RatDog, House of Blues, Las Vegas, NV- 2/6
Three days, three gigs, and three songs into their return to the road, the bout of exhaustion that cancelled RatDog's fall tour looked like it got the better of this road warrior; his weathered hair and face showing little vigor or resemblance to the boy that helped launch a thousand twirlers. But the audience did not seem to mind, for the songs have an energy all their own and helped propel Weir & Co. through a solid performance at the House of Blues Las Vegas on Super Bowl Sunday 2005.
The current cast of players breezes through spacey jams and the more intricate material, although with less clout and thunder than the group of guys that made many of the songs legendary. Guitarist Mark Karan and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti clearly anchor the group musically, as oftentimes Weir's unique rhythm guitar gets lost in the mix. Chimenti is so good at this stuff he has earned the "coveted" slot of keys player for Bob Weir's other project, the reconstituted The Dead. Robin Sylvester, the new kid on the block, benefits from the presence of original member/drummer Jay Lane, but fails to deliver the knockout leads "other" bassists deliver when performing seminal numbers like "Scarlet Begonias" and "Terrapin Station". However as the opening jam morphed into "Hell in a Bucket", the packed floor audience quickly forgot the names and faces and just wanted to sing along. And sing along they would all night long, almost taunting the band to give it all they had at every opportunity.
It appeared Weir had a little too much beer & nachos during the Big Game as "Bucket" and the forthcoming slow-burn "The Wheel" brought little vocal enthusiasm. "The Wheel" did however shuffle off into a sweet little island jam during the repetitious final verse. The band began to try a little bit harder for the bluesy "Big Boss Man", only to fall two steps back during the down-tempo "This Time Forever->Shade of Grey". But once the opening notes of "Cassidy" hit the air, everyone perked up, forgot who won or lost the Super Bowl, and took matters into their own hands by belting out every last lyric. Whether you agree with crowd participation or not the energy was palpable and would hang around for the rest of the night. "Dark Star" is always welcome and would reappear in the second set with a hint more electronic noodling. But the highlight of the first set was its capper, "Scarlet Begonias". Ever the pleaser, "Scarlet" most notably energized Bobby, who took control of his band with a few well-placed power strums reminiscent of when his buddy Jerry would feel the moment and break from his stoic stance to show some genuine emotion.
"Victim or the Crime" led off the second set, but "Corrina" really got it going. Chimenti and Karan traded off licks leading up time and again to the song's trademark title yelp. Next, the band would take a revered stab at one of the more difficult structured tunes in the Dead canon the "Terrapin Station" suite. "Lady with a Fan->Terrapin" played out as expected, finally breaking down into the requisite second set "Space", only to reform into the challenging and seamless "At A Siding->Terrapin Flyer". While knocked for their longwinded solos and formless instrumental blobs, make no mistake The Dead could craft a song. While jams may be interchangeable or forgettable on any given night, what bands like RatDog and Phil and Friends still encapsulate (and the Grateful Dead before them,) is the spiritual and stylistic beauty in delivering music to the people. The audience could see Weir & his band mates focus in on nailing the "Terrapin" suite, and would certainly reap the benefits of the group's concentrated effort. "Cassidy" would come back for a second helping to close out the second set, and "Samson & Delilah" would close out the night proper. Both sets had their moments; but as always it was the sum of the songs, the musicianship, the adventure and the family that made the evening one to fondly remember.
It's obvious from his physical appearance and slow start that Bob Weir needed a rest, and should probably schedule in a few extra days between shows at this point in his life. (Did I mention he STILL does not look comfortable singing "Hell in a Bucket", specifically the line "You imagine me sipping champagne from your boot/for a taste of your elegant pride", over twenty years since its first performance?!). But once the crowd took command and the band hunkered down, everyone knew who really delivered a Super performance on February 6, 2005.