Just two days after the Rhythm Devils played their third Ohio show, Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist Bob Weir brought Ratdog to Cleveland’s Agora Theater, some 50 blocks east of the House of Blues. If you’re into the rock ‘n roll lifestyle, Weir has lived one of the most enviable lives imaginable. Just 16 years old when he helped form the Grateful Dead, Weir has spent his entire life playing music; it’s the only livelihood he’s ever known. When Jerry Garcia left the planet in 1995, Weir was the first band member back on the road.
Early in the band’s career, Ratdog was known as more of a jazzy blues review than a full-on rock band. This was clearly by design, an alternate take on familiar territory. But when he collaborated with Dead bassist Phil Lesh again from 2001-04, Weir started to step it up a notch. Or maybe he just realized that the band wasn’t living up to its full potential. Either way, Ratdog has followed Lesh’s lead by expanding its repertoire to include more of Garcia’s signature tunes. This appeals to the fanbase, and the door is now open for more of the psychedelic jamming that made the Dead famous.
What’s more, the current Ratdog lineup—together since the spring of 2003—is finally coming into its own. The band has a more stripped-down sound than either the Rhythm Devils or Lesh’s bands. Bassist Robyn Sylvester plays with a more traditional sound and style, as opposed to trying to mimic Lesh’s lead bass. Lead guitarist Mark Karan isn’t known for his shredding, yet is a seasoned player who can handle the diverse repertoire well. Keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, drummer Jay Lane, and saxophonist Kenny Brooks round out the lineup, and all have the chops to follow Weir wherever his improvisational muse takes him.
The band immediately established a rollicking atmosphere, signaling that this show was going to rock with Dead classic “Shakedown Street.” The lyrics “don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart / you just gotta poke around” received boisterous cheers from the local faithful. The band explored the jam deeply before segueing into a well-received double dose of Bob Dylan in “Maggie’s Farm” and “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” Weir’s delivery of the latter tune conjured Garcia’s uniquely heartfelt vocal poignancy: “Leave your stepping stones behind / something calls for you / Forget the dead you’ve left / they will not follow you.”
A few holdouts still complain about the reworking of Garcia’s vocals, but here, and throughout the night, Weir demonstrated that he’s now more than up to the task. The band took things down a notch with Garcia’s “Mission in the Rain” and “Lazy River Road,” before bouncing back with blues classic “Little Red Rooster,” an especially appropriate song for Cleveland’s Dawg Pound faithful. When Weir sang “the dogs begin to bark, and the hounds begin to howl,” the crowd responded in kind, howling back at the band. The song segued into yet another Dylan classic and Dead staple, “All Along the Watchtower,” a song whose meaning only seems to deepen through the decades. It seemed particularly timely in this political season as Weir sang, “There’s too much confusion / I can’t get no relief / Businessmen, they drink my wine / plowmen dig my earth / None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”
The band was really cooking, working an up-tempo groove that energized the house, but Weir threw an intriguing curveball before the final verse, signaling the band to transition into a reggae/ska break. They vamped through the last verse and then powered into the final jam. It was an interesting take on an old classic, one that demonstrated Weir’s continuing commitment to the continued exploration of new ground.
For the second set, Weir opened on acoustic guitar, delivering a strong “Mexicali Blues.” His next selection, “Corinna,” was one of the last songs introduced to the Grateful Dead repertoire in the early ‘90s, and one that never really seemed to grab the band’s fans. It was no different here as the energy in the crowd waned. The band seemed to sense this as they veered back into a “Shakedown” jam, revisiting the powerful show opener. “He’s Gone” was a crowd pleaser, though, and the room was officially back on board when the band followed with “The Other One.” This is one of Weir’s signature tunes and no one else can sing it quite like he does.
The song was well received as always, but it must be said that this version lacked the musical intensity of recent renditions by the Rhythm Devils and Phil Lesh & Friends. The bassline is what really drives the song, and Ratdog’s arrangement just didn’t emphasize the bottom end the way others do.
Ratdog went on to play to its strengths, though, with a stirring rendition of Garcia ballad “Standing on the Moon.” The song once again demonstrated Weir’s ability to channel Garcia’s soulful vocals. The band then dipped back into the Dead’s seminal ‘60s catalog for the classic “St. Stephen>The Eleven” combo. These songs are contemporaries of “The Other One,” and here Ratdog was able to conjure the full psychedelic glory of the era. This continued into the odd-metered and mystical jamming of “The Eleven,” which closed the show on a very high note.
The band came back to bust out the Beatles’ classic “Revolution” for a triumphant encore, a soulful mid-tempo version that seemed another tip of the hat to the tumultuous political season in bellwether Ohio. Weir has said that if every Deadhead in Florida had voted in 2000, we would be living in a very different world right now. When queried after the show about the potential connection between rock and revolution that was first postulated back in the ‘60s, Weir replied with the same message that Grateful Dead bandmate Mickey Hart exhorted a few days earlier—get out and vote. Funny that their words should follow so closely, because, above all, Ratdog demonstrated on this night that the band is no longer playing second fiddle to the projects of other former bandmates, and that Weir is once again pushing musical boundaries with the best of them.