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Ratdog settles down

The latest incarnation of the Grateful Dead gets comfortable enough to release its first CD. The band performs Tuesday in Tampa.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001

Neophyte musicians and novice bands, take heart: Even pros who have been playing for decades say you've got to practice, practice, practice.

Which is why, Bob Weir says, it took his new band Ratdog five years to release a CD that fans of his old band, the legendary Grateful Dead, had clamored for.

"We needed to have local (San Francisco) bay area guys so we could get together and play a lot," said Weir. They will get to show off Tuesday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center what they've learned. "That's the only way you can get good. The more we play, the better we get. In our situation, the instrument that we really need practice on is the band itself."

Ratdog, the rock, blues, jazz, jam band and whatnot outfit headed by the former Dead guitarist and his one-time Mill Valley neighbor, bassist Rob Wasserman, has been kicking around since 1995.

The two have experimented with several incarnations of the band, including one with blues-based piano great Johnny Johnson. They've relied on earthy grooves, inspired solo work and a bit of a nostalgia buzz to attract a loyal following of Deadheads and other similarly inclined listeners.

Weir, impressed by Wasserman's 1988 Duos disc, hooked up with the bassist for several shows and signed on for his 1994 follow-up Trios, a release that also featured performances by Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh of the Dead, and Weir and Wasserman paired for the stripped-down Live CD, released in 1998, two years after Garcia's death, but they waited five years after first playing under the Ratdog name to release the group's debut disc, Evening Moods.

"The personnel in the band stabilized, and we found ourselves no longer teaching the new guy the old book," Weir says about the group, which also includes keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, lead guitarist Mark Karan, drummer Jay Lane and saxophonist Kenny Brooks. "What we have is a pretty good little ensemble where everybody listens intently to each other and works off of that."

Ratdog is more of a real working band than Dead spinoff bands the Other Ones and Phil Lesh and Friends, according to Weir.

Evening Moods, which has the core band members joined by guests such as former Dead percussionist Mickey Hart and saxophonist Dave Ellis, offers an appealing sampling of the band's now-extensive repertoire.

Bury Me Standing, built on a chunky, minor-key groove, is topped with a Latin-tinged guitar riff.

"It occurred to me that there are remarkable similarities between flamenco music and blues music," Weir says. "Both idioms grew up in bars and (prostitute) houses and were driven by guitars. This was a clunky attempt to bring the two together."

Lucky Enough, edged with wah-wah guitar, might be thought of as a yearning pop ballad. Odessa, spiked with harmonica and horn solos, and the rambling October Queen both draw from blues and R&B. Ashes and Glass is marked by a loping Dead-ish feel, enhanced by Karan's guitar lines, owing a thing or two to Garcia. Weir goes all the way over to the other side with a cover of the Dead's Corrina.

Ratdog probably will always remain in the shadow of Weir's old band.

"We try to give people a little bit of what they want," he says. "Our first responsibility is to please ourselves, to keep ourselves engaged, but we're going to throw in a fair number of the old Grateful Dead chestnuts and some stuff from my old back pages as well. We play 3- or 31/2-hour shows. That way we don't get bored with the material. If anybody's following us around, they don't get bored with it either."

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PREVIEW: Ratdog, Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Tampa. Tickets are $28.75. Call (813) 229-7827.

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