Ratdog, Sunshine Daydream, Terra Alta, WV,- 8/5 & 8/6
There are fine people in West Virginia; in fact this summer I met some of the nicest people I’ve ever known, in the lot or otherwise, in the Mountain State. We had a blast in the crazy, erratic rain and sun at All Good in July, and I was as excited to hang out with them again at Sunshine Daydream as I was for two nights of RatDog.
In the afternoon, nestled in a shallow mountain top basin in Terra Alta, Israel Vibrations was the first band to draw the arriving crowds down to the concert field with a long set of dubby roots reggae. The music was sharp and sparse in turns- the perfect way to kick off the festival. And being the festival that it was, they closed with “Black Muddy River.” ekoostik hookah also put out a nice set of energetic and often driving jams, including a Van Morrison cover, a sloppy “Cosmic Charlie” and a fantastic closing “Don’t Do It.”
Eventually a cloudy, starless sky seemed to simultaneously expand endlessly and crowd down on the field. Bobby appeared at the flanks, milling about and chatting with people. Then he strolled out all by his lonesome for “Blackbird.” The rest of the band slowly crept on stage and joined in – warm bass and little smolder from Mark. The music rose into a mellow Budokan-style “Maggie’s Farm.” When Bobby finally switched to electric about half way through, the song sudden hopped.
Next up, “Here Comes Sunshine” slightly stumbled into existence, but soon turned into a strangely lurching jam, a protoplasmic flow. The final section had a big blaze with Mark and Kenny cruising into the conclusion, and the whole band swerved en masse into a lightly reworked “Easy Answers.” (Still the same creature, it was marked with extra rhythmic holds and stops.) The first improv was RatDog at its best, a clockwork jam firing just right. Bobby directed the music toward the bridge and the sextet flew off into a dislocated jam, like a negative image of the preceding passage- very skillful group musicianship. As the song drew to a close, the end seemed to move farther and farther away- the band was dancing and spinning around the theme. This was some seriously experimental RatDog and set the tone for the rest of the night. RatDog is an ever-evolving band, so shifts are to be expected, but the psychedelic flow that permeated the rest of the show was nothing short of inspired. But first a shift in tone with “Baby Blue,” including an excellent piano solo that began as a fill. The band fell back to let Jeff shine, and came back underneath him will solid support. And to close the set, a long, spacey tuning jam indicated “Crazy Fingers,” but swirled like layers of sound shifting over each other in tectonic movements. The song itself was soupy and mellow, but the jam out flared and then roared as Robin led the charge. The band was at full blast when it slammed to a sudden stop.
A very well-received “Masterpiece” initiated the action for set II, Rob Barraco joining on keys . Then a jam that leaned toward “New Speedway Boogie” and “Other One” in turns landed in a honky-tonk rager of a “Miracle” and stretched out into another improv. This time the music began to melt around the wick of Kenny’s soprano sax- even soupier sounds than the first set, like a 1997 “Eternity” deconstruction, only looser, more rounded. The jam tumbled into an elastic “Uncle John’s Band” where the music was tight and clean in the composition, and suddenly way off in the nether regions. The concluding jam returned to goo, although with greater bombast and muscle, and grew increasingly dark. The long prelude to “Other One” seemed natural, primal. Bob leaned over to chat with Robin, and the result was a big bomb drop into a wild and wooly version of the classic. All the previous jamming was concentrated here, and elementally altered in the crucible of the mountain top venue- truly amazing amorphous grooves and jamlets all colored in blues and greens. A friend leaned over with pupils growing wide, mumbling something to the effect of “I could use something happy right now.”
Later, Bob left and Jay and Robin were backing Kenny on a hot little groove-jazz passage. The sax man passed it off to Jeff, who made it heavy, almost percussive. Bob returned with tambourine in hand. As if in response to the pre-jam vibe, a glowing, flawless “Lady with a Fan” > “Terrapin.” At “he cannot bought or sold” my friend, now grinning broadly, leaned close- “That was really special.” The stars by candlelight, and a surging train races off into the distance until it was quiet and Jeff set in on a nice piano solo intro to Two Djinn- again like something from back in the day. Not a long version, with very little in the way of a post-song jam, it was bright and just the way to close the show.
Day two of the Garcia Birthday Bash was actually the tenth anniversary of my first RatDog show at SPAC, when it was still the RatDog Revue. More importantly, it was the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In Saratoga, Bob and Rob played “Bombs Away,” and I was stunned at their (hopefully) unknowing bad taste. In West Virginia, no such faux pas, but neither was there any mention of the event. There was, however, a weird vibe just before RatDog’s first set, kind of unsettled.
Earlier in the day, The David Nelson Band featuring Rob Barraco on bass played a warm and welcoming set loaded with really wonderful classically cosmic jams- Barry Sless is a truly remarkable player. Also, Col. Bruce, Jimmy Herring and the Code Talkers gave a jaw dropping performance: a nice two hour set packed with witty lyrics and phenomenal musicianship, all packaged as seriously hip river jazz. The band was dressed in black ties and jackets like this other band I know that used to try for the same aesthetic. Regardless, their cover of “Glad” was absolutely spectacular.
Some folks were apparently thrown out for being ticketless, and rumors spread fast and some comments loosely addressing the problem were made from the stage a bit before RatDog. But the tension snapped as a jazzy jam hinting heavily at “Playing” popped into” Sugar Magnolia” and the show was on. Kenny was hopping up and down, and puffing out his cheeks, and everyone else was playing the song like they were trying to run it into the ground.
By contrast, “Bird Song” was wispy, darkly terrestrial music with pretty bits sparkling through here and there- nothing as crazy as the previous evening. The music eased into a cool “Jack Straw” with “Bird Song” teases sandwiched between the verses and a reggae drop in the middle of the jam.
The summertime selections continued to dominate with “Rooster” > “Odessa.” Obviously RatDog was going to give an entirely different show from the night before, but just when the mood seemed clear, Bobby and crew stepped up into “At a Siding” > “Terrapin Flyer,” all shiny and tight. The pair, which is almost always end of the second set material, shifted the whole balance of the weekend and tied the four sets together in new ways- there’s nothing like a multi night stand (even if it is only two).
A short set break after a crowd pleasing “Scarlet Begonias” and the band was back for a hot “Corinna,” Kenny just burying his solo in the clockwork groove, into “Ashes and Glass.” Bob looked like he was going to switch guitars or ask Jimmy or Rob to come out, but instead he settled into a lounge chair just behind the keys and put his feet up! So Rob did indeed join, on bass. He muscled in a heavier funk jam with Kenny, Jeff and Jay, and even ground out a swollen solo before Robin and Bob returned.
A tear jerking “Standing on the Moon” gave way to “Come Together,” but it didn’t really- come together that is. It just didn’t take off.
For the final movement alumni Mookie Siegel and Barraco returned along with Barry Sless and Crittenden on sax for a long, rolling “Bird Song” jam that was overwhelmed briefly by “Other One.” The length was largely due to Bobby, who was endlessly toying with his guitars while the others played on and on. “Bird Song” eventually gave was to the obligatory “Saturday Night” (except that RatDog always plays it like they mean it) into “Sunshine Daydream” to close up all the bookends, and close out the weekend. It was really one of the very best festivals I’ve ever attended, relaxed and comfy, friendly; plus four sets of RatDog that contained such a variety of moods and music that digesting it all may take a while.