Bob Weir & RatDog | Keeping the Dead Spirit Alive

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Bobby’s thing is "song first" period. Jamming is great and we love jamming, but it’s really about the song first.

 

As a second generation "Deadhead," I spent much of the summers of my college youth driving around the country to see Grateful Dead shows. Like most other Deadheads, the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995 left a gaping concert-going hole in my life. Over the past 13 years, the remaining band members have played and toured in multiple configurations including The Other Ones, The Dead, Phil Lesh & Friends, Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum, and of course, guitarist Bob Weir’s long-time side band, RatDog. Always partial to the "Bobby songs," the Grateful Dead performed, I’ve been a RatDog fan for years, and I always welcome a visit from the boys, who seem to truly capture some of the better moments of the Grateful Dead live experience, and in a more intimate setting.

That said, I am truly looking forward to a visit from Bob Weir and Co. Monday night at The Pageant, their first St. Louis gig in some time. The band, currently consisting of founder Bob Weir on vocals and guitar, saxophonist Kenny Brooks, astounding keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, original drummer Jay Lane, bassist and vocalist Robin Sylvester, and guitarists/vocalist Mark Karan, has truly found its own groove over the years. After more than a decade touring together as a band, RatDog is tighter and better than ever, and in a place that seems very comfortable and easy-going for Weir at this stage of his career.

I caught up with long-time RatDog guitarist Mark Karan, who has been with the band since 1998, to chat with him about the band, the music and his personal battle this past year with throat cancer.

For the past 10 years, you’ve been on tour with various incarnations of the Dead including RatDog, The Other Ones, Phil & Friends and Planet Drum. Were you a big Deadhead before touring with the bands, and how did you get involved with the "Dead family?"

It’s kind of funny because I was a Dead fan when I was a kid – I’m in my early 50s and I grew up in San Francisco, so I was fortunate to see them when they were a new thing, starting in about 66′. I was a huge fan for about 10 years, until around the mid-70s, when I sort of moved on to other kinds of music and other interests in life. I still liked them, but they were more something I "used to" listen to.

Twenty years or so went by and I had moved to L.A. and was playing music there, and I knew John Molo from gigs and sessions, and he’d been playing w/ [Bruce] Hornsby for years. When they put The Other Ones together, none of those guys really knew any guitar players they wanted to play with. They’d had their own insular group for so long – so they asked John if he knew any guitar players. John gave them my name, and I came up from L.A. and tried out, and ended up getting the gig. It was easy to get back into those songs because it was so much a part of my youth in the Bay Area and so seminal in the way I learned to hear music and think about music.

How is RatDog different than some of the other incarnations?

The main difference with RatDog is that, because the majority of the band has been together 10 years or more now, and even the "new guys" have been around a while, that we’re a real band – we have history together. When you’ve played with the same people for an extended period of time, you get to really know one another’s ins and outs, and it’s much easier to be intuitive about where you’re going musically and artistically. That’s harder to do if you’re switching members around a lot. As much as I admire what Phil and Mickey have been doing in that respect, and think they’ve come up with some really cool music, I think the thing that RatDog offers is that sense of continuity that is similar, in its own way, to what the Dead had, because they were playing with the same guys for so many years.

The other difference is philosophical. Mickey, being a drummer, is very into delivering the rhythm and delivering the rhythm musically; Phil, in my opinion, he’s really about the jam and less about the song – although the recent incarnations with Larry Campbell and Jackie Greene have been more song-oriented. Bobby’s thing is "song first" period. Jamming is great and we love jamming, but it’s really about the song first.

What are some of your favorite Rat Dog and Dead tunes to play live?

Of the RatDog songs, I really enjoy "Ashes & Glass" and the moody set piece of "October Queen" and "Even So."

Dead-wise, there’s a bunch. I love playing "Scarlet Begonias," and "Brown-Eyed Women." I love doing "The Other One." "Playin’ in the Band" is great because you never really know what direction it’s going to take when it gets to the jam section. The country tunes are a ball. I started bringing a baritone six-string a couple tours ago and playing it on things like "Big Iron" and some of those old cowboy songs.

Tell me about the on-stage dynamic between you and Bob.

After playing so long together, we know what to expect from one another, or where one another is likely to go. Bob is a really responsive player, which is something I think he really had the whole time the Grateful Dead were playing. He really knows how to fill the magic spaces in between. He hears what’s going on and he thinks, this would be complimented well by this bizarre little chord I’m going to put in here that no one else would have come up with. I think he gets that in RatDog too, whether he’s responding to me or some interesting harmonic thing Kenny does on the saxophone or something Jeff does on the keys.

You’ve been battling throat cancer for the past year, and I read that you’ve recently been pronounced cancer free – Congratulations!  How did that experience change your outlook on life?

I had a late phase cancer in my throat, but I responded really well to the chemo and radiation and so we were able to knock it out in about six or seven months. I discovered, when I got diagnosed, that in Chinese, the word for "crisis" and the word for "opportunity" are the same word. When the doctor came in after my biopsy surgery and told me it was what he was afraid it was, I just felt a sense of calm and peace and acceptance wash over me and I just knew that I would get through it and I would do whatever that took and I really did take it as an opportunity for growth. I had a physical growth, and in healing that growth, I had a lot of emotional and spiritual growth and affirmation about who I am as a human being – my strength to heal myself, my value as a person.

I had so many people reaffirming my value as a human being and, like so many of us, I had questions about that, serious doubts about my own self worth. In a lot of ways, I’ve kind of come out of the other end of this feeling like my cancer experience was one of the best experiences of my life. Even though it was far from pleasant, and not easy to deal with, it caused me to really embrace a lot of growth that I had known I wanted to experience, but hadn’t been experiencing yet.

Were you surprised by the amount of support you received from the Dead community?

I had absolutely no idea. For the first time in my life I really got a sense of what I might be doing for others by what I do. Perception is 99 percent of everything, and perception-wise, I thought, "Hey, I’m pretty self-serving. I get to be up here doing what I love, playing music and having fun and getting paid for it. Lucky me." I never really thought of it in terms of what I was doing for other people – what part of it is service or giving back.

My wife used to tell me, when we’d go to these cold, grey New England towns and stuff, that’s where you need to go – that’s where they need the rainbows. I heard her but never really internalized it, until some of these kids got a hold of me and let me know that it was our music that helped them get through a really difficult time, or in celebrating a momentous occasion. Hearing all that from so many people made me go, "I do serve a purpose here besides myself."

You guys have had some amazing "special guests" join the band onstage in the past, including St. Louis’ own Johnnie Johnson, who played on some 67 shows. Who are some of the most memorable musicians you’ve had the opportunity to play with?

The guys from Little Feat sat in with us, Warren Haynes obviously and Jimmy Herring. Peter Garrett from Midnight Oil sat in with us once – that was interesting. I think he and Bobby sang "Wharf Rat" together.

Johnnie Johnson was always great. He was one of those that had played on a lot of the seminal music I grew up on, with Chuck Berry. Playing with him was amazing. | Amy Burger


BOB WEIR & RATDOG

Monday, March 24

The Pageant
General Admission – Limited Seating:  $30.00
Tickets available at The Pageant Box Office or at
http://www.ticketmaster.com/

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