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Weir Resurrects the Dead Touch on Ratdog's 'Evening Moods'

Pop Music * It's taken the band nearly five years to meld and record a first album. Jerry Garcia's former cohort says it was worth the wait.

November 25, 2000|RAY HOGAN | STAMFORD ADVOCATE

"Who the hell can wait for life to pass?" sings Bob Weir on "Two Djinn," a tune on his band Ratdog's new album, "Evening Moods."

Certainly not Weir. The singer-guitarist was a member of the Grateful Dead from its inception in 1965 until its untimely demise with Jerry Garcia's death in August 1995.

When the long, strange trip officially ended later that year, Weir didn't dwell on it.

"I had a torch to carry," he says. "When Jerry checked out, I hit the road and stayed there for a while."

It's taken Ratdog nearly five years to solidify its lineup and record its debut disc--Weir's first non-Dead studio endeavor in more than 20 years. But much of that time was spent touring, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is extremely pleased with the current state of affairs.

"I'm starting to have a lot more fun with music in terms of understanding how to open it up more," Weir says. "And that's thrilling: trying to find new ways to improvise."

In concert, fans can expect a mix of Dead chestnuts and songs from "Evening Moods," skewing more toward the former. Weir not only draws from his own repertoire but also borrows from Garcia's catalog with renditions of "Franklin's Tower," "Touch of Gray" and "West L.A. Fadeaway."

"It's whatever catches my fancy or wrenches my heartstrings, really," he says of the song selection.

Like most Dead-related projects, "Evening Moods" wasn't made with the charts in mind. Weir says the band--which also includes bassist Rob Wasserman, guitarist Mark Karan, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, drummer Jay Lane and saxophonist Kenny Brooks--had simply melded enough to begin writing.

"[We did it] just to make a record, really," Weir says. "I'm not sure that we had much more of a goal than that. We had a number of tunes that we were working on and those were the ones that either came out the best or fit together the best. But really we didn't have much of a goal set when we went into the studio."

Weir worked with a team of lyricists on "Evening Moods," including Grateful Dead scribes Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow, as well as actor Gerrit Graham ("Used Cars," "One True Thing" and the CBS series "Now and Again"), Andre Pessis and Russ Ellis, the retired vice chancellor at UC Berkeley. He says each lyricist "just sort of showed up in one way or another" and that he looked for what each could bring to a particular tune rather than some grand statement for the album.

"I wasn't looking for a cohesive theme and I'm not sure there is one," he says. "I was looking for lyrics that fit the music in the cases where we had music written. There were a couple of tunes that we started the lyrics and came up with the music later."

One instance is the mystical "Two Djinn," a tale of encountering two genies in Marin County, Calif. Chock-full of wonderful imagery, courtesy of Graham, the song is one of the best, and most intense, on the disc.

"We had the lyrics first and our keyboard player, Jeff Chimenti, had a couple of riffs we had been working on," Weir says. "And I had a flash that this lyric that I had that Gerrit Graham had given me was going to work over it. And with a little hammering it did."

The music was written in a manner Weir has employed since the early 1990s. It's an approach in which group collaboration is key. "I've been using a method for writing music that I started with the Grateful Dead," he says. "Rather than hole up at home and write something, I'll go into the studio or rehearsal with the band and kick stuff around until stuff starts to emerge. I like that approach better."

The members of Ratdog, of course, aren't Garcia et al. But their mission is similar to that of the Dead.

"The musicians are different, so they're going to add different colors to it because the colors of their souls are different," Weir says. "The approach is very much the same."

"I've always been involved with musicians who are nearly incapable of playing by rote," he says. "The fellas I've always played with have to interpret music differently each time they approach it and that necessarily keeps you pretty fresh."

That sense of adventure was at the heart of the late summer tour with the Other Ones, a group that includes Dead members Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann and de facto member Bruce Hornsby, plus Karan, Steve Kimock and Alphonso Johnson. The group reexamined the Grateful Dead's repertoire. It's a band Weir says you can expect to see again.

Naturally, the Grateful Dead's legacy is one that will never elude Weir. Although not one to rest on its accomplishments, Weir lauds the path the Dead helped pave for today's healthy, grass-roots musical climate.

"I think we've been useful to the American musical heritage," he says. "We kept highly improvisational and intuitive music going in an era when it was not altogether that popular of a thing to do. And now with the emergence of jam bands and stuff like that, that aesthetic is alive and well."

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