I’m writing this the morning after RatDog’s (1/25/12) reunion show at Bob Weir’s TRI Studios complex in San Rafael, Marin County. I haven’t scoured the Internet to gauge fan reaction to the free webcast and I have no idea what it looked or sounded like out there in the real world. I want to jot down my thoughts—free of outside influences—about what it was like being in the room at TRI experiencing the show live.
This was my second trip to TRI; the first was for Slightly Stoopid’s pay-per-view webcast in mid-September of last year—I wrote a technical story about the facility for Mix magazine based on that event. (What a good band! They were quite a revelation to me.) On that afternoon, most of the people there were either working on the actual production of the webcast—between camera operators, sound engineers, mixers, telecast production personnel and regular office staff, that’s a lot of folks—or somehow connected to the band. As a Southern California group, Slightly Stoopid didn’t have many Bay Area friends stopping by for their private event, so the off-camera in-studio audience was probably around 30 people; it was very loose and spacious.
I had suspected that RatDog, playing for the first time in a couple of years, with an expanded roster that included such distinguished alums as saxophonist Dave Ellis, guitarist Steve Kimock and bassist Rob Wasserman, performing on Weir’s “home court,” would probably attract a much larger crowd. It did. I’d estimate that there were well over 100 people on hand, most of them actual family or friends of the musicians or TRI employees (plus Rob Wasserman’s stately standard poodle, Mingus). Bob’s wife and kids were there, as was his genteel, mustachio’d father, Jack, who sat right in front of Jeff Chimenti’s keyboard setup. Also on hand were former GD roadie Steve Parish, Garcia’s daughter Keelin and her mom Manasha Matheson, and various others from the Dead family.
Before the show, there was a lot of milling about in the corridors and in spacious Studio 2, which had been transformed into the party room for the night: It had cheery Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling, a couple of couches, some tables and chairs and, most important of all, beer and wine. Meanwhile, people who were actually involved in the production scurried through the crowded hallways to deal with last-minute details. Mike McGinn, who has been associated with RatDog for many years, was the main mixer; he was ensconced in the studio’s state-of-the-art control room. Justin Kreutzmann, who has been part of the TRI team from the outset, directed the webcast from the video suite.
The show began promptly at 5 p.m. (as others have, to better accommodate East Coast viewers), evidently catching some of the late-arriving audience off-guard—at first downbeat of the short jam that wound up at “The Music Never Stopped,” the place was only about half-full. Regan and I managed to snag a couple of spots right in front on the left side, and when I say “in front,” I mean less than ten feet from Jeff’s keyboard setup, and about the same distance from the smiling, always boppin’ sax duo of Kenny Brooks and Dave Ellis, and from Bob’s microphone. There’s no stage, so we were right on their level and it really felt like being part of the band. Directly in front of us at our feet were dolly tracks for a camera which moved very slowly in front of the stage throughout the evening, while other camera operators traversed the area between us and the musicians. I couldn’t see guitarists Kimock or Mark Karan as much as I would have liked to, but I could hear them fine.
The sound in Studio One is almost supernaturally clean and clear, and not overly loud. Due to our proximity to the players, we could hear the saxophones, Jeff Chimenti’s piano and even Bob’s lead vocals off the stage, in addition to what was coming from the crystalline Meyer loudspeakers hanging from the low ceiling. We could literally feel the sound coming directly from Jeff’s swirling Leslie organ speaker, and see the reflection of his moving fingers on the shiny black front of his Yamaha grand. Bob was right at our eye level—a very interesting perspective, to say the least. It’s amazing that he can maintain his concentration singing and playing when there are cameras right in his face, but I guess he’s had a few years to get used to that. It probably helped that so many pretty women finagled spots in the front.
Because of the way I experienced the show—completely immersed in the sound and with a mostly unfettered visual connection to the players—it’s hard for me to be objective about the music. I could hear each musician better than I ever had before, and I could also hear every word Bob sang, which brought a greater depth of meaning to some of the songs I knew less well than Grateful Dead classics, such as “Even So” > “October Queen” > “The Deep End,” “Money for Gasoline,” “Two Djinn” and “Ashes and Glass.” With the exception of “Money for Gasoline” (my favorite of his post-GD output), all those songs—plus “Corrina,” which they also did a killer version of at TRI—appeared on RatDog’s underrated 2000 album, Evening Moods, and the band seemed to invest all of them with a little extra juice. These tunes are, after all, the keystones of their shared original repertoire.
For a group that hadn’t played together for two years—and in the case of Kimock, Ellis and Wasserman, even longer—they sounded amazingly together, and there’s no question they were having a ball. The ebullient Jay Lane looked so excited at times he could barely contain himself at his drum kit, and it was wonderful being so close to the Sax Bros as they traded smiles and fond glances at each other and the others all night. You could feel that everyone was in the flow, and that led to a certain effortless quality to the music, as if they’d instantly picked up where they left off. That’s ingrained telepathy in action.
Of course, with this unique configuration, the overall sound was a little different. Kimock and Mark Karan complemented each other beautifully, with Steve playing a lot of slide accents, and Mark maybe soloing a little more. I felt Steve was kind of laid-back during some of the first set, but he stepped out more in the second. Mark was on fire all night, although the sheer size of the band and the fact that they’re all incredible players meant that there weren’t too many opportunities for Mark—or anyone—to go completely crazy with solos. That said, the music didn’t feel at all restrained to me.
I wouldn’t have predicted this in advance, but I thought in some ways Kenny and Dave stole the show with their dynamic, spot-on sax parts. Whether it was the great, nearly big-band-sounding unison flourishes they added to the excellent version of “Eyes of the World,” or the way their parts diverged as “Bird Song” ascended during its big jam, they always seemed to dial in the perfect mood and feeling. I especially liked it when Dave played soprano sax on several songs (Kenny played tenor throughout)—in the hands of a master, that instrument has such a crying, human sound. Then there was their brief duel during “Stuff” (the name given to RatDog’s jazzy freeform improv—sans Bob—that traditionally comes late in the second set), where they were toe-to-toe, cheeks puffing furiously, blowing fast and hard. Yeah! Gimme some more of that!
Jeff was his usual brilliant self all night, adding just the right textures to every song, mostly on piano, as it turned out, though there were also big blasts of B-3 filling the air here and there, and one cool passage I recall where he was playing piano with his right hand and Fender Rhodes with his left. Jay confidently negotiated the myriad styles and tempos, pushing the band when they needed a little kick (like during “Cassidy,” which started out a tad slow) but also providing plenty of space for the others when things quieted down.
My only regret with being so close to the band is that I could not hear Rob Wasserman very well. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and I know he is a monster player, but from my vantage point he was behind Kenny and Dave (who were practically in my face), and even though I could see him working furiously, the sound of his stand-up bass just didn’t cut through some of the time. (Maybe his Clevinger bass would have?) There were exceptions—like when he was artfully navigating through the wide open spaces of “Bird Song”—but I would have liked to hear him more. I was also disappointed that we didn’t get to hear one of his amazing solos. (RatDog’s bass player the last several years, Robin Sylvester, was supposed to be part of the reunion, but has been dealing with some serious health issues and was unable to join them for this gig. Bob dedicated the encore—a lovely version of “Ripple”—to Robin. He was missed!)
A few favorite songs/moments from the evening: “Money for Gasoline,” which had an exciting Caribbean lilt; “Ashes and Glass,” the first-set closer, jammed out expansively; Bob’s moving acoustic take on “Peggy-O”; “Corrina,” sounding great with horn punctuation; “Bird Song”; and “Days Between,” which was haunting and emotional and built verse by verse to amazing peaks.
All in all, it was quite the love-fest onstage and in the crowd. The place was both buzzing and glowing at the end of the night. It’s scary to think how good this group could be if they actually stayed together and toured (and if Robin could join them). But that’s not going to happen anytime soon. So, for now, we must be satiated by this often magnificent and thoroughly satisfying one night stand.
Let’s do it again, boys!