RatDog, Premier Music Hall, Danbury, CT- 3/20 & 21
One of the very first venues Ratdog played on its first sojourn to the right coast, way back in the summer of 95, was SPAC, and as I was heading abroad soon after for an extended sojourn of my own, I made sure to get a last GD fix wherever I could. I assumed it would be similar to the Scaring the Children sets Bob Weir and Rob Wasserman had been playing throughout the early 90s, although I was sure one tune would be absent- “Bombs Away.” See, it just happened to be the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Much to my dismay, Bobby in fact opened with song in question.
Over the intervening eleven years, Mr. Weir has played countless Democratic fundraisers, warning fans of the speed at which authoritarian regimes take hold. So the easy call for the 3/20 show on the third anniversary of President Bush’s aggressive initiative against tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians in the name of revenge and oil, was “Masters of War.” And there it was, third song in the second set, the end of the mini acoustic portion, a vicious, stinging serenade to our own oppressive regime- “Masters of War.” The song is overwhelming by nature, but with Jay Lane’s kicking voodoo drum and floods of eerie organ from Jeff Chimenti backing Bobby’s growl, RatDog’s version is that much more so. At the close of the final verse, the front man shouted “I’ll stand over your grave till I’m sure that you’re dead” over and over while the band roared up in mighty protest, a chilling cacophony of noise.
Actually, that wave of sound was a reprise of a similar eruption at the end of the evening’s other Dylan offering, a relatively rare “Memphis Blues” buried at the heart of the band’s opening suite. The show at Danbury’s Premier Music Hall, a strange old warehouse (high-ceilinged bowling alley?) of a venue with somewhat boomy sound and a stage tucked far back in a recess, opened with a comfortable little jam with light keys and Bobby working with some new effects. It slipped into “Playing,” a classically rendered version that had Mark Karan, Robin Sylvester and Bob all huddled up in front of Jay’s kit as they dug into the jam. The music eased and there was more room on stage and in the music, the bass and piano conducting a laid back intro to “Big Boss Man”. There was nothing special about the song, but it felt good anyway and served as the jumping point for Bobby’s Psychedelic Blues Band. The rest of the suite slinked through long, barroom style versions of “New Speedway Boogie” > “Memphis Blues” > “Ramble on Rose” that seemed appropriate for the room, if a bit low on energy. The highlight of the set was the pretty “Sailor” > “Saint” with soprano sax and swishing breezes, but all in all, it was only an average performance.
The second set was immediately livelier with a long, dancey rendition of “Deep Elem” and an equally animated “Jack a Roe” that turned into a petite smoker. After the aforementioned Dylan cover, the band stole into a long purple jam tipped with blues, and before long it was clear we were being treated to the first version of “Jus’ Like Mama Said”. It was thick and heavy, seriously rootsy music that just kept pouring on and on with lyrics like “Better off dying and dying in bed” and “The band plays anyway,” others songs would be proud to have strutted out with such confidence and bulk on their first performances. After fifteen minutes or so, the sestet stepped naturally, organically into “Estimated Prophet.” Mark galloped through the song, snapping out sweet lines- this tune is made for his flare for cultivated leads. Robin dropped bomb after bomb, thrusting the groups into a thick, sticky reggae jam at the end. When the vibe released, the band wavered and bounced into a short “Wheel” and an even shorter “Playing Reprise” before the jam (“Stuff”, as it’s now being called)- essentially a jazzy, bluesy walk with a steady back beat. The movement lost shape and went spacey before the night seemed to coalesce in “Black Peter”, all the elements accounted for and put in proper order- slow, psychedelic, bluesy. See here how everything leads up to this song?
For the second night, the sestet let its tuning mature into a nice jam- immediately happy, setting the tone for the whole set. Bob was clacking with his new effects and Mark spilled over the music, as he is wont to do, and it all worked into a moving passage that crashed rather inelegantly into “Here Comes Sunshine.” Luckily that was the ugliest moment of the night and was easily forgotten in the broad jam. With space to stray, the group pushed at the edges while staying with the slip stream tempo. After a quick final verse a new jam looked to grow huge, but sidestepped instead to “Minglewood.” RatDog versions are more often than not better than you thought, this one being no different- a real strong rocker. The first of many, many throughout the night. At the end, Bobby dropped the music low and quiet, letting a brief groovy jamlet grow, like an “Easy Answers,” before undercutting the movement with “Senor”. A stellar offering, the Dylan cover was driven to paranoia by Jay and Robin’s pounding beat. Bobby is the foremost interpreter of Dylan’s work- he has a true bead on the songs’ sources. He can convey the monolithic weight of a life that is inherent in the material; he needs to release a double disc that is heavy on post-GD versions. “Let’s disconnect these cables, overturn these tables. This place don’t make sense to me no more”
A surprise highlight, “Fever” came next, allowing Bobby to smolder on stage. Like much of the material throughout the night, there was no reason to suspect the song would be as strong as it was, and by the end it was clear this was a special gig. It the previous show featured the Psychedelic Blues Band, this one featured Bobby Weir’s Nonstop Rock n Roll Party.
Jeff punched out an excellent intro to “Lucky Enough”, unleashing Ratdog at its best. In fact the Ratdog material this evening was all of kindest, prime quality- the monster “Wrong Way Feeling” near the end of the first set, the stunningly wicked “Corrina” and a absolutely outrageous “Ashes and Glass” that had Mark cultivating a distinct idea in the jam while Robin tumbled and tumbled below- again, it was a jam that stretched well beyond itself, not just in length and breadth, but in quality. The “Lucky Enough” had stylish interplay between Bob and Mark, then Mark hanging out these long notes while Jeff danced below- fantastic, swirly, open playing that built up on big drums to a barn burner of a “Salt Lake City.” Bobby took the opportunity to scream on the slide, and Jay was just screaming. The group stormed on through a crowd pleasing “Cold Rain and Snow” > “Wrong Way Feelin’” > “Might As Well”. Phew! An utterly celebratory set that stood in stark contrast to the previous night’s opener.
During the set break, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, always a good sign.
“Mexicali” then opened the acoustic portion, followed by “Corrina” with Bobby’s vocals commanding the room. Another relative rarity, “Last Time,” had the band attacking it like rock stars- they simply picked up where the first set left off. After the previously applauded the centerpiece of the night, “Ashes and Glass, ” came “Stuff.” It began with a synthy, prog rock vibe, with all eyes on Jay as band leader. Then the movement just exploded into crazed fusion a la MMW/The Duo- intense chaos. The idea was so strong that when Bob returned, the unit set in on another funk jam- the man must have been thinking, Damn! This is my band?!?
“Ship of Fools” offered the only respite in the whole show, a needed break before the final charge through “St. Stephen” > “The Eleven.” The pairing always lights the audience on fire, but coming at the tail end of this particular show, it seemed especially scorching liquid lightning. Racing up and down, through all the narrows and caverns and across the “William Tell Bridge”, the band took the final jam and ran with it. At the end, Bobby kept pulling the group back out of the final flourish for another round of “What now!” Now is the time of returning, thought jewels polished and gleaming