By Shain Shapiro

Ratdog :: 10.31.05 :: The Docks :: Toronto, ON

Four years ago at the inaugural Bonnaroo, I attended a Phil Lesh and Bob Weir press conference. Being significantly less experienced at meeting musicians, I flubbed my one question I was allotted, embarrassing myself in front of several journalists, publicists, and most importantly, the two musicians I was set on querying. Without going into detailed specifics, I basically questioned the duo on their thoughts about how their music, in both Ratdog and Phil and Friends, differs from The Grateful Dead. Even though each band plays old Grateful Dead material, I believed then, and still do now, that they are wielded off differently, often sequentially unorthodox and musically emphasized in a dissimilar fashion.

Bob Weir - Ratdog by Weiand
Regardless of my question's intentions, it was greeted with confusion and subsequent laughter, prompting me to scurry out of the press tent as fast as I could with a lesson learned in tow. Still, I believe my hypothesis deserved just as much merit at Bonnaroo 2002 as it does now, and Ratdog's fantastic Halloween extravaganza at The Docks in Toronto further affirmed my original claim.

First and foremost, the show began with "Help on the Way" > "Slipknot!" > "Loser." While the unconventional trio sounds confusing and likely would have been in 1978, it was the perfect opener, soaring from progressive free-jazz to helplessly inviting downtrodden folk that emphasized the heights of the roller coaster just as much as the internal remorse brewing in the sickness it brings forth. And the surprises continued throughout the three-hour bash, influenced by the frightening spirit of the eve and Ratdog's obvious musical initiative to continue to push the music forward, making sure that in more ways than one, the music never stops. To further cement my point, "Loser" was followed by fairly standard yet more-than-welcome interpretations of "Jack Straw" and "Bird Song" before Weir and crew let loose for twenty minutes with "Weather Report Suite" > "Let It Grow." While the latter is no surprise, the poly-rhythmic, highly complicated jam that developed within the improvisation-rich staple was. Borrowing elements from each decade of Jerry and company's ramblings, Ratdog created a sonic feast that with each melody, rhythmic shift, and peak and valley paid such a chilling homage to the original collective that it was spooky. The experimentation with song selection and length that costumed the first set was put aside for twenty minutes, as unique chord progressions and heretical song structures and selections were replaced with a powerful, utterly engrossing encomium to the patriarchy. Jerry's emotion, Mickey and Billy's eponymous syncopation, and Phil's love of complicated jazz came full circle, crafting a highly involved, exploratory rendition of the classic.

Mark Karan - Ratdog by Weiand
After a welcome forty-five minute break to wipe off the sweat clouding my costume (I was stupid enough to go as a cheesehead - and those rubber hats are heavy), Bob, armed with an acoustic guitar, appeared once more and continued the fright fest. After two acoustic offerings, the traditional "El Paso" and Dylan's timeless "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and guitarist Mark Karan took charge, leading a continuous jam that shifted between newer, more contemporary frontier-rich Americana and the ghosts of the tried and tested. Right out of the acoustic numbers, the quintet ran through "Even So," "October Queen," "The Deep End," and "Mississippi Half Step" before settling in forty minutes later with a terrifyingly free, jazz-pierced jam that ended in a generously more up-tempo take on "Wharf Rat." Refusing to stop post ode, the surprises continued, as the set concluded with a rehashing of "Help" > "Slipknot!," followed by the obligatory "Franklin's Tower."

Pro-actively, the quintet continually shifted between the esoteric and the familiar and between the obvious and the surprising, much like the first set. Regardless of approach, it was damn good. With a somewhat predictable but overtly welcome "Werewolves of London" encore, Ratdog ended the night of spooks, treats, and surprises in fine form, complete with Weir emerging after "Franklin's" with a top hat and a black and white Werewolf makeup.

Throughout both sets, the old and the new were stripped down, repainted, innovatively reworked, tinkered with, and dusted off, showcasing a band not interested in simply covering the Grateful Dead. Instead, a more inventive mantra set in, one that stresses growth and continued exploration, even if much of the material is nearing its fortieth birthday. Halloween was a treat, filled with Ratdog-supplied conjoint tricks, fuelled by the desire to foster the basic element of surprise. What a perfect match it was. I told you I was right at Bonnaroo.

JamBase | Canada
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[Published on: 11/16/05]

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