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Ratdog, Starland Ballroom. Sayreville, N.J.

On the way to the Starland Ballroom, I had visions of Bob singing Bon Jovi's "Runaway" or "Dead or Alive," since we were headed to Jon Bon Jovi's hometown, but I knew this probably (and thankfully) would not happen.

"Feel Like a Stranger" opened and had the rowdy Jersey crowd moving. Bob was in his usual form raving up the vocals. A well executed "Baby Blue" prefaced the stomp down to "Minglewood" which never fails to keep the Jersey phillies jumping. "So Many Roads," one of the most beloved of the latter day Garcia tunes, is reaping the benefits of being in the RatDog song rotation. On this song a few others that were new to Bob vocally he made use of a teleprompter, which helped him nail the lyrics and was a much needed change from having printed lyrics on a stand for him to follow. All in all, the vocals were spot on.

Picasso Moon was my "song of the set." This was my first RatDog version and it did not disappoint. In an intimate setting like the Starland Ballroom, you could really listen to all of the lyrics and that made it all the better. Kenny Brooks blew a fine sax solo and the boys were firing, However, they slowed it down and slinked into "This Time Forever">"Shade of Grey." I was glad to see so many fans of Bob’s old, non-Dead material. I’ve seen this combo a few times and was hoping for "Josephine," but if he played everything you wanted to hear all of the time it wouldn’t be as fun. This tour, Ratdog is mixing up the song selection a little more than in the past which is refreshing.

The instrumental "Dark Star" at the close of the set was gorgeous. A patient, spacey jam built to the structure and the melody was played rather than sung. I must admit that I need to get used to Bob’s phrasing of "Dark Star" when he sings it, so on this night, without the lyrics, I just got swept away in the familiar, granddaddy-of-them-all Dead tunes. The band closed the set with the crowd favorite sing-along of "Bertha" featuring a countless number of "any mores" that had me laughing.

The song of the second set for me was "Althea." Again this was my first RatDog version of the Dead tune and I was hoping to get this one after looking at the setlists. Bob started "Althea" on acoustic and then switched to an electric axe (and switched again towards the end of the song for those who are counting) and that familiar Bob slide could be heard. The interplay between Bob and guitarist Mark Karan’s scorching leads was nothing short of fantastic. After "Althea," I longed to hear another Bob slide tune that they have recently brought back to life in "Lazy River Road," but maybe next time. They are pretty consistently opening the second set with some acoustic numbers and "Althea" had followed the opening "KC Moan," and in turn "the Winners" a boogie-woogie, Dogified "Deep Elem Blues" came next.

As the band returned to electric mode, another good-time, sing-along in "Last Time" kept things lively. The jam out of the song hinted at "Dark Star," but instead the catchy "Ashes and Glass" materialized. The ending reached a nice peak and flowed into a jam where Bob left stage briefly and let the other band members do there weirdness. After Bob came back, the unmistakable chords to "Black Peter" could be heard. This would be another first Ratdog version of a Dead tune (and Garcia composition) for me. Bob once again nailed all the lyrics and made it a memorable one. The crescendo segued into "Sugar Magnolia" and the place went nuts but it wasn’t long before Bob cut things off and said, "We just played that one last night." I must admit I was kind of bummed. Mark then started the opening St. Stephen riff and turned the crowd’s frown upside down. "St. Stephen">"The Eleven">"Not Fade Away" was a proper closing to a hot show. I was still a little bummed about Sugar Magnolia, but maybe next time. The "Johnny B. Goode" encore turned out to be appropriate since the next morning Johnny Johnson would pass away.

I did not get my "Shakedown Street" or my "Sugar Magnolia," but that’s what keeps us coming back- searching for the ultimate show. Maybe next time…

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