The String Cheese Incident, RatDog: Radio City Music Hall, NYC- 7/13 & 14
This summer two generations of jambands fused as Phil toured with Trey, and Ratdog got cheesy with The Incident. All sorts of combo tour plans were possible as the two wound their way up and down the East Coast. I got soaked and stoked in Vermont with Phil and Trey, and then headed down to NYC for Bob Weir's Ratdog and The String Cheese Incident at Radio City Music Hall.
I welcomed the chance to see two great acts in one venue, but it was clear that many others merely ended up “enduring” whichever band they hadn’t really come to see. Though both bands are in the “jam” genre, their differences in tempo and style are dramatic and required some adjusting.
Outside, tickets were plentiful for both nights, and the scene was relatively small but lively. The bands took turns headlining with Ratdog closing Thursday night and SCI on Friday. Both bands undoubtedly won new fans with strong headlining sets but may have scared away potential new fans with lackluster opening sets.
Walking into the Radio City one is struck by just how plush the venue is. From the velvety seats to the marbled drinking fountains the place is sweet, and the acoustics are exceptional as the sound rolls off the curved ceiling. Of course the powerful A/C was a nice break to the muggy heat outside.
Thursday night’s Cheese set was an adequate starting place. Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” was a mellow beginning. “Close Your Eyes” got the place moving and Weather Report’s “Birdland” is always huge, but through much of the set the band seemed to be just going through the motions. “Sirens,” one of the least impressive songs in the Cheese repertoire, proved to be just that. But, as if to make up for this, we were treated to “Water,” which ended with a long, silky funk jam. The combo of “Is What It Is” and “Can’t Stop Now” ended the set on a pretty high note. Not the best Cheese set but, at around two hours, it was longer than most with some tasty moments.
The Hall got a lot more crowded as Ratdog took the stage. Their set started with a brief jam followed by the intro bass bomb of “Shakedown Street.” Always a favorite, this song is never more appropriate than in The City. There was a nice peak led by guitar wiz Mark Karan, but Bobby brought it to an abrupt conclusion with an obviously rehearsed closing. “Help On The Way” kept the energy way up, but there was a little let down as “Slipnot” was not followed by the always anticipated “Franklin’s.” Instead Bobby brought the tempo down for his catchy, soulful number “She Says.” Then in more than fair compensation we were treated to a full “Weather Report Suite” and “Let It Grow,” one of Bobby’s all-time greatest songs. This was a treat, and the jam that followed was rich and inspired.
Eventually things wound down and we entered the mellow part of the set. Dylan’s “A Hard rain’s A-Gonna Fall” led into Jerry’s “Lazy River Road” and both were well played but uneventful. A couple of lesser know tunes, “Odessa” and “Book of Rules,” followed. During this lull I was thinking how a veteran like Bobby knows how to do it: Start strong and play enough crowd pleasing material first so that the audience is hooked and the vibe is on before playing less known or less popular songs. Cassidy started to wake up the room, but what really did it was the drum jam that followed. Travis, from String Cheese, sat in and the drummers really took us there. Out of “Drums” came the opening notes of “Dear Prudence” sweeping the audience up in sing-along bliss. Karan hit it out of the park during the mid-song jam, in what was probably Ratdog’s highest moment of the run. Of course, we weren’t left hanging and a high energy Franklin’s capped off a great set. An acoustic “Attics Of My Life” was a beautiful ending to the night.
Night two: Now it was Bobby’s turn to start things off. Mirroring SCI’s performance from the night before, Ratdog delivered a less inspired set. “Casey Jones” and “Minglewood” were fun openers and Dylan’s “She Belongs To Me” was sweet. The solo on “Brown Eyed Women” provided a nice space for Karan’s punchy guitar playing, but “Crazy Fingers” was lackluster. The cowboy tune “Big Iron” was a treat but Bobby had trouble with the words to his dark number “Victim Or The Crime” and it wasn’t until the familiar intro to “Uncle John’s Band,” that it felt like the audience finally got on board. “The Other One” managed to reach some decent peaks, but the energy really took off when Weir left the stage. I’m not saying this to detract from Bobby’s competent rhythm work and passable solos; it’s just that when he steps off the stage mid set (as he usually does) the band consistently rages in full-throttle, break-neck speed improvisation. The full band returned to the opening notes of “Sugaree.”
The way Bobby sings these Jerry tunes takes some getting used to. He changes the phrasing into short staccato lines that always feel rushed at the end to make up for late starts. Though I prefer hearing Garcia’s songs played in the way they were originally performed, there is some integrity in making a song your own, especially for someone like Weir, who has transformed from the baby of the band to an elder statesman- a remnant of another era. The “Sugaree” was well played, but after Karan’s solo one wonders where this band can go: Jeff Chimenti, on keys, plays his part but rarely leads the band to its peaks. Kenny Brooks blows some impressive solos on his sax and is one of the higher energy performers in the band, but at times can leave the audience behind in all the bluster. Karan manages to be the most consistent element in Ratdog, and though at times he overplays, he has mellowed into a smoother, more heart-felt style.
“Throwing Stones,” the quintessential Bobby song, was a rockin’ good time as usual. For “Liberty,” and the encore, an acoustic “Black Muddy River,” Ratdog was joined by the Persuasions. The result was some beautiful harmonies and a lot of glancing at the cheat sheet. Overall it was a decent set with a few of the fireworks from the night before.
The crowd thinned as the show shifted to the Cheese set. The band started with a lot of energy and really never let up. “Way Back Home” got things rolling, and “Restless Wind” was strong with a lot of interplay between Michael Kang and Billy Nershi. The length and precision of the jam seemed to indicate the band’s degree of seriousness about this set. Keith Moseley’s “Sometimes A River” kept the crowd moving. “Pack It Up,” a newer jazzy number, got pretty out there before landing. “Looking Glass” was next, and after an exceptional jam the venue was buzzing.
“Dudley’s Kitchen” got the Cheese back to its bluegrass roots before heading to “Ms. Brown’s Teahouse.” Special guest Vinx added some cool vocal stylings to the jam, but after his short solo the song never lifted off the way it usually does. This was more than compensated for with a huge “Land’s End.” The monster jam took the whole night completely over the top with delicious dripping energy, and things didn’t let up there. Ratdog’s Kenny Brooks joined the band with his sax for a note-perfect version of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” dedicated to recently departed Syd Barret. The music meandered until all of Ratdog found a place on stage. With both bands present, they launched into “I Know You Rider,” just the vehicle to give all the soloing musicians a chance to show their stuff. It got a little muddled at times with so many cooks in the kitchen, but they powered their way through, and Bobby’s “sun’s gonna shine” line lit up the whole place. It was during “Rider” that the lights really went all out. Apparently every strip of ceiling has its own changeable color, so at the peaks, the roof was just strobing with movement and color that traversed the building from top to bottom. The band played right up to the curfew: the two-and-a-half hour monster set needed no encore, so with the stage packed with both bands, they took one big bow and it was all over.
There were some rocky points along the way, some valleys and some peaks, and the bands played two distinctly different styles, but all in all they pulled it off. Both groups held back for their opening sets, but disappointed few when it was their turn to headline. New York is just one of those cities where you just have to bring your “A” game.