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Published: 2005/05/15
by Jeremy Sanchez

RatDog, The NorVa, Norfolk, VA- 4/29

My first RatDog sighting was during 2000, in the District of Columbia – 9:30 Club. It was, personally, one of the most perception-altering shows I've lived, in regards to what I now expect from concerts. I even heard Medeski Martin and Wood for the first time during their set break. ("Who is that," I delightedly asked a dude in the crowd. "MMW," he responded, like that meant something to me.) It's not the best show I've seen, but I was just peeking into the churning Phish-heavy jamband movement at the time (I'm 24 now); what a time to join in! I had only recently witnessed my first "heady" show (Further Fest with special guests Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers at the Hampton Coliseum in VA ( The Mothership ), on enough paper to spin anyone) and was still on cloud nine about my discoveries, having previously dug myself into a serious radio-rock rut following the decline of mass-market rap (circa 1996). If I didn't find something else quick (radio music excluded), I was going to have to give up my love of music for sports or something. Thankfully I found our ripening fields.

I'm ranting, but it's with this in mind that I always go to a RatDog show. They've had to live up to themselves, back then, which isn't easy. Overall, the band's become tighter over the last couple years. Melodies harmonize with seamless grace, Weir's voice is consistently good and the setlists rarely overlap. My biggest concern over these last few moons has been the evolution of RatDog's current bass player, Robin Sylvester. The phenomenal Bassist Rob Wasserman left Ratdog, the Ratdog of my memories, for jazzier and more classical musical pursuits. So, in my mind, Ratdog has been on a road trying to catch back up. Tonight, I heard Ratdog on par with their old selves. I'm still a Wasserman fan, he created one of the thickest, hardest growling bowed bass solos I've ever marinated in, but Sylvester has settled into his niche and RatDog's once broken back is now calcium-fortified, more confident sounding than ever.

The show was slated on the tickets, and on the NorVa's website to begin at 8PM. Arriving a LITTLE early, I thought, the line looked ridiculously long; it was because the show was moved to 9PM!!!No!!! So, I stood in line until Will Call opened at 8 and chilled outside until around 8:30, when I went inside and took in the abundance of people at certainly a sold-out show. Changing the start time at the last minute isn't a bad way to get a full house by lights. But, no one seemed to mind the extra long wait in line, too much. People just chilled, got their 21+ wristbands or 20- magic marker X's, played, got frisked/fondled by NorVa security at the pat-down station, sold things, you know, chilled…

Once the show started, pretty soon after 9, Ratdog barked their Grateful-Dead reminiscent, psychedelically disjointed and jazzed up melodies, solid organic US Blues, straight up rock and sticky funk through two solid sets and an encore. The rhythm team of drummer/vocalist Jay Lane and Sylvester stood thick while pianist/vocalist Jeff Chimenti, saxophonist Kenny Brooks, guitarist/vocalist Mark Karan (takes a deserved lion's share of the guitar leads) and lead vocalist/guitarist/the-reason-everyone-came Bob Weir fluttered around them.

Loads came, were blown, came again and were blown during a night of multiple eruptions. To every muse-inspired jam, the crowd reacted in thanks. From the start: A slow steam boiled up from the stagnant air and was eventually contained by Brooks' and Lane's song-hinting rhythm (The game: Who can guess the songs first?). Once Weir and Karan started having guitar sex, it was obvious that the wonderful "The Wheel" was to segues into "The Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion," a song I'd never been graced enough to hear live. From here emerged "I Need a Miracle" and Karan's outgoing rock solo counterbalanced Weir's opposing blues riffs both of which carried into the staple "Playing in the Band." "Playing" with its always deep and grinding jam section, here colored by Brooks' constant squeaks, flowed into "Big Boss Man." Is that an amazing run of songs or what? Still, more…

Weir required a sip of water to sing "Mission in the Rain," which was otherwise successful after his initial dry-throated gag. "Loose Lucy" followed and Lucy's funky enough to make the shyest dance unabashedly. Beautiful, but more a song for a mid-set breather than a set closer, "Weather Report Suite" closed set one. It was most noted for Brooks' standout clarinet solos and his harmonies with Sylvester and, during "Let it Grow," Sylvester's churning technique while Weir and Karan noodled.

Set II was no sleeper. Weir came out with his acoustic…everyone was on an acoustic replacement, all but Chimenti. Sylvester's Pink-Panther-esc rhythm took the blues tune through jazzy slopes and back with ease. "Victim or the Crime" is a Weir staple that I love…such a solid proposition. Sylvester held the low-end beast while Weir's voice rang (The band plugged back in, one at a time, late in the tune). Another party followed in the form of "Good Morning Little School Girl." Then, just when the crowd needed a bigger rush, Brooks gushed a resinous diesel baritone solo for "Man Smart, Woman Smarter," which sounds deceptively like "Iko Iko," (highlight: crystalline Brooks clarinet solo).

The second set ended like this: "Help on the Way / Slipknot!" > "Sugaree" > "Two Djinn" > "Slipknot!" > predictably, "Franklin's Tower." Right before "Sugaree," Lane got to stretch a little, alongside Sylvester and Karan. They baked a three-layer cake not outdone before, or for the rest of the show. Weir's obviously flanked himself with adept musicians. Once the full band was back in action, Miles Davis-esque sound textures evolved. Enter "Sugaree": Weir took to sliding rather than fingering the frets and, during "Two Djinn," linked his jam hand passionately with Karan. Back into "Slipknot" for a few last bars and "Franklin's Tower" was the only place to go. Weir's singing was youthful and smooth, Chimenti's runs were a roller coaster ride, Brooks' solos and harmonies were tastefully refined and Lane's and Sylvester's confident strides steadied the ship while Weir and Karan musically embraced again.

During the encore break, everyone in the audience was throwing around song possibilities…being in Norfolk, VA, "Promised Land" was the en-mass prediction. Presumptively, I had even written the song into my notes. A quick (by Dead standards) five-minute "Johnny B. Goode" made "Promised Land" impossible tonight, but you can't go wrong with the oft-pulled heavyweight. Chuck Berry would've been elated.

I've not heard two more creative RatDog sets since first seeing them, and I can finally go to RatDog shows without their old form haunting my perceptions. I'm over that now, because while RatDog may not be the prettiest thing I've ever seen, it seems to be re-ripening with age.

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