With the exception of its pair of 1970 charmers American Beauty and Workingman's Dead, the Grateful Dead was notorious for putting out woefully underwhelming studio albums. Whether you thought the Dead's live shows were a unique American musical experience or a stultifying bore, even the staunchest Dead supporters don't exactly jump up to defend flat Dead records like Terrapin Station or Blues for Allah.
The band's track record was especially disappointing since it was also infamous for taking years between albums to come up with new material. So it's somewhat surprising that Dead co-leader Bob Weir's current band Ratdog recently released its debut CD, Evening Moods -- and it's a tough and compelling album packed with new songs.
"I'm trying to keep the pace a little swifter in the studio," says Weir via phone from his home in California. "I'm not so much into carefully layering what's going in. For the time being, the natural thing to do is just go in, let it rip and do the songs."
It makes sense for Ratdog, which has found its feet after six shaky years. After evolving from a duo of Weir and bassist Rob Wasserman, to early incarnations as an acoustic blues/rock band where Weir uncharacteristically played lead guitar (using legendary piano man Johnnie Johnson as a foil), the band is now a road-tested, reputable ensemble. On Evening Moods, the core quintet is augmented by a horn section, and goes after flat-out R&B roadhouse stompers like "Odessa" and "Corrina" with gusto. "October Queen" is an appropriately nasty blues tune about a conventioneer preacher on the loose in the French Quarter, while "Bury Me Standing" is a taut and lusty nine minutes of controlled tension. Weir shares songwriting and composing credits with his bandmates throughout the album.
"One of the reasons that the writing process was painstaking with the Dead in recent years, was that when we first started writing, we were all living together, practically on top of each other," Weir says. "We worked together, and a lot of good stuff like 'Saint Stephen' and 'The Other One' came quickly and easily. Then we started garnering a little bit of success, and everyone moved into their own individual dwellings. We were all sort of sequestered, and we didn't even notice it happened. ... With Ratdog, Rob and I eventually decided we wanted local guys, because you can actually work more."
When he's not writing and touring with Ratdog, Weir is a driving force in the sticky business of trying to digitize 30 years of Grateful Dead shows in the vault for Internet downloading. "It's a complicated issue," he says. (Disagreements over the project have splintered Dead bassist Phil Lesh from his former bandmates.) "There are maybe a few other bands that are in a similar position where they have archives, and it's starting to appear it would be a good idea to pool resources together. I can't name names, but they're major groups with similar interests. But there's no rush, because the available audio quality on the Net isn't up to snuff, so, we've got some time to work it out. Plus there's other ways we can skin this cat. Maybe we can offer custom records and stuff like that."
Weir seems to have a realistic, healthy attitude about balancing Ratdog with the enduring legacy of the Grateful Dead. "Dealing with the vault, it's old stuff, but it's new business," he says. "It's kind of exciting, and if I'm not excited, it's going to feel like work. And I decided at eight or nine years old that I wanted to do something that got me cranked. It's musically gotten me cranked, the technology involved has gotten me cranked, and Web music distribution is one of those areas too."
Still, there are times when his musical past unexpectedly surfaces. On Evening Mood's "Ashes and Glass," the intro is reminiscent of slow-building Dead anthems like "Playing in the Band." Weir, who's always been an unconventional and underrated rhythm guitarist, plays a few of his quirky and angular six-string jabs -- and then a second guitar with an unmistakable, chiming tone slowly weaves in and starts a dialogue.
"That was [guitarist] Mark [Karan]," says Weir with a sigh. "I kept trying to move him away from that style, but he wouldn't do it." But why should Weir flinch at referencing a touchstone sound that he and Jerry Garcia created?
"I don't want to sound derivative," he says. "If you're being derivative of yourself, you're getting perilously close to self-parody."
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