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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

Wasserman,

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

Wasserman

is well-known for his work as a sideman with Lou Reed, Van Morrison,

Elvis Costello, Brian Wilson, Neil Young, and Bruce Hornsby, among

others.

"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."

Perhaps

one reason they show up is because of Weir’s legendary status as part

of the Grateful Dead. (Weir declines all interviews these days,

perhaps

because he’s tired of rehashing old memories of the Dead and Jerry

Garcia.)

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

blues,"

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

nonetheless.

"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

melodies."

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,

"Solo,"

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

"Trios."

In between albums in the 1980s and early 1990s,

Wasserman

began to develop a following by doing what every good sideman does:

taking every opportunity for more exposure with a variety of

musicians,

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

Rooster"

(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

audience

as well.

"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

necessarily rehearsed."

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

songs."

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,

naturally,

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

Ratdog with Bob Weir and Rob Wasserman, State Theater,

New Brunswick, 732-246-7469. $29. Wednesday, November 18, 7:30

p.m.


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