Ratdog, Beacon Theater, NYC 3/8-3/10
Night One: Spin the Wheel
Ratdog hit the stage right on time, confident and smiling with a high stepping jam into Music Never Stopped. However, the transition from guitarist Mark Karans initial solo was off kilter, setting the tone for the first half of the night which juxtaposed some excellent playing with half-second stumbles. A number of these rested on Bob Weir lyrical missteps, that thankfully were not in evidence during the hot, incredibly danceable Money for Gasoline and the stand-out Sailor > Saint. That classic pairing was the brightest moment of night, immediately large and dominant with sax player Kenny Brooks hunched over, heaving and blowing. The music opened up as Bobby began his drifting and dreaming rap, sparkling with anticipation while drummer Jay Lane and bassist Robin Sylvester raised the drama, sending cliffs of sound rocketing up as Mark raced across the surface, defining all the crags and crevices. The bassist then shook the foundations in his playful, bouncy way, and the move to Saint sent the room into a frenzy. Bobby initially held the band back, letting the energy build with each new set of drum fills before they finally cut loose and the guitars closed ranks, as they would often throughout the three night run, laughing and digging in, with Kenny and Jeff echoing from the side.
Set II opened with the first performance of Stack OLee, a traditional telling of Stagger Lee, but Bobby butchered the lyrics and it fell flat. He was able to pull it together for a sweet Looks Like Rain, Robin popping out bass lines full of passion, even teasing Eleven just as Mark played St. Stephen leads behind Bobbys climatic howls. It was a second hot spot, and one of the few songs to avoid vocal miscues. A flub or three is fine, but the regularity on this night definitely marred the overall effect of the show.
During a long, lazy Jus Like Mama Said > Estimated, Mark continued to shine, almost dominating the sound. He and Bob even took a little stroll to the stage lip mid-jam, Weir spinning and kicking to the great delight of the audience. The jam out began with some real force before turning a dubby shade at Kennys lead, effects and all. From here the music grew angry and shifted toward The Other One but Bobby kept pulling it back and resetting the intro, doing so three or more times. It was the sort of moment that might sound all right on a recording, but it looked pretty sloppy, with a double first verse framing the core, although committing to the wrong words was a better choice than staggering through a muffed second verse.
The Stuff jam offered some truly gutsy playing, as it usually does, this time being augmented with Dred Scott on keys, Tom Pope on drums, DJ Logic on turntables and Chuck Mackinnon on trumpet. The night closed with a deep second set Black Muddy River > Sugar Magnolia as Bob and Mark strutted out again, but in the end the show was an up and down affair, as moments of brightness slammed against ramshackle sloppiness. However, as if to say, Its OK, were just getting started, the band encored with a surprise Uncle Johns Band, all tight and swirling.
Night Two: Ways and Means
The second night opened with heavy thumping drums, hinting at Bird Song or Dark Star before rolling up steam to jumpstart a nice Trucking. The groove was eminently solid, deeply felt. The band was in fact truckin, Marks blistering leads carried the group into the jam, but they didnt linger long before sliding into Playing. This was a very good start, and the improv began with slow surges, an almost symphonic feel, and stretched out in a psychedelic field. Eventually the music rose aggressively for a fantastic reading of the coda and dropped into Ramble On Rose.
The rest of the set featured more bluesy, rock and roll playing all around: boogie woogie piano in Big Boss Man, pattering organ in Schoolgirl, plaintive guitar screaming across The Deep End and a wildly fast and fluid solo from Kenny in Even So. Ashes and Glass served as the closer, a perfect RatDog moment of full band jamming with the strings all bunched up in front of the riser, and Robin throwing down the one with his bass pointed high.
The band picked up on that same vibe early in the second set with Corrina, a long standing vehicle for Ratdogs best showmanship. Mark sliced right through the middle of the mix, tossing out little cascades and flourishes before smoothly passing the lead to Kennys shiny, silvery sax. After another verse the whole ensemble lit up for another clockwork segment. A spacey moment looked toward Easy to Slip but instead bucked into Stagolee (perhaps the same version of Stagger Lee that Trey sang with Phil in Hartford over the summer). Whereas the previous nights rendition was sloppy trio work, this was the full band in full stride, just nailing it, with Jeffs barroom piano playing no small part.
After a switch in beat, the band stalked into a tremendously frightening Tomorrow Never Knows, the stage going red to reflect the mood. The energy continued to build, but instead of dispersing it across a jam, the group marched into a grand ol Half Step. Bright blues framed the sunlight yellow stage as Jeff and Mark tossed ideas back and forth, the guitarist peeling out a glory solo just a verse later. It was the apex of the show, central summit of the run. Bob and Mark strolled out front again, Weir leaping and landing on his knee before turning the stage over to his band. Kenny then grabbed the reins right away, galloping over a rhythmic groove, with Half Step lingering in the background all the while. Tom Pope joined again and the jam gave way to a full Drumz. The light show was much improved during this run, more interesting and engaging, especially here as Tom and Jay beat the one kit in unison. White side lights hit the drums on a darkened stage and reflected off in almost tangible beams at 45 degree angles, a stunning visual.
The show closed with an intricate and intimate Stella Blue > Foolish Heart, Mark spilling over with back slides and working little ideas. The segue-fest finally capped off with a long, hopping Not Fade Away, complete with a rootsy organ and a core of droning guitar strings. After Fridays gig, Thursdays seemed little more than a warm up.
Night Three: Faring Thee Well Now
The final night began with a comfortable, warm bit of toying around from Kenny, Bob and Mark that opened on Cassidy. Despite the brightness of the composition, the jam was immediately foggy. Mark squealed out thin threads around the sides as the band strayed into a dreary forest of sound. But he broke loose at the mid-song crest and carried the movement straight down to a nice Lazy River Road. An organ-laden Odessa then yielded the third Stagger Lee in the three nights, the GD version this time, complete with vocal flubs and went into a great version of Shade of Gray. Robin and Bob locked up just right, flooding the stage with powerful pathos and giving Kenny the perfect opportunity to shine brightly through. The song climaxed and tumbled down, guitar racing in front of the avalanche. The opening suite finished with a surprise, mid-set Hell In A Bucket featuring more slick matching from Mark and Bob, and cool guitar leads carried through to their natural ends. It was a real crowd pleaser, getting a big cheer, as did Tennessee Jed had the night before, and Loose Lucy the night before that.
This Beacon run is noteworthy for Marks next level playing but also for the interesting, atypical setlists: the first set Sailor > Saint, the Money for Gasoline > TLEO, the Uncle Johns Band encore, the Truckin > Playing opener, the first set Even So > October Queen, the Stella > Foolish > NFA closer and all the Staggers. Plus, over three nights, there was no Terrapin, Birdsong, Help > Slip > Franklins, St. Stephen > Eleven or Dark Star (although there was a short jam at the end of Saturdays show). Instead of big songs, the run was filled with little surprises, making for a truly fun experience straight through.
Not the least of those surprises was the guest appearance of soul bassist Jerry Jemmott for Milestones > Lovelight. Only the second version of the Miles Davis standard, the former tune opened right up with Jeffs sparkling piano. Jay kept the music grounded with cymbals and high hat, and every so often Jemmott would pull himself into a straight out jazz walk, under Kennys solo or Bobbys odd rhythmic statements- a great version of a great song. The bass solo at the end was so very rich, tugging at the rest of the instruments like a gravitational force, hanging for a moment and strutting into Lovelight.
As soon as the set break began, an extra microphone came out, and as Bobby sauntered out for an odd loungy My Funny Valentine, which was nearly inaudible despite the stripped down band, Donna Jean (Godchaux-MacKay) could be seen dancing backstage with Mark. She joined for Friend of the Devil and stepped away during the confident Black Throated Wind, which was packed with defiant piano and bass fills. Bobby was at his dramatic best, pushing the whole band further and further. The guitar under the finale screams was icing on the cake.
The premiere of Mighty Quinn set the room dancing like mad. Donna was back, belting out Come On Within! and she stayed for a rocking Last Time. Robin had his bass all tweaked up while Mark called out the leads and fills, making a great bedrock for Donna and Bobbys shared vocals at the end. Leading to the mid-set Stuff jam, was a steamy Althea > Scarlet, the latter loaded with lightning peaks from Mark while Robin thundered below. Guitar and sax traded licks across the broad stage, drawing Bobby in for a tight, bright nucleus that burst with a little kick from Mark. Bob had left by the time the band played the coda, but it was really a Drumz segment more than a jam that followed. Tom Pope was back again while strobe lights pulsed and Jay broke sticks, climbed around the front of the kit and even did a quick beat box on Bobbys mic.
The final suite of the weekend featured a slick Come Together, growing ever deeper, into an effects-laden, soupy but short Dark Star instrumental. Cool lights spun and splashed through the thick, goopy sounds, heady guitar and curved keys echoed by that haunting saxophone.
A final surprise for the encore, Gloria. G-L-O-R-I-A- a fist pumping anthem, followed by the standard run-closing Brokedown. Although the three nights got off to a rocky start, they cleaned up real nice, offering a range of peaks and a half dozen strong suites. I walked away satisfied but wishing there was a Sunday gig.