Steve Kimock to the Rescue! A Few Minutes with the Master Guitarist
By Blair Jackson
A typically serene Steve Kimock onstage with RatDog
in Boston, 7/10/07.
Photo: David W. Clark
RatDog was in a bind. They had an extensive summer of festivals and amphitheatre shows already mapped out and were practically packing their bags when the shocking news that lead guitarist Mark Karan would have to miss the tour to deal aggressively with his recently diagnosed throat cancer came down. Fortunately for the band, the versatile axeman Steve Kimock, who had played Dead music extensively in two versions of The Other Ones and in early incarnations of Phil Lesh & Friends, was available to fill in at short notice. And to no one’s surprise, Steve has stepped into the breach with all the skill and finesse his many fans would expect. We caught up with Steve before RatDog’s July 15th show at Post-Gazette Pavilion outside of Pittsburgh. He was in the midst of going over the night’s setlist with RatDog keyboardist Jeff Chimenti when I tracked him down…
So, Steve, tell me a little bit about all this came about for you.
A while back I was in the Bay Area for a minute and my wife, Jen, and Bobby’s wife, Natascha, are friends from way back. They do the kid thing whenever I’m in the Bay Area. We take our son, Skyler, and go visit Natascha and [Bob’s daughters] Monet and Chloe and we hang out and dress up a horse or paint a picture with our toes or whatever. Anyway, Bob came out and said, “If you’re not busy in July we might need you.” And I was like, “OK, whatever. Just call me.” I’ve known Bobby for a long time and of course we’ve worked together on and off on a few things, but in general I’ve only been peripherally involved with those folks—partly out of respect and partly by design—but I’d always said, “If there’s anything I can ever do for you…” thinking, ‘What could I possibly do? Wash his car?’ [Laughs]. But when they asked me if I could cover for Mark, who was sick, I thought that’s exactly the kind of circumstance where I could be of use. And not wanting to be stingy with a trip that’s been very kind to me, I of course said yes.
So did you have a bunch of rehearsals before the tour?
No, I just showed up and said, “Oh shit I don’t know any of these tunes!”
You literally had no rehearsals?
Wow, that’s either courageous or dumb; I can’t tell which.
It’s stupid, man, with a capital ‘D’! [Laughs]. But there really wasn’t much time, either. Basically, I got in the car [in Pennsylvania, where he lives] and drove up to Milwaukee, hopped up onstage and said, ‘Let’s go!’
Obviously I know where this stuff is coming from, and I’ve been playing onstage with rock bands all my life, so it’s not like they grabbed a clarinetist out of a Broadway pit orchestra and said, ‘Here, cover this stuff.’ So I wasn’t entirely clueless on an energetic level. But on the detail-specific level of arrangements, I had a bit to learn or discover. As regards the whole band chemistry thing, that’s not something you can rehearse or second guess; you just have to get up there with the guys and play. Weir’s been playing some of this material all his life, and most of the rest of the guys have been playing in this band for ten years, so they have their thing down in a way, and to enter into that is a little tricky. But I usually know when to shut up and I usually know when to stick my little foot in it.
RatDog bassist Robin Sylvester and Steve Kimock at the
Greek Theatre in L.A., 7/28/07.
Photo: David W. Clark
So you show up that first night. Was there at least a long soundcheck where you got to go over some of the material?
Not really, no. What we’ve been doing, though, is me and Jeff [Chimenti], the piano player, will get together before the show and run down the set and look for arrangement points, and kind of get me so I know things well enough that I’m not going to do the entirely wrong thing at the worst time. We go through it and I can get my head into a little damage control space with the arrangement so I don’t screw it up too badly, and then the rest of it is sort of just following what’s being played and reading Weir’s cues, which are many and Byzantine. He’s got these sort of hieroglyphics/deaf hand signals that are tricky, but on two out of three I nail it.
What are some of the differences between playing with the Other Ones, and their approach to playing Grateful Dead material, and playing with RatDog, which is made up mostly of guys who are not from that school of playing, except for Bob?
This may surprise you, but the RatDog thing is actually a lot looser and more flexible and accommodating musically—perhaps for that reason.
You mean because they don’t have the same sort of preconceived notions of how the Grateful Dead tunes should sound?
Yeah. With RatDog [the band] is more likely to go off and have a little exploration on its own terms, which is a more authentic experience for me than trying too hard to re-create something that was done a long time ago by people who invented it.
Wouldn’t you say that when you were in Phil’s band, he was also trying hard to take the songs and arrangements to some different spaces that didn’t mirror the Grateful Dead so much?
I think that’s true, yeah. But for whatever reason this is just more so. I didn’t know what to expect, and naturally under the circumstances you prepare yourself for the worst, but I’ve been just thrilled by it. It gelled fairly quickly and everybody is super-nice and accommodating. I’ve made a bunch of new musical friends and I’m having a ball playing with Bobby, whose playing I’ve always loved.
What’s he like as a band leader?
Ummm…that’s a tough one. I don’t know what the right word is. He’s not a crack-the-whip kind of guy, that’s for sure. He’s pretty loose about it. My impression from just this short association with this band is that he might put his foot down on some production issues, and we certainly follow him in terms of when to segue or on certain dynamic cues where I obviously defer to his judgment—and everybody trusts him for that. But he leads by example. He doesn’t sit there say, ‘Beatings will continue until morale improves!’ [chuckles]
Has the process of learning some of the new RatDog tunes been the same for you—on the fly?
Well, there just hasn’t been a lot of time to get together and really teach me anything.
And Bob’s famous for his odd chord choices and tempo changes…
Odd meters, more than occasional odd bar lengths... What can I say? It’s fine. The music is pretty demanding and I’m certain there are some audience expectations that on some level I meet and on many levels I miss, but it’s also pretty forgiving, which is sweet. I like all the new tunes I’ve played, but I haven’t played any of them enough to really know all the ins and outs. But it’s also still really fresh for me, which makes it a lot of fun.
From what I’ve heard listening to shows on the Internet, it sounds like you have a really nice musical relationship with both Jeff and Kenny Brooks…
Both of those guys are really super players, and they’ve also been very encouraging to me, giving me a lot of space but also helping me get in and out of arrangements gracefully. Sometimes I’m watching them as much as Bob, trying to find the next little rock [to step on] without falling on my ass.
Just listening to it, it sounds like you’re comfortable, but for all I know you might feel like you’re hanging on by your fingernails.
Picture a drowning man…and that’s me! [Laughs] There’s an enormous amount of stuff going on onstage, and at any point, not being totally familiar with the stuff, I don’t know how much of what’s going on is essential, how much is improvised in the moment; it’s tricky. But like I said, it’s a lot of fun and the guys have been incredibly kind and encouraging. I can’t stress enough that on a personal level, everyone’s good energy toward the situation is what’s making it happen.
Between Missing Man Formation, the two Other Ones tours, playing in Phil’s band and now this, you’ve been in and out of this scene for more than ten years now. I’m wondering if by now you feel a special kinship with the repertoire and whether you accept that you are one of the latter-day custodians of this body of work?
I’m aware of that and I do feel that. Not in a way that I would impose my views or interpretation of any part of it on anyone, certainly.
I spent most of the past 30 years in the Bay Area, and lthough I was never involved directly with the Grateful Dead in any musical way, other than hanging out a tiny bit, I played with a lot of the people who played a lot of music with them. I played a bunch with John Kahn and Merl Saunders and Nicky Hopkins and the people who were around that trip because I was around and we wound up playing together. I spent a lot of time with John Cipollina, too, so I maybe have a little bit of authenticity in understanding that approach to the ’60s, psychedelic Bay Area thing. I have come by it honestly and there’s a little bit of lineage there. Not like father to son; maybe more like a third-cousin.
Are there any songs that you’re doing on this tour that have been particular revelations to you?
In the past I never made any attempt to study the Grateful Dead and I deliberately stayed away from that material in my own bands, just because I never felt that comfortable eating off that plate—I didn’t want to be considered derivative and typecast myself in that role. But listening more recently and now playing with Bob, one of the revelations for me has been learning how much of the cool guitar arrangements stuff on the Jerry tunes is Bob playing. There’s so much cool stuff that guy plays! Most of the time when Garcia was singing, he was just playing the chords under it—first position stuff—but then there’s all this hip shit that Weir was playing. I’m like, “Good grief, how does he come up with this stuff?”
He’s an amazing and underrated player.
He is. And it’s a real thrill to be onstage with him and watch it go down. All those guys [in the Dead] had a musical sensibility that was so off the page—that didn’t have anything to do with what was actually written. That’s important stuff to soak up if you’re in a position to soak it up. So I’m soaking it up.
And it speaks well of the material that it continues to evolve in so many different contexts.
Right. And it needs to evolve. On one level, the stuff that’s “on the page”—the Grateful Dead songbook; all that Hunter-Garcia stuff—is going to be part of American music forever. But there’s also some real specific kind of intent in the performance of it and the sound of it that needs to be carried forward, as well You asked before what it felt like to be in a custodial position with the music. Well, I think it’s important. I think the actual playing of that material, and the manner in which it’s handled, should be moving it along to the next generation that’s going to play it, and in a way that has some honest lineage to that scene. I hope I get to help do that because that music and that scene deserve it. So any little part I can play helping that out I feel good about.
* * * *
Want to check out some of Steve’s playing from the tour? Here are some of my recommendations from having devoured whatever I could on www.archive.org, where many quality audience-made recordings of RatDog shows reside. (You can always find soundboard CDs and downloads of RatDog shows for purchase at www.munckmusic.com. I like to listen to the streamed audience versions, then order the ones I like in SBD form.)
--In the 7/11/07 show from the Twin River Event Center in Lincoln, RI, there’s a great “Here Comes Sunshine” worth checking out, as well as “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” with Steve on slide, which slinks into “China Cat.” Click Here
--The 7/13/07 All Good Music Festival in Masontown, WV, has a long exploratory “Dark Star” into a rockin’ “Hell in a Bucket,” and also a fine “Uncle John’s Band” complete with reggae breakdown. Click Here
--On the 7/19/07 Aragon Ballroom show in Chicago, check out the opening of “Playing in the Band” > “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Click Here
--At Red Rocks, outside of Denver, on 7/24/07, the band was “on” all night, but give a special listen to the “Weather Report Suite” in the first set, and “The Other One” and “Standing on the Moon” in the second set. The encore of “At a Siding” and “Terrapin Player” is also cool. Click Here
--In the 7/28/07 Greek Theatre show in L.A., I particularly like the “Scarlet Begonias,” the jam following it, and “Dear Prudence.” Click Here
--Don’t miss the “Cassidy” opener and the incredible version of “The Other One” (with Dennis McNally reading from On the Road) from Boarding House Park in Lowell, Mass. (Jack Kerouac’s hometown). Click Here
Sorry, can’t list ’em all! You can submit your own favorite Kimock moments from the ratDog tours below!
Good interview, possibly excellent. BUT... I don't think Steve's efforts were not up to par, at least during the L.A. Greek show that I witnessed. Then again, neither was the entire band. It was perhaps the least enjoyable Ratdog, as well as Steve Kimock, I have ever sat through. Yes, there were a few highlights, that night, VERY few, that is. Something has happened to Rat, maybe it's Karan's situation that is holding them down, but, it also could be more serious. I feel it's corrosion. Decay. Bob needs to become a bandleader, instead of a lazy river roadie. I have seen some GREAT Ratdogs & Kimocks, in past years, even last year...
Bring 'em back, ALIVE!