I believe this was Bob Weir's first public performance in Asheville, NC. There were clearly many locals excited about Bobby finally gracing this refreshingly organic town. There was also a festive feel emitting from a downtown festival that was occurring just blocks from the Wolfe Auditorium on this same evening. I enjoyed a Cajun band's performance at this festival as I ate some killer pre-show bok choy at a nearby noodle house.
The room was about half-full when Tennessee's RB Morris began his opening set. His band delivered approximately forty-five minutes of southern styled Americana. It was an enjoyable set featuring some strong lyrics, except when Morris would resort to occasional cliché lines. Morris told the audience that he had performed at The Wolfe with John Prine a few times, apparently some in this crowd had been there as this brought some applause from the crowd. Curiously, Morris chose to deliver his strongest material toward the beginning of his set, a tactic that is more appropriate during festival sets than when a crowd is gradually increasing in front of them. The first song (I believe it was titled "World Owes Me") had a laid-back groove, and it lamented some kind of frustrating work experience. The character was claiming "the world owes me some kind of living" and "the world owes me some time to die." Their second tune had a Hothouse Flowers meets Los Lobos feel, with a Wilco style tasteful, aggressive lead guitar.
RB's cover of Tom T. Hill's "Don't Forget The Coffee Billie Joe," evoked images of rural living in Tennessee. Some very tasteful lead guitar augmented Morris' brilliant lead vocal. His lead guitarist (didn't catch any band members names, I don't remember them being introduced if they were) again impressed on the ballad which ensued, demonstrating his knack for subtlety. His delicate guitar parts were also vital to a plaintive ballad, "Leonard's Tale" which I believe was an original even though it sounded like it could have been written by Arlo Guthrie.
Morris performed the title track from his CD "Take That Ride," which is on John Prine's record label. Another song Morris introduced as being about the, "age old battle between bonded liquor and home made, and between organized religion and home made." The loping rhythms and insightful lyrics of this song held the attention of even the chattiest folks near my seat. He closed with a song introduced as "written by one of my favorite songwriters, Robert Mitchum." The song, "Ballad Of Thunder Road," had a barroom swagger to it, and the lyrics were peppered with many geographical references to Western North Carolina and Tennessee. When Asheville was referenced specifically, quite a few folks cheered, indicating that yes, people were listening. There were some quick, sharp guitar breaks, and the lead guitarist rifled out an ascending fan at one point. After a false ending, the guitarist unloaded a flurry of notes that brought the set to a fiery conclusion. For information of Morris' other CD, "Zeke and The Wheel," click here.
I hadn't seen Ratdog since I caught two shows last fall. I definitely enjoyed each of these shows. The band had strong moments each night, (many 'Dog aficionados have told me these shows, Richmond and Atlanta, were two of the stronger ones of the fall tour) but it was clear that they were struggling through a transition at the time. The exploratory part of their performance seemed to be taking a back seat to "playing off the list," and saxophonist Dave Ellis was grossly underused. I was dismayed, but not surprised, when he bolted Ratdog less than a month after this tour ended (I was even more upset to learn that he will not join The Other Ones this summer).
The strength of Ratdog's new material, and minor adjustments to older material (like the reggae-fied section of "Sunshine Daydream") were the only really interesting things about these two shows. I have been told that Ratdog's return to Atlanta to perform at Music Midtown in early May was marred by persistent sound problems, (not the least of which was the fact the band had to sonically compete with the nearby Oasis) and the band seemed unfocused as a result. Some Heads bolted the downtown festival early. Although, the one encouraging thing that I heard about this show was that Kenny Brooks seemed to fit in as the new saxophonist, that is when he was heard in the mix.
Perhaps my expectations were low, but I was floored by their show in Asheville, and it now ranks as my favorite Ratdog set to date. I had been keeping up with the set lists of the tour thanks to the excellent Ratdog fan site, ratdog.org. I was encouraged that they seemed (on paper) to be taking some new chances. Examples of this are the splitting of "Bird Song" with the conclusion included in the encore in Philadelphia, the performance of "Crossroads" in Orlando, and the return of "Festival" as well as the full band approach to "Black-Throated Wind" in Myrtle Beach. I was a bit disappointed that they were only doing one or two new songs a show though.
Thankfully, we were treated to three of the new ones on this night, as you can see from this Asheville setlist:
Music Never Stopped>
Other One jam>
Other One jam>
Weather Report Suite>
Johnny B. Goode
The opening jam was not much more than a bit of wandering over Jay Lane's Shakedown-y drumbeat. With the exception of some brief moments of interplay between guitarist Mark Karan and saxophonist Kenny Brooks, this jam seemed rather superfluous. The band sort of plodded to the "Shakedown Street," rather than building thematically toward it. Curiously, Weir seemed to move closer to the mike to count off the "Shakedown" almost as if to cue the audience as much as the band. Once inside the body of the tune, Jay Lane's ability to add smart accents and still hold a solid beat drove the performance. His interaction with Wasserman gave the song ample bottom to get the hips moving, and his smart coloring tickled my brain. It was also immediately evident that Weir was in fine vocal form. Karan's nimble lead work would occasionally reference the Garcia "Shakedown" licks that are surely ingrained in many Dead Heads minds. However, Karan mainly added new quirks to his performance, which gave the tune a fresh feel even though he stumbled a couple times. Brooks also offered some nice embellishments behind the chorus, and he worked well with Weir to provide a nice background for Karan's lead work. Weir staggered through the first half of the last verse, but recovered in time to repeat the "don't tell me this town ain't got no heart" line, which was never more appropriate than here in Asheville. Although one certainly doesn't need to poke around to find the heart here, Asheville is about as warm as a city can be.
After Weir played with the "just gotta's" and the "poke around's" during the out chorus, the band inserted a quick, jazzy four chord breakdown (musicians sometimes call them "hits") reminiscent of the extraordinary jazz-rock band of the 70s, Weather Report. They stuck to the "Shakedown" theme a bit, before returning to the same punchy jazz hits. This launched them into an improvisational jam that flowed like water, especially when they hit a groove that Wasserman drove with some fluidy bass that melded seamlessly with some classic Weir jangly rhythm work. It had a "Music Never Stopped" feel at first, but Weir eased the band toward an "Easy Answers" feel for a brief moment. This led to a stretch that was exactly like the "shipping powders back and forth" section of "Throwin' Stones," until Weir snapped the muse back into "Music Never Stopped." From watching the band member's faces, I got the feel that Weir was enjoying messing with his 'mates a bit. Bobby furnished a particularly spirited lead vocal, offering three lines in falsetto ("Crazy rooster>women laugh and children scream"), setting the table to bark out, "and band kept playin' on!" This juxtaposition gave more strength to this final, resolving line. Perhaps fueled by this success, Weir again employed this tactic during the last verse (falsetto for "corn's a bumper crop>singin' and romancin'").
Jeff Chimenti and Mark Karan climbed all over each other musically during the beginning of the "Music" jam, but it was when Jay Lane started whacking the cymbals that the jam built to a furious pace. After the "settle point" Karan played some sweet gentle guitar runs, and Weir began throwing off some angular guitar that Brooks seemed to enjoy playing with. At one point, Karan sent out a flurry of high notes, goading some acrobatic rhythm guitar from Mr. Weir. Bobby then cut the jam off somewhat abruptly, and there was a brief moment where it they could have easily slid into "Easy To Slip," but this quickly gave way to some heavy "Playin' Reprise" teasing. Wasserman stepped up for some spooky bass here, and just before Weir changed over to the acoustic, Karan sent out a subtle reference to The Doors, "The End," and later he referenced "Norwegian Wood" after Weir had donned the acoustic. As Weir dicked around with readying his acoustic for a minute, Wasserman toyed with "Shenandoah." I was really enjoying all of the references, but I think Weir should have considered finishing the "Music Never Stopped," rather than offering a somewhat forced electric/acoustic segue to "El Paso." Weir sang this one rather gently, and his slight botch of the beginning of the third verse was foreshadowing of the complete derailing that occurred later in the song. Weir sang "come tomorrow a bullet may find me, tonight nothing's worse than this pain in my heart" where the line should be "I caught a good one, it looked like it could run" then, after some cheer-inducing mumbling, Weir deferred to Karan, who saved him with a delicate solo. Bobby recovered sufficiently to salvage a respectable version, but this pales in comparison to the outstanding version I caught at last fall's Ratdog show at Atlanta's Tabernacle. (You can hear Real Audio of the standout Atlanta version at ratdog.org.)
Weir chose to let the song end rather than force another transition. He made up for a tepid "El Paso" by singing the crap out of, "Artificial Flowers." This song, made famous by Bobby Darin forty years ago, (even though Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick wrote it) was written for a Maurice Evans play called, "Tenderloin." I'm not sure if the play ever made it to the stage, but it spawned a wonderful song nonetheless. The song had its day on the radio back then, even rising to #20 on the Billboard charts in September of 1960. A perfect vehicle for Weir voice, I'm surprised "Artificial Flowers" is not a regular part of Ratdog's repertoire. Weir and Wasserman performed it frequently when they were a touring duo in the early 90s (and they took a couple stabs at it during their Northeast sojourn in April).
This is a touching song, which speaks of a young girl named Ann who loses her parents at nine and clings to her ability to make artificial flowers. Her pining for "heavenly gardens and flowers" is analogous to her longing for the genuine parental love that she had lost. She is left with the artificial flowers that symbolize her emptiness, as they are "flowers for ladies of fashion and wear," and "fashioned from Annie's despair." Weir immersed himself in the song, effectively conveying the sorrow of this character with his soulful vocal.
"Fever" was highlighted by a typically twisted Wasserman solo, which gave way to some sturdy Brooks blowing. Jeff Chimenti chimed in on both of these with smartly placed keyboard colorings. Hot on the heels of "Fever" was the similarly lusty "Josephine" from the self-titled debut album of Weir's side project of the early 80s, Bobby and The Midnites (an enthusiastic fan about my age asked me to suggest that Ratdog break out the full-throttle "Too Many Losers" from this album). Wasserman seemed a bit bored with "Josephine," as he laid low for much of the song.
Wasserman does a nice job on this song, but it isn't exactly the setting for his strongest moments as a bassist. I hope that The Other Ones will consider including this song in their repertoire, as Alphonso Johnson will be the bassist in this band. Alphonso used to play some incredible bass lines on the piece when he was a member of Bobby and The Midnites.
--BACK TO THE REVIEW--
I think Weir approaches "Josephine" as he does, "Satisfaction." He seems to perform it when he's in a bit of a bawdy mood, as he always charges through it with muscular vocals and jagged guitar lines. The first instrumental of this version found Karan and Chimenti playing off each other, and Weir constantly pushing them to higher levels. The second version built to a crescendo which spiraled into an "Other One" jam that seemed like it was going to explode, but the band gradually downshifted into some more "Playin' Reprise" teasing. They seemed to be genuinely exploring a bit after this before Karan veered them back to "Other One" regions. Weir let the band enjoy this groove for a bit before letting the music settle down to a whisper, and Lane led the band with a measured groove that took them into "She Says." Karan and Brooks enjoyed some interplay during the little prelude jam until Weir counted them into the structure of the song.
"She Says" speaks of a man who is confounded by the simple elegance of a woman's words. Each verse starts with two lines over a seductive lazy rhythm as the character gives examples of the woman's oblique mysticism, as she says things like, "We're like two stones in a stream, I saw it all in a dream," and "she feels the stars on her skin, she hears my voice from within," and "we all connect to the light, it's always Saturday night." The second half of each verse finds the voice of the song expressing why he's perplexed, one example is "I don't know where she gets her stuff, when she talks to me, why can't I get enough? She's a mystery." Brooks seems to still be finding himself in this song, but Karan and Chimenti are clearly comfortable, as they are right on top of every nuance of the piece. Weir seems overjoyed with the song, especially as he plays some snazzy rhythm guitar during the outro. Although it seemed painfully evident that they didn't know how to end the song, as 'Dog offered their second forced transition of the show.
This gave way to the strongest new Ratdog song that I have heard (I have yet to hear "Lucky Enough," "Odessa," or "Welcome To The World,") a sultry little number called "October Queen." This song, and its companion piece "Even So," address the topic of a ladies man that has found himself obsessed with a woman. Although, like most of The Grateful Dead's songs, the allegorical potential of these pieces is endless. The song is set in New Orleans, which is appropriate as it's hook has a Weir-ified Dixieland feel to it. This song is lyrically reminiscent of Dylan's "Love Sick," as the voice of the song is haunted by the memory of one vixen in particular. The "October Queen" is a woman that the narrator would see every October (is anybody else thinking fall tour here?) who left her mark on him not from her style of dress, physical beauty, or her manner of speaking. The song celebrates the elusive intangible of women who are practiced in the art of passion. The lyrics highlight the woman's inner beauty by contrasting it with the blandness and atmosphere-crushing nature of some of New Orleans' less extravagant sections.
Weir sings "somethin' about, somethin' about her" and lets it tail off as the song segues naturally into the ballad, "Even So." This song uses the analogy of a Wolfman to represent the voice's dark side. The character surrenders to the power of his Wolfman, even though he knows it's not in his best interest. Don't be surprised if the spooky chorus of this song sticks with you for a while after even just one listen. The cryptic lyrics long for wholesomeness and sincerity, while at the same time they speak to straying from these ideals. Kenny Brooks plays some stellar sax on this piece, at one point he and Weir blend so well it was easy to forget that they had been together for such a brief time. This Wolfman's power over the character ("he ain't' no kitty-cat no") is clear as Weir induced chills as he wailed like a wounded coyote toward the end of the song as the band played gently behind him. Brooks and Chimenti each added to the effect as they eased some dark coloring into the muse.
This glided effortlessly back into a short "Other One" jam. Weir stepped up to the mike, but instead of singing "Spanish lady comes to me" he reverted back to the "rock 'n roll with you" of "Josephine." The band turned on a dime and concluded the song, before quickly surrendering to Rob Wasserman's bass solo.
Wasserman's solo went to new regions. He referenced a few songs that I couldn't quite place, and even went through one stretch that may be an original composition. It was nice to see him resist the urge to gain easy applause by riffing on "Lovelight," "St. Stephen," "Not Fade Away," or "Satisfaction." (Although his elegant approach to "Amazing Grace" is always more than welcome!) The solo seemed brief, and Weir emerged to improvise a bit on electric before he donned the acoustic. Once armed with the wood, Weir led the band through a sweet delicate jam that resolved into a "Spanish Jam" (a.k.a. "Spanish Steps," or "Al Hombre") Kenny Brooks jumped on this right away with some nice sax, and Mark Karan joined Weir for some twin guitar lines. As the jam progressed, Jeff Chimenti offered some tasty keys, and I feel Weir could have let this go on longer and given Chimenti more room to lead. However, everything was forgotten as Weir started the prelude to, "Weather Report Suite (Part One)." Sure, there were multiple little rough spots during the introduction, but this was my first live experience of this song by anybody. I have to admit to being overjoyed even if it was a bit of a tentative reading of this Grateful Dead chestnut. Weir has updated the lyrics, changing "And like the desert spring," to "And gently on the spring;" and "born to soar the sky" has been shortened to "born to fly," (which actually flows more naturally with the music). And seasons now end in "just a rhyme" rather than in "tumbled rhyme." Mark Karan's slide guitar was strong throughout the song; he stood and delivered admirably during the instrumental section during which Garcia used to melt minds. The backing vocals were a little shaky, and Kenny Brooks' alto sax didn't really fit in. Somebody should invest in a soprano sax for the guy if only for this song alone (check out Dave Ellis' work on the Real Audio of last October's San Diego version, again at ratdog.org.).
When most of the band missed Weir's physical cue to take the end section around one more time, it caused them to brutally train wreck into "Let It Grow." However, once they were in the body of this song, the band immediately returned to a confident approach. By the first instrumental, Brooks was back to fitting in beautifully, and he delivered a perfectly paced brief solo, from which Karan built the energy with a charged lead. Weir went back to the electric mid-song, and by the second instrumental Brooks was honking and Weir was clanging and an invisible energy vortex between the band and the audience was so palpable, it couldn't be missed by even the most jaded listener. Brooks stepped up with his most confident and impressive lead work of the night during this break. When they reached a quiet point, the band laid back and allowed Weir to unveil a flurry of sumptuous rhythm guitar, and as he stepped back, Chimenti and Brooks were quick to step up. At the end of this instrumental, Karan began to really take off, and as Weir began to pound out the familiar chords that resolve this jam (somewhat similar to the "Spanish jam" chords) Karan blew the roof off the Wolfe, unleashing a torrent of notes. He then appropriately joined Weir's chordal work (in a style Garcia often fashioned) for more twin guitar action, bringing the jam to a smooth transition back to the last coda of the song. When they returned to the final instrumental, Karan again mesmerized the crowd with first some moaning guitar, which he let breathe for a while before blasting out a brief section of speed riffs which set up a nice contrast as the band delicately concluded the song. The potential of this new era of Ratdog was revealed as they coalesced during "Let It Grow," and as they become more comfortable with each other these moments will become more common.
Weir wasted no time leading the band into "Throwin' Stones," and the crowd responded to many of the lyrics, and all of the rhythms. This is one of the lyrically strongest non-Hunter Grateful Dead songs, and it is important that Weir continues to perform it. He nailed every word on this version, even spicing it up with a couple of little high-pitched screams (although I think we could do without the over-dramatic pause after the "flesh is ink" line). The band slammed down the long instrumental with authority. When they reached the "shipping powders" section I had a non-drug-induced flashback to the band referencing this as they were jamming out of "Shakedown" earlier in the evening. I was still surprised as Weir slammed out a strange chord, and gradually guided the band back into "Shakedown." Just when I thought Ratdog was getting ready to pack it in they throw one last Pedro Martinez-esque curveball our way. After a full blown workout of the "Shakedown" coda (even with some a cappella moments, and more jazz "hits"), they smoothly transitioned right back to where they had left off of "Throwin' Stones." Fueled by this successful gamble, Weir closed the song with an explosive lead vocal, which the band responded to bringing the show to a powerful close. The "Johnny B. Goode" encore was rushed and truncated, but it would have been completely overshadowed by the end of the set anyway.
What can I say? When Ratdog comes near your town, don't miss it! Let's hope that Kenny Brooks stays in the band for many years.