I never understood the notion of the critic. Who takes the time and effort to write about something they don't like? I have always tried to use the written word to elevate, not dissect or discredit. So it's with some trepidation that I set out to discuss RatDog's two night stand at (to borrow from the great Neil Peart) the "obnoxious local bank" theater (near Westbury Music Fair) on October 31st and November 1st in Westbury, NY.
Unlike some other purists, I have very few misgivings with the RatDog experience, and to share a room with Bob Weir is to sit at the foot of the master. So I will get my less than stellar opinions out of the way at the top.
In short, the highly enthusiastic crowds only had to call upon the tempo police twice (for the sluggish I Know You Rider on Halloween & the syrupy Loose Lucy on night two) and the song selection police twice (also night two; She Says & Jus' Like Mama Said). For a band that has been prone to shortcomings in these departments in the past... not bad.
While the Cassidy - > Birdsong couplet from Halloween night is a bit of a dog and pony show from the old days, it remains an exciting choice and one that RatDog seems to relish. Odessa is one of Weir's better recent compositions (the band delivered it with true gusto), as is Money For Gasoline (add a star for anyone who can work "Ezekiel" into a song!).
Victim or the Crime was where Weir found the next level. With the full band behind him this time around, Weir worked mysterious, seemingly impossible guitar magic around haunting words of existential confusion. It was a moment both completely dark and completely soaring - Weir fused with his own strange magic. Scarlet Begonias exploded on the heels of West L.A. and fizzled admiringly into the Bobby-less jam.
Without knocking Weir, I have long been of the opinion that RatDog sans Bobby can be Ratdog at its best. Jeff Chimenti, Kenny Brooks and Jay Lane ARE a jazz band (the Bay area's Alphabet Soup) - and when the babysitter steps out for a soda, the kids seem to tackle the moment.
The interim jam on Halloween night was particularly special and hilarious - Lane was dressed and executing as the iconic Buddy Rich, replete with fake buck teeth, bowl hair cut, turtleneck sweater, flying sticks and tourette's-like invocation ("you wanna be in this band you gotta be playing on the fucking beat, fucking assholes!"). After some quality goofing-off, Lane went ballistic as he led the band through some furious swing riffs. Pure fun. Come Together was pleasant surprise, a thrilling China Cat was left hanging by the sluggish I Know You Rider (did Buddy leave the building?!) and the requisite Werewolves of London, was highly anticipated and sloppily delivered. We would look forward to night two...
Which also had moments of sublime brilliance speckled with mere mortality. The Help - > Slipknot! opener had its usual intensity, Mark Karan soaring and punching holes in the night, Big River re-discovered the healthy bounce that I've seen RatDog lose in the past. Queen Jane was broken down quietly while Brown Eyed Women was built up - aggressive, swinging and exciting - Karan again seizing the Jerry-esque moments and re-inventing at will. Liberty and Might As Well featured the a cappella group The Persuasions - both efforts were highly inspired if not a touch sloppy. No matter - the intention was there.
Blackbird is always a winner and Masters of War took on a haunting, feedback drenched tone. On the outro; I Need A Miracle wisely got the "Truckin' treatment", with furious, building jams that ended with monster accents that the whole band rode in a massive wave. All this leading to a vintage Other One. It was here that Bobby once again found the true magic. The entire band was slashing and burning as one, with Weir at the helm of his masterpiece, his fretwork so intricate and bedazzling - you could feel Jerry nodding his approval - it was THE moment. Standing on the Moon was by turns delicate and dramatic, full of inspiration. Two Djinn is always forgettable save its genius hook ("dreams are lies/it's the dreaming that's real") and has become a requisite Ratdog preamble for the wrap up of Slipknot! - > Franklin's Tower...and so it went. Predictable, but well executed.
It should be noted that the mix, the view and the acoustics at this venue are brilliant - intimate and intense. On the whole RatDog is clearly executing at a very high level, there's a more consistent fluidity within the songs and from song to song than on past tours. Bobby is quarterbacking better than ever, still barking at the sound guys, still flashing hand signals for key changes, still making some weird choices and still shredding with some of the most imaginative guitar playing in rock music history. That's how it is at the foot of the master. As a wise Levon once said, "take what you need and leave the rest."