Spontaneity no thing of the past

Former Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist Bob Weir continues to `kick the stuff around'



He was a Grateful Dead icon, and for many, the Dead embodied the peace-and-love Sixties during their 30-year rock-and-roll reign. So it might've seemed a bit odd when Bob Weir, the band's longtime rhythm guitarist, was recently asked his favorite sport.

Football, he said.

"It's a great game to watch," said Weir, 58. "Everybody has a neat and precise role or assignment. Then the ball is snapped, and it's pandemonium."

It's hard to think of a better analogy for the kind of show his current band, Ratdog, now on nationwide tour, has been making for the past 10 years. When Weir and his bandmates take the Ram's Head Live stage Wednesday night, the outfit their rabid fans know simply as "the Dog" will unfurl three hours of Dead-flavored rock as tightly disciplined as any offensive scheme, as free-flowing as a broken midfield play.

"The [musical] revelations are still coming with regularity," Weir said in a recent conversation.

Like his former band, Ratdog schedules its spontaneity. The band takes the stage without a set list, deciding on more or less on the fly what music feels right. But the sextet, tighter than ever after more than 50 live shows this year, has played enough jam-style shows from coast to coast to work up quite a book of standards. Old Dead favorites ("Cassidy," "Shakedown Street"), Ratdog originals ("Easy Answers," "Ashes and Glass") and a variety of Dylan and Beatles cover songs often pop up in the rotation.

But within the familiar, Ratdog rarely makes the same gesture twice. "It's really the old jazz modus operandi," says Weir, who has lately taken to sporting a full beard in the fashion of Jerry Garcia, the founding patriarch of the Dead who passed away a decade ago. "Somebody in the band will state a theme. Everyone will have a little something to say about it, take it for a little walk in the woods. You rely heavily on improvisation and intuition."

When he first met Garcia in San Francisco 40-plus years ago, Weir was a skinny 16-year-old still learning his chops, and he was weaned on the approach. Under Garcia's guidance, the Dead became one of the first rock bands to incorporate the free-associative form of jazz, a la John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. What came about was a lot of open-ended interplay, extended sets and a perpetual sense that anything could happen. Weir says the mix was "news to the planet."

In those days, he was a big fan of the pianist McCoy Tyner, whose playing gave Coltrane his context for improvisation. Weir developed an airily oddball rhythm style, one that, like Tyner's, both framed and explored, interweaving texture and melody. "I tried to intuit where Jerry was going and to be there with the right chord, with the right leading voice that would tilt him in this direction or that, to be either complementary or contrapuntal," he says. "And I'd try to have a little surprise for him when he got there."

Ratdog draws on a similar improvisational method, with lead guitarist Mark Karan, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, sax player Kenny Brooks and bassist Robin Sylvester sharing the spotlight with their maestro. The band will play about 100 dates this year, including Wednesday night's and a concert at the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick on Nov. 8.

Since Garcia's passing, the "jam-band" approach has given rise to improvisational, rock-based bands like Phish, Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident, all of whom cite the Dead as progenitors and have turned the structured-but-free-flowing style into a music-industry phenomenon.

If Weir is the godfather to such groups, he still has a lot to say, even if much of it comes within pieces long familiar to Grateful Dead fans.

"We just keep kicking the stuff around," he says. "Ratdog has been together long enough that each night, we just pick up the conversation where we left off the night before. Sometimes you just enjoy an especially apt rendition. Other times, you'll hear someone play some strange Chinese note where you've never heard it before, and think, `Holy [cow]! You mean this song can go in that direction? I'm happier than hell we played it tonight - for the 500th time.'"

Over the years, Deadheads grew used to seeing the band alternate between "Bobby songs" (written and/or sung by Weir) and "Jerry songs" as shows unfolded. Nowadays, Weir will sing both. "I was there when all those songs were born," he says. "I had a lot to do with how they came into the world. Until I had my own family, they were like my own children. Do you think I'm going to turn my back on them just because Jerry checked out? It doesn't work that way, at least not for me."

Besides, he says, he knows the characters - from the runaway rogue in "Friend of the Devil" to the hippie airhead of "Sugar Magnolia" - too well to let them fade away. "I know where they live," he says with a smile. "Somebody's got to stop by and invite them out on the porch. If I don't, who's going to?"

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