the ridge, beautiful piano describing the lay of the terrain. Tumbling over the precipice, the music fell into an even deeper space, but it too was short in duration, parting to make way for Loose Lucy.
One of the night’s biggest surprises was the long, absolutely thumpin’ version of Deep Elm Blues. Rowdy and chunky, it featured vibro-bass, baritone sax and more aggressive playing for Mark. This is a truly refreshing reworking, even though most of Ratdog’s revisions are fun and engaging. To close, a personal favorite, Ashes and Glass. The central Dark Star jam was omitted as the improvisation stayed lively and bright, with Mark again in the lead, bounding over the band’s rhythmic steps. The whole room was dancing and shaking, tapped into the fun, nearly triumphant vibe on stage. In hindsight, Ashes and Glass served much the same function as Liberty the night before; that is ending with glowing happiness, rather than hard rocking exhaustion.
The Beacon shows are not included in the new Ratdog soundboard series due to some union complications, but hopefully Bobby and crew will simply release them to the trading public, because everyone should hear a crystal clear copy of the opening jam from the second set. While initial notes declared Blackbird, the acoustic trio spiraled off into an extended, exceedingly pretty passage, smoldering and warm, simply amazing, before pulling back into the Beatles’ tune. An absolutely golden moment, an apex in all my years of Ratdog. A similarly warm, but laid back version of Candyman was well received, as was Bobby’s mid-tune solo. As the band slipped back into Dark Star, Rob reemerged, as did Josh Roseman, and the super group crumbled into a swirling tumult. Clouds of cosmic dust and sound issued from the stage, Robin once again rising to rumble the rafters. Now the music was moving in all directions, brief Other One teases surfacing as the song seemed to expand endlessly within itself. The movement then settled, winding down and down and landing in Sitting in Limbo. What a fantastic addition to Ratdog’s arsenal! Josh took the central solo, his increased comfort with band immediately apparent. This was Josh as the free jazz junkies know him, and as Bobby returned to the vocals, he just kept on blowing and blowing, shocking Kenny into a fit of onstage gymnastics. Kenny Brooks has potentially the most endearing stage presence of any performer I know- the way he grooves out to the band, and wipes his nose, or sometimes hides under his hoodie. He’s always so happy just to be there, and when he started leaping on Saturday night, his energy spread across the stage.
Josh left for a brutal, but short Scarlet Begonias, and returned for another incredible horn jam, Jeff joining in this time. Kenny was leaning on the sequencer while Josh unleashed massive waves of sounds, creating a musical onslaught of devastating proportions.
While it may seem anticlimactic to follow such free form madness with Knockin', the band actually played a rather stirring version that gave way to Jay's big voodoo drums and Throwin' Stones. Bobby made his only major vocal slip of the night here, but did such a fantastic job of building up the "on our own" passage that the flaw was quickly overlooked. Josh and Rob locked up at the end, during the reworked breakdown, just thriving off each other and carrying the song into its final passage. And without a second's pause the whole group railroaded into Slipknot and off into Franklin's Tower, another joyous moment in a night of joyous moments- just the thing to close the show and close the weekend. Hopefully next time we'll get four nights of the 'dog.