Ratdog, PromoWest Pavilion, Columbus, OH- 11/8
Bobby "Ace" Weir and his giant jungle mustache played at PromoWest Pavilion on a day that is normally reserved for one thing in Columbus: Ohio State Buckeyes Football. Saturdays in November are sacred days when almost the entire city blankets itself in Scarlet and Grey clothing and goes Big 10 football crazy. Partying, eating, and watching football are the primary functions of the fortunate people suffering from Buckeye Football Fever. It is very hard to drag fanatics infected with the aforementioned fever away from the late night College Football action on television, but Ratdog was able to entertain a few thousand Deadheads, Buckeye-heads, heady heads, and Patagonia-heads by playing some new arrangements of some old tunes.
It was about 28 degrees Fahrenheit in Columbus on Saturday night and that meant one thing for Weir, a Hawaiian shirt and classic "Weir in Alpine Valley" short shorts. The show was indoors, but it couldn’t have been over 50 degrees inside the modern spacious Pavilion. With his new "Survivor" styled pirate mustache, Bermuda man outfit, and the 10,000 mile stare, the guys in the crowd still think he is cool because he’s so into the music and the ladies think he is cool because he’s Bobby fucking Weir. It was great to see him happy and healthy.
Ratdog began the show with a nice jam that hinted at "Shakedown Street" from the very beginning, then broke into a full out version of the Dead’s disco-inspired song. It was a perfect opportunity to hear Ratdog’s new bass player lay down some funk for the first time. I am a big fan of Rob Wasserman and was very interested in hearing how Ratdog would sound without him. Throughout the night Robin Sylvester played very much in his own style, which was very laid back and a little more "southern fried rock and roll" than Wasserman’s style, and Sylvester’s playing added a lot of feeling and energy to the entire band. "Shakedown Street" continued with some spacey playing by Mark Karan on lead guitar. Karan, who looks like he could be Bob Seger’s long lost brother, was the catalyst for most of the jams and transitions throughout the night, and when he really got going the band sounded excellent. The jam out of "Shakedown" led into a very up-tempo version of "Big River." "Big River" was played at a much faster pace than the way the Grateful Dead used to do it and Kenny Brooks added some terrific baritone saxophone over the band’s funky groove. "Big River" continued and then morphed into "New Minglewood Blues". The transition between "Big River" and "New Minglewood" was smooth and flowing, and throughout the night the band seemed to be at their best when they were improvising their way from one song into the next. "New Minglewood" was very upbeat and full of energy, and Bobby changed the lyrics to acknowledge the Buckeye Football crazies in attendance, "Couple shots of whiskey, those Buckeye fans start looking good."
After "New Minglewood" finished the energy that had built up during the first three songs was put on hold with a light jazz sounding medley of "Even So > October Queen > The Deep End". These three songs blended together with a jumble of words and a tempo that never seemed to change and jams that lacked direction. Fortunately, this lethargic section was followed by the highlight of the show: "West L.A. Fadeaway > Women are Smarter > Scarlet Begonias." "West L.A. Fadeaway" seemed to reenergize both the band and the crowd as Kenny Brooks played a beautiful baritone saxophone part during the chorus section which led to an outstanding all-out sax solo followed by a ferocious keyboard solo from Jeff Chimenti. From here the group established a nice laid back funky groove, which flowed into "Women are Smarter". Bobby nailed the vocals and Mark Karan played a ragging guitar solo that moved the band into the most energized song of the night, "Scarlet Begonias". It was great to hear Bobby sing "Begonias". Of course it was different than Jerry, but he does his best to keep the spirit of the song alive. Everyone in the band really clicked during "Begonias" and the results were fantastic.
After a short set break Ratdog returned to the stage with a smaller acoustic setup. Bobby and Mark Karan played acoustic six string guitars and Robin Sylvester played some smooth stand up bass. This acoustic trio opened the second set with the classic "El Paso." This version was very well done as Bobby sounded great and Karan and Sylvester added some solid guitar picking and bass slapping. The rest of the band joined the three guitarists after "El Paso" and played a surprising version of "Victim or the Crime". "Victim" has never been one of my favorite Dead songs, but this context it was a revelation- the groove made me wish I was driving 85 mph through Amarillo, Texas with the windows down in a 1965 Pontiac GTO.
Bobby, Karan, and Sylvester switched back to electric instruments after "Victim or the Crime" and the band set sail into "Loser > Estimated Prophet". Both "Loser" and "Estimated" were very inspired and the transitional jam between the two songs was right on the money. The entire band really fed off the vibe that was created during the blending of these two songs together. The jam after "Estimated" led to a build up of rhythm and energy that cumulated with "The Other One." Unfortunately, this version never really took off after the intro segment. Chimenti did lend inspiration and intensity but overall the song offered a bit too much noisy, spacey, random weirdness. Somehow the band noodled their way into a cover of The Beatles "Dear Prudence" and much like "The Other One", this song did not reach its full potential. This one was filled with odd, creepy noises that didn’t quite work for me, leading to an ending that contained an extended vocal segment that lasted far too long before ending abruptly. The version of "Sugar Magnolia" that followed started off sloppy, as Bobby missed a lot of the changes and flubbed a number of the words, still the band was able to pick it up at the end by playing a "Scarlet Begonias"-sounding jam before climaxing during the "Sunshine Daydream" section. The ending of "Sugar Magnolia" was very representative of a night in which the band could be "hit or miss" during their improvisational jamming segments. The group really exploded when improvising between songs rather than during segments of individual compositions. Overall, there were moments that were packed with energy but there were also moments that felt a little flat and lethargic. Nonetheless, it was a well-received evening of music from a band that is perpetually striving to invent and re-invent itself, a laudable goal that resonates well.