High Sierra Music Festival 2008
A kind vibe permeates the grounds as fans prepare for Bob Weir & Ratdog to deliver Saturday night’s headlining set. Old hippies share party favors as what looks like the biggest crowd of the weekend packs the main stage area for some “good ol’ Grateful Dead” music. At the beginning of this decade, Ratdog was generally viewed as a lesser entity to the more intense and psychedelic energy of Phil Lesh & Friends. But since touring with Lesh from 2002-04, Weir seems to have been inspired to take his game to a higher level as the Ratdog shows of the past few years have seen a dramatic increase in high-powered jams. Weir and company deliver an opening pair of fan favorites with “Golden Road” and “Jack Straw”, yet the band seems stuck in second gear for some reason. But when they break out seminal psychedelic classic “Dark Star” in the number three slot, the magic begins. The unfinished “Dark Star” segues into a lively “Little Red Rooster”—when Weir sings, “the dogs begin to bark and the hounds begin to howl,” the crowd responds with a howling in kind. Jerry Garcia favorite “Big Railroad Blues” comes next and this is where the band catches fire—Weir sings the lyrics with playful authority while bassist Robin Sylvester and drummer Jay Lane conjure a smoking groove that gets the Saturday night dance party hopping. Keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, guitarist Mark Karan and saxman Kenny Brooks all weave in their lines with expert skill as the band gels. Sensing a possible early overload from the hyped-up crowd, Weir brings things down a notch with a superb solo acoustic rendition of the Beatles’ “Blackbird”, a staple of the Ratdog repertoire since the day of Garcia’s untimely departure from the planet in 1995. The band then takes a mid-tempo turn into the political territory of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. They follow this with a stellar up-tempo take on “Liberty”, one of the last tunes that Garcia contributed to the Grateful Dead catalogue, as the revolutionary spirit of Independence Day weekend is further conjured—“Ooh, Freedom / Ooh, Liberty / leave me alone to find my own way home.” Weir then throws a curveball with “The Days Between”, another of Garcia’s final tunes—a ballad that never became a particular crowd-pleaser. But here, Weir elevates the song with a more elaborate arrangement the song lacked in its Grateful Dead days. The band takes “Days Between” into an unprecedented psychedelic territory, but it all makes sense when it segues back into the second verse of “Dark Star”, drawing a triumphant cheer from the adoring crowd. The latter section of “Dark Star” becomes a psychedelic tour de force, with Weir and the band exploring each passage and visiting any number of alternate realities and sonic landscapes. Karan’s lead work is superb. Having recently participated in a 45-minute exploration of the song (when sitting in with Phil Lesh & Friends for their May 14 performance of the Dead’s 1969 Live/Dead album) seems to have had a noticeable effect on Karan’s approach. The High Sierra crowd basks in the results. This is Ratdog 2.0, light years beyond where the band was in its early years. Weir brings the set home with purpose as he leads the band into a rousing rendition of “One More Saturday Night”, a high-energy Chuck Berry-esque number that closes the set with a flourish. The band then encores with the apropos “U.S. Blues”, once again rocking the song with an energy that the Dead version lacked in latter days. The show is a definitive triumph and sends the crowd dispersing into the evening elated.
Charlie Hunter Trio