RatDog’s Return: Bob Weir and Life After Dead (Relix Revisited)
To mark the debut of the new RatDog Quartet, with Bob Weir, Jay Lane, Robin Sylvester and Jonathan Wilson (come back later today for a photo gallery), we revisit this cover story from our February/March 2006 issue.
Bob Weir spent the night at his Mill Valley home before arriving for the RatDog show in December at San Francisco’s The Grand, a thousand-seat former movie theater built shortly after the 1906 earthquake. With his Grateful Dead sideline band on the road virtually non-stop since summer ended, the brief respite at home was a welcome reprieve from road food and sleeping in the bus.
His voice was showing signs of singing five three-hour shows a week and he was, by his own estimate, “a little crispy.” But Weir, who showed up just late enough for soundcheck that the rest of the band was already onstage, has been straining his voice since he joined the Grateful Dead as a 17-year-old high school dropout 40 years earlier.
“I’m going to need vocal rest when I get back,” he said. “But I know some tricks and there are some things you can do with your voice like this that you can’t do otherwise.”
While assistant tour manager and longtime Dead publicist (and biographer) Dennis McNally scurried around taking dinner orders for band and crew, Weir retreated to the luxury coach that took him and his band to 90 concerts last year. McNally went over an email he composed for Weir to send to a terminally ill Deadhead. The coach has wireless internet access. Co-manager Cameron Sears climbed aboard to show Weir next year’s calendar and discuss some dates for spring. Production manager Chris Charucki appeared and wanted to talk about keeping the computerized, psychedelic light show the band had been carrying on the West Coast dates. Weir gave everybody his attention, but appeared most animated talking with a friend from his flag football team, the Mount Tamalpais Chiefs, checking the whereabouts
of his other team members to see who was going to be at the show that night.
“It’s the most fun you can have that’s legal,” Weir said, “although some of our huddles may not have been strictly.”
Life comes to Bobby Weir, 58, not the other way around. In the past few years, he has settled into a comfortable groove. He married his beautiful wife, Natascha, six years ago and they have two young daughters, four and eight years old. Last year, he finished a two-and-ahalf-year remodel on the Mill Valley home with the treehouse recording studio where he has lived for 30 years. He grew a salt and pepper beard that lends him a more than passing resemblance to Commodore Whitehead, the jolly old fellow who used to appear in advertisements touting “Schweppervescence.” With a pair of rimless glasses, he seems to be summoning his inner Garcia. But Weir and his more famous guitar partner in the Grateful Dead were never really alike at all—more like yin and yang.
Where Garcia was extravagantly verbal, jolly and ceaselessly witty, his younger associate has always been taciturn, placid and contemplative. Weir was the sex symbol of the band, a good-looking young guy with soulful brown eyes and a long chestnut mane. A dyslexic who found school impossible—he flunked out of seven different high schools— Weir is nevertheless a searching and penetrating thinker who pursues his many intellectual curiosities and, even though he still finds reading difficult, will do the heavy lifting for a subject that interests him.
“He’s smarter than you think and he uses that as a weapon,” said his Grateful Dead bandmate Mickey Hart. “You think he’s spaced—and he is—but meanwhile, he’s in there the whole time going tick… tick… tick.”
A few minutes before showtime, which he also sets back a few minutes, Weir moves to the back of the bus to change clothes for the show. He returns in his trademark Birkenstock sandals, khaki shorts, white Mexican peasant blouse—all dressed up and ready to rock. Onstage, RatDog cranks up with a 15-minute version of the Dead staple “Shakedown Street,” segues smoothly into “New Minglewood Blues” and finally comes to a brief rest twentyish minutes later after grafting a supple “She Belongs to Me” on the end of the three-song jam. Weir remains one of the great interpreters of Dylan, someone who actually manages to get inside Dylan’s oblique songs and make them his own, although this accomplishment is probably not widely recognized (Dylan knows it—but he would).
Perhaps precisely because of his laconic, unassuming character, no major rock star has probably ever received less attention for an accomplished solo career than Weir. He recorded his first solo album in 1972—the highly acclaimed Ace, which contained the original recordings of the Dead standards “Playing In the Band” and “One More Saturday Night.” Over the years, he has recorded a thoroughly respectable assortment of solo projects under his own name and with his previous sideline bands Kingfish and Bobby and The Midnights, in addition to his contributions to the Grateful Dead proper as one of the two main songwriters and vocalists in that esteemed band.
RatDog first started more than ten years ago, shortly before the death of Garcia in 1995. The original band grew out of the stage and studio work Weir had been doing with bassist Rob Wasserman, a Marin County native with heavy chops who has worked with a variety of important musicians and recorded a well-regarded series of duets and trios.
With harmonica player Matthew Kelly, a friend of Weir’s back to private school days who also played in Kingfish during the ‘70s, Weir drafted drummer Jay Lane, who was a key player in the burgeoning San Francisco new-wave jazz scene around a South of Market niterie called The Up and Down Club. Lane belonged to a groundbreaking, multicultural Berkeley rock band called The Freaky Executives, a multi-racial ten-piece outfit that merrily blended world music genres with rap, rock and hip-hop in the mid-‘80s. He also played in the original version of Primus.
The Howlin’ Brothers take to the Relix rooftop and share a song they wrote with Warren Haynes.
Beth Hart shares the opening track from her latest album, Bang Bang Boom Boom, live at Relix.
Jamie Lidell sets up in the Relix boiler room and delivers a tune from his 2005 album Multiply
Duane Trucks is happy to announce his new project, King Lincoln. Watch them perform “Coffee” live and acoustic at Relix’s Online-Video Coordinator’s loft in Williamsburg.
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WYATT share a song in the famed Relix boiler room.
Goodnight, Texas share a song from their latest studio album, A Long Life of Living, live at Relix.
Warren Haynes performs a solo, acoustic version of “Railroad Boy” and explains how he adapted the traditional Celtic song for Gov’t Mule, backstage at the Hangout Music Festival.
Australia’s Alpine recently made their NYC debut at the Relix office with this song from their new album A is for Alpine.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
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- On The Verge Poll