Photo by Dean Budnick
At first, Bob Weir’s Ratdog seemed temporal. There was an air of side-projectedness around them, something to do – musically and socially – until the next big thing came around in Grateful Dead-land. In 1998, it seemed as if the Other Ones were it, the entity that would keep things moving and alive. After the strange splintering of the Dead into various factions, that wish for unity evaporated into a puff.
When it dissolved, Ratdog was still there and had evolved into something unique and interesting. Ratdog didn’t seem to take notice and just kept on touring. At this point, another Ratdog tour isn’t really a big deal, at least so far as news goes, just as the Dead had their own regular cycles of touring. Ratdog is musically weird — pun recognized: like a building with a fundamentally irregular architectural principle at the center of it with everything built around that.
Now going into their sixth full year as a band, Weir’s guitar playing is as angular as ever. In an almost paradoxical way, he has moved from his role in the Dead as a subtle movement-shaper to a full-on band leader, conducting the ensemble on-stage and off. Weir continues on as one of the most inventive rhythm guitar players in popular music, shaping improvisation in utterly mind-twisting ways. Now if they’d only turn him up in the mix…
JJ: What kind of changes do you notice in Ratdog from tour to tour?
BW: Well, the predictable stuff, really. The more we play the better we get, the more we learn each other’s moves and how to work off of them.
JJ: How much have the personnel changes effected the form of the band musically?
BW: The personnel of the band is everything. Whereas, three or four years ago, we had Johnnie Johnson and Matthew Kelly, our strong suit was more or less blues-oriented stuff, and now with a bunch of guys who are basically coming from a jazz heritage, we tend to drift a little towards that direction.
JJ: Do you plan to do anything different before you go out on a new tour or does it just sort of evolve?
BW: What we plan to spend a few weeks rehearsing before we go out on tour, working up both new stuff and reaching back into the bag of chestnuts as well. That’s about as complicated as our plans get. Like I said, the more we play, the better we get. What our experiences have taught us is the more we play, the more stuff comes.
JJ: How is a Ratdog rehearsal structured?
BW: We just get in and start playing. It depends. If somebody can’t make it, we’ll have some sort of sectional. If the bass player can’t make it for one reason or another, then we’ll do vocal rehearsals. Generally speaking, everybody is there and we just get started. We’ll break up the day into three parts: going back over old stuff; going into whatever new stuff, “new old stuff” shall we say, that we’re going to pull out; and just letting fly and seeing what we can bring out of the air.
JJ: How do you decide what old stuff needs working on?
BW: It’s kind of a democratic process. Whoever has a strong notion about what they want to do, we’ll generally follow that. That means that whoever that is is passionate about this or that, and we’ll always follow that.
JJ: You’ve been playing these songs for quite a while now. What do you learn about a song like Playin’ In The Band after playing it for a long a period as you have? What new things come out of it?
BW: Playin’ In The Band is a particular challenge, having been there so much. It’s the key of D. And what can you do with the key of D? Where is it gonna wanna go? That takes a lot of work, actually. We have to listen to each other acutely, and if somebody suggests something that sounds new, we have to understand what they’re up to and we have to go there with them right away. That’s the way you get a new occurrence, a new place to go visit. The possibilities having played the song God knows how many times, there are always gonna be more possibilities. But there’s a huge backlog of places we’ve already been with it, and that just gets larger and larger as the years go by. We don’t wanna go back to any of those old places, ‘cause that’s where you find the joy of discovery.
JJ: What kind of historical sense do you have while playing? Are you acutely conscious of those places?
BW: When we’re playing – and I speak for myself, and I think I can speak for everybody – I go to an entirely other realm where the world and my life continuum is basically all the time I’ve spent onstage with these songs, and now with these guys. Like yesterday, for me, becomes very truly the last time I was onstage. Everything else just sort of falls away. Couched in that perspective, it’s pretty easy to remember where you’ve been and what you’ve done. There’s not a whole lot else to think about. For that reason, it becomes easy to remember where you’ve been, what you’ve done, and to, at least, have that there for reference?
JJ: When does that moment begin when you step outside your normal bounds?
BW: It’s hard to exactly say when, but generally within the first couple of tunes. Sometimes, right off the bat, sometimes with the first note. Sometimes, it takes a little push and shove to get into that timeless space. We get there pretty regularly. But, like I say, it’s hard to say when exactly that’s gonna occur.
JJ: Do you differentiate critically between spaces in that zone? Or is it completely unconscious once you’re there?
BW: I try to keep it as free of contrivance as possible. That’s not to say that I’m totally successful, but I try not to come up with a good idea and try to impose it on the moment but, rather, let the idea impose itself on me. I try not to decide where to take it. I try to be as open as I possibly can.
JJ: This obviously speaks a lot towards improvisation. How does it work towards a song? The singing of a specific lyric? Is it a similar kind of mental space?
BW: Absolutely. Every time we play a tune we’re gonna focus on a slightly different aspect, a slightly different facet. It’s like light shining through a prism or something. Coming from one angle it rainbows out in a certain way on the other side. But if light is coming from a different angle, it does a very different thing on a different side. For me, a song can do that, if I’m concentrating.
For example, on a given night, I’m having a particularly swell time with my consonants – my s’s, my t’s, stuff like that – maybe I can hear them well, they sound real distinct to me. At that point, I can use them percussively and emotively. That’s gonna color my perception about the whole rest of the song and how I’m gonna deliver it. The whole rest of the song is gonna color my approach, or my touch, to my guitar playing. The lines that come out of me are gonna be really heavily influenced by just this one little thing. And then everybody else who is listening to me is gonna be influenced by this new perspective that I’m having on the song.
Now, you take that and multiply it by six – because everybody’s going through those little anomalies on a nightly basis – and you can see where a song would be very different from performance to performance.
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