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This was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 11, 1998.
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Ratdog’s Recipe for Success
Like a group of talented chefs, Bob Weir, Rob
and the members of their group Ratdog serve up a live concert stew
that includes a dash of jazz, a pinch of country music, a hint of
bluegrass, and elements of blues. All of this is thrown onto a bed
white rice, accessible rock ‘n roll.
Perhaps the most unusual thing about Ratdog, aside from the way they
segue from jazz to country to blues in concert, is that the group
— in existence since Grateful Dead founder Jerry Garcia moved
on to another realm in 1995 — has yet to record an album. They’re
unsure about what label they’ll eventually record for, but they do
have plans to record, explains bassist Wasserman. Yet Ratdog has been
selling out theaters and large clubs around the country, based on
a reputation for putting on satisfying live shows. The band comes
to New Brunswick’s State Theater Wednesday, November 18.
Guitarist Weir is a founding member of the Grateful Dead, and
is well-known for his work as a sideman with Lou Reed, Van Morrison,
Elvis Costello, Brian Wilson, Neil Young, and Bruce Hornsby, among
"We are planning to do an album, but we’ve never settled on band
members, and this band has gone through several evolutions," says
Wasserman from a tour stop in Chicago. Along with Wasserman and Weir,
who lead the group through tunes at their live shows, Ratdog includes
Mark Karan on guitar, Jay Lane on drums, Dave Ellis on saxophones,
and Jeff Chimenti on keyboards.
Wasserman and Weir worked as a duo for six years before they decided
to expand their collaboration into a full band.
"We did shows with just guitar and bass and had a lot of fun doing
it, and so we decided it would be more fun to have a band," he
says. "With Ratdog, we don’t really take a normal approach to
things, but we’ve had a pretty strong and consistent following since
we started doing the shows as a band. People just show up."
one reason they show up is because of Weir’s legendary status as part
of the Grateful Dead. (Weir declines all interviews these days,
because he’s tired of rehashing old memories of the Dead and Jerry
Wasserman, now 46, began his career with David Grisman’s
Quartet and suddenly found himself making ends meet as a working bass
player. In his youth, Wasserman studied classical music and jazz,
and took his earliest cues in the realm of popular music by listening
to jazz bassist Charles Mingus’ recordings as well as the music of
blues bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon.
Raised in the San Francisco area, where he still lives, Wasserman
graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in the early
1970s. Wasserman’s father, a dentist, played trumpet in jazz combos,
and he says both his parents were very supportive of his ambitions.
"They always encouraged me in whatever I wanted to do, though
I never really thought I wanted to be a musician," he adds, noting
he studied piano and other instruments before taking up string bass
when he was 19.
"As a kid, I wanted to be a writer, a scientist, and an inventor.
I was making computers and all kinds of weird techno stuff. After
I got through music school, I was writing music for solo bass, and
a lot of people thought I was nuts, writing this music and performing
unaccompanied songs on string bass" But the experience helped
him get his chops together, in terms of composing and improvising.
"When I started out, I listened to lots of classical and
he explains, "I would buy everything I could and while I would
listen to some bass players, I realized I wasn’t drawn into listening
to bass parts as much as listening to the whole thing." At times
it seems ironic to him that he plays bass, yet it works for him
"I like playing the melodies, and my next album is going to be
an all- instrumental groove album," says Wasserman, "just
heavy drums and tons of bass, and I’ll be playing all the
Wasserman, who toured with Lou Reed for eight years and performs on
two of Reed’s albums, has a discography of his own, but with just
three albums under his own name, it doesn’t do justice to his talents.
Wasserman’s albums include a 1983 release for Rounder Records,
and two albums with MCA Records in the late 1980s and early 1990s,
"Duets" and "Trios." Wasserman won a Grammy in 1989
for "Brothers," a track with vocalist Bobby McFerrin from
"Duets." Although Wasserman’s "Solo" album for Rounder
was met with widespread critical success, Wasserman didn’t begin to
develop a larger following until the release of "Duets" and
In between albums in the 1980s and early 1990s,
began to develop a following by doing what every good sideman does:
taking every opportunity for more exposure with a variety of
including, but not limited to, Reed, Edie Brickell, Bruce Cockburn,
Rickie Lee Jones, Jimmy Scott, and the late Willie Dixon, perhaps
blues music’s most prolific songwriter.
His experience with Reed, he recalls, "was my first rock band,
and maybe my only rock band. I think Ratdog is a rock band — but
it goes in a few more directions than Lou Reed did. Our approach is
a little more eclectic. But working with Lou was my first big concert
hall kind of rock experience."
In Ratdog’s live shows, Wasserman says they’ll play blues tunes like
"Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" and "Little Red
(both written by Dixon), but also R&B classics like "Take Me To
The River." "When we do covers, we like songs that allow all
of us to stretch out and take solos," he explains. "Ratdog
features a lot of Bobby’s singing, and then there’s a lot of interplay
between all of us. I mean, for the last 10 years, I’ve always done
bass solos as part of whoever’s show I happened to be playing with.
I’m starting to change that with Ratdog and I’ll create duets on the
spot with other members of the group to add surprises to the mix."
In other words, all of the members of Ratdog are called upon in the
course of a show to be spontaneously creative and to improvise. In
the process, they’ll surprise themselves, and, hopefully, their
"With Ratdog, we get a lot of Deadheads," he notes, "but
in general, we get people who are accepting of the musical challenges
that we put forth. They know we’re not always doing things that are
The Ratdog repertoire includes some Grateful Dead tunes, some Bob
Weir solo material, and also some tunes "that we’ve all had a
hand in writing, and we do a lot of different kinds of cover
Pausing again, he adds that Ratdog might have a bigger following if
they had an album out.
"We’re playing for about 2,000 people a night as it is. Who knows
what would happen if people had something they would be expecting
to hear at our shows."
But going to a Ratdog concert involves a certain element of risk for
the audience members, just as it does for the musicians on stage.
After all, not all of the audience members are necessarily fans of
the Grateful Dead. While most members of the Dead were solid musicians
— especially Garcia — they were at times an over-hyped band
through the 1970s and ’80s.
"Some of what this band does is Grateful Dead material, but we
do it with a spirit of improvisation. Bob Weir is big influence,
since he was a founding member of the Dead, but we also have some
serious jazz musicians in the group, like Dave Ellis, who comes from
the Charlie Hunter Quartet. And I come from a background that includes
classical, jazz, and folk music. It’s an eclectic band, but it’s a
fun, accessible mix of music."
— Richard J. Skelly
New Brunswick, 732-246-7469. $29. Wednesday, November 18, 7:30
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