For a period of time I forgot about the baggage involved and the thought process needed to enjoy a Bob Weir & RatDog show. Formed by Weir following the dissolution of the Grateful Dead, it began as a blues-centric outfit with bassist Rob Wasserman, (current) drummer Jay Lane and harpist Matt Kelly. Legendary pianist Johnnie Johnson joined in for many early shows, which elicited a mixed audience reaction — one faction simply enjoying the new sounds, the other confused that it wasn’t a rehash of what Weir’s previous band did. The allegiance to a rigid bluesy format can be, at times, frustrating since Weir & RatDog regularly simmer in a live setting while the only moments where the material livens up and boils over comes about during “Stuff,” the drums/jam segment.
While I still wished that the rhythmic temperature changed even moderately during the group’s House of Blues performance, I made peace with the approach. After more than four decades it’s Weir’s ship to captain and if I get too seasick by the way it’s being steered across the waters, I can make my exit.
Not looking for that particular change of direction allowed for a deeper investigation of what’s being put forth. And subsequently, a different set of rewards can be found; an intricate puzzle that looks simple, seamless and effortless on the surface. There’s the playful (and thoughtful) twist to “Viola Lee Blues” whereupon it was taken from its original epic roller coaster workout into a recurring theme that found spots at the beginning and end of set one as well as near the conclusion of set two.
From the start it was a matter of merging one song into the next as the music never stopped until the announcement that the band would be back in a little bit. A double dose of Dylan — “Maggie’s Farm” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” was followed by the Rolling Stones’s “It’s All Over Now,” making for a trio of numbers of empowerment. “Liberty” continued that defiance.
Set two started with a refreshing acoustic opening of “Stealin’,” “Mexicali Blues” and “Friend of the Devil.” Weir took the initial solo on “Friend” and wove together the type of inside out tapestry that makes sense to him and raises the joy quotient for anyone seeking an exploration of the unknown. Following a piano vamp from Jeff Chimenti the rest of the full band was onstage for “Two Djinn,” but that was a fleeting arrangement. “Stuff” found saxophonist Kenny Brooks and bassist Robin Sylvester chiming in while Lane whipped a rhythm that contained Middle Eastern flavors.
As part of the continuing guest appearances between artists, opener Jackie Greene joined for the rest of the evening — “Stella Blue”>“Viola Lee Blues”>“Throwing Stones” and the encore of “Gloria.” Listening to the crowd sing the “Ashes ashes/all fall down” line during “Stones” reminds me of how little has changed since that song debuted in 1982 — politicians still throwing stones leaving us on our own…Still, I always view it as Weir’s continuous reminder to do more than just listen to some tunes, but to make our world a better place. It also makes a nice bookend to the early part of set one’s tunes of defiance and empowerment.
What a pleasure it was to have Jackie Greene on the bill. His days with Phil Lesh and Friends offered only a glimpse of his talent. I remain impressed by his solo material and its presentation by Greene and his compact backing unit. His music finds itself firmly rooted in the spirit and genetic code of America, the humidity of the South, the grease under the fingernails blue collar work ethic of the East and the vast open space found in the West. Through it all, there’s the understanding that while life’s biggest goal mainly consists of getting through each day, there remains the unending call to celebrate as well.
Surprisingly, such standard Sin City tunes as “New Minglewood Blues” or “Loser” weren’t played but “Mexicali Blues” mentioned the “desert sands” and Weir plus Mark Karan and Jeff Chimenti joined Jackie Greene during his opening set for a rousing version of “Deal.” And the HOB show validated the long held maxim about Dead shows, that you’re not in a place full of strangers, just friends you haven’t met yet. The contingent of jamband fans from the Vegas area, others from the West Coast and around the country gave the evening an extra special spark of enthusiasm that lasted long after Weir, RatDog and Greene took their final bow.