Photo by Dean Budnick
Bob Weir has had quite an eventful 12 months. After an infamous onstage fumble last spring and the surprising news that his primary project Furthur would take a hiatus for most of 2014, the Grateful Dead guitarist managed to overcome his various speed bumps and gear up for one of the most varied years of his half-century career. In August, Weir rebooted RatDog and will take the long-dormant group on the road for the first time since 2009. Like last summer’s reunion at The Peach Music Festival, this incarnation of RatDog is something of an all-star revue, bringing together both founding bassist Rob Wasserman (who officially left the group in 2002) and his replacement Robin Sylvester, occasional RatDog contributor Steve Kimock, and steady members Jay Lane and Jeff Chimenti. The band has spent the past few weeks woodshedding in Marin County and plan to tackle as much of Weir’s vast repertoire as possible. (Kimock is also reportedly urging the band to change their name back Scaring the Children in the coming months.) In addition, Weir’s friendship with indie-Americana stars My Morning Jacket and Wilco has blossomed thanks to last summer’s AmericanaramA tour, and he has also started work on an album of cowboy songs with singer/songwriter Josh Ritter and Yellowbirds mainstay Josh Kaufman. Plus, he is also shopping ideas for a few classical music projects and hopes to revisit his successful Weir Here talk show in the coming months. As he prepared for RatDog’s winter tour, Weir ran us through his myriad of projects and also explained why is practicing up on his Spanish.
You are about to launch your first tour with RatDog since 2009. What led you to reform the band and hit the road this spring?
Well, we reassembled last summer when we went out and played the Peach Music Festival. That was the offer they made us so we decided to go with it [RatDog also reconvened for shows at Weir’s TRI Studios and Sweetwater Music Hall in 2012 and laid the groundwork for this year’s tour with a few partial reunions with Jonathan Wilson on guitar in 2013]. It was, I guess, kind of a warm up. And we had a lot of fun, and I mean a lot of fun, so it just seemed natural to go with this.
You gradually rolled into the new RatDog configuration through a series of Marin County underplays and a TRI broadcast. After stepping away from RatDog for so many years, what was the first thing that struck you about this particular configuration of the band?
One of the things we did was we decided we’re gonna minimize the backline volume to try to make the onstage sound as listenable as possible and that worked for us. We were able to hear each other a lot better than we have in the past when it’s been louder. And what that brought to the party was a lot more interaction. [We also have both] Rob Wasserman and Robin [Sylvester] playing bass, which is new. It’s working so far. It’s a work in progress but so far, so good.
In term of the song selection, RatDog obviously has a huge canon of material that includes Grateful Dead songs, over an album’s worth of originals and some covers that have become RatDog signatures. Though you played some of those songs with Furthur or on your recent solo acoustic tours, are there any particular areas of your repertoire you are going to focus on specifically during this RatDog outing? Maybe some songs you thought belonged more to RatDog than some of your other projects recently?
No, we’re gonna try to get to all of it, and we eventually will. That’s what we’re up to right now. We’ve got a list of all of the more complicated arrangements and we’re hitting those first.
One of the members of RatDog who has had the most varied career while RatDog was off the road was Jay Lane. He has played with everything from the first incarnation of Furthur to the rebooted Primus, a band he actually helped cofound. Have you noticed any differences in his playing since RatDog started up again?
Well, Jay changes his style weekly. If you went back and looked at pictures of him, you’d notice that he changes his hairstyle quite frequently, too. The same pretty much applies to his drumming style, so you get what you get that month. And if you don’t like it, you abuse him a bit.
You were recently down in Mexico with Furthur and stayed a little bit later to play with My Morning Jacket, who you first played with on the AmericanaramA Festival this summer. What were your initial impressions of them as a band and how has your friendship with MMJ developed?
Last summer I was opening up acoustic and then, I was playing with MMJ and Wilco, and I had a lot of fun playing with MMJ. I didn’t get a chance to really hear them that much of them on the AmericanaramA tour. If I wasn’t playing with them, I was probably backstage working up material and whatever I was gonna be doing with Wilco. And while I was down in Mexico I had a chance to hear a bit more of them, and they’re an awfully good band. How many rock and roll bands have a pedal steel? I’ve got to say this about MMJ: It’s a sound you just don’t hear, and it’s great. It’s great for ballads; it’s great for all kinds of stuff. And then the last night I played with them, we also brought on a bunch of guys from the Preservation Hall Band, who I also got to sit in with. Then we played with a bunch of the brass and that was sublime.
When it came to choosing the songs with My Morning Jacket, were they familiar with the songs from the Grateful Dead repertoire? Or was it more finding some common ground covers that you both knew?
A little of both. They were kind of familiar with the Grateful Dead canon, but at the same time we looked for songs that might be fun to learn together.
You also played with Wilco regularly on the AmericanaramA run. The collaboration that stuck out the most to me was when you joined them for a medley of the Woody Guthrie/Wilco number “California Stars” and the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star.” You even changed the key to “California Stars” so that it could sit in the middle of “Dark Star.” Can you walk us through how that collaboration in particular happened?
That came from those guys. [Jeff Tweedy requested the song and came up with the medley.] I wasn’t familiar with the song until I learned it. Wilco and My Morning Jacket are not jambands but they can both go on for a while. If you’re on tour with them, one thing is you’re not gonna get bored with them. They like to mix it up when they play, and they like to keep the songs fresh. They have big repertoires and they use them. It’s all Americana music at the end of the day.
While we are on the subject of Mexico, one of the covers that I saw you did with Further was “La Bamba” in the middle of “Good Lovin,’’ just like the Dead did a few times in the late-‘80s, as a nod to your setting. How did you feel that bust out turned out?
Not sure we’re gonna be busting that out real soon. My Spanish isn’t quite up to it [Laughter] but I’m working on it; both my kids are taking Spanish and so I’ve got to kind of attempt to do a little catching up with them. So maybe I’ll throw that up as an exercise.
Speaking of your daughters, a few years ago they took you to some Justin Bieber shows. Have they introduced you to any new music recently?
My fifteen year old is into…it changes. She’s gone through her Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift phases, and I think she’s kind of getting into indie kinda stuff. Also, pop stuff. The younger one, she’s twelve and she’s still into Taylor Swift. [Justin Bieber’s guitarist and musician director] Dan Kanter has become a friend and he’s awful good; he’s a good musician.
Last year another thing you really spent a lot of time on was your Weir Here broadcasts. Is that something we can expect more of this year, either at TRI or on the road?
We’re gonna get back to that. We’re working on a deal with a streaming outfit that reaches a huge audience. And we’re going to—I think—plug into their network. I’m not sure that I’m at liberty to talk about it a whole lot yet. But when we come back to it I think it’s looking like we’ll even have stuff like a budget to work with.