Back to my comforting fog and gray of San Francisco after a couple of days down South ... in Santa Barbara, for a very good show on Tuesday night, Ratdog Revue at the Arlington Theater. They have improved considerably since the last time I saw them, in September at the Warfield, in San Francisco. I was surprised then at how much I liked them-I supose I was dreading the implied comparison to the Dead and the inevitable sense that they would fall far short. But as last night showed once again, Ratdog is a band that has established itself and can sit up on its hind legs and howl.
If that was the dominant lesson of the evening, it is a corollary of the other central musical point, which is Weir's prowess as a bandleader. Deadheads who have feared that Ratdog would be a showcase for his showboating are in for a pleasant surprise: He fills his role perfectly, amply, and with considerable expertise. Even Bobby's most feared musical habit-cutting off jams prematurely-was nowhere in evidence last night, or in September, for that matter. With Ratdog, jams are central and follow their natural course fully. Weir even pushes songs familiar from the Dead's repertoire to much further extremes than he did with the Dead; 'Throwin' Stones' was extended into a four-section opus last night, with a blissfully cathartic final reprise at the end of the traditional closing segment.
This illustrates the core of why Ratdog has been so immediately absorbed into the Deadhead milieu. The scene outside the normally stuffy Arlington was remarkable: miraclers, fingers aloft, but not desperate or even especially scruffy; pretty mellow, actually. Some vending on the sidewalk; my host in town was shaking his head, muttering supiciously 'this isn't Santa Barbara, this csan't be happening,' and I was goggle-eyed, too: this was a nice, relaxed bazaar, people clustered and talking, the range of generations, the general buzz of happiness and anticipation ... my, my. I hadn't expected this.
The Arlington is a beautiful theater, ornate and plush and sedate and old-fashioned; exactly the sort of environment that allows for ironic, flamboyant self-expression, a Deadhead trademark, hearkening back to the early days of hippie Edwardiana in the Haight. In the long, open foyer before the doors Deadheads were behaving exactly as if they were in the parking lot of a BGP show in the days before heavy security (and to a surprising extent, in the days after as well). I couldn't resist buying a beautiful, hand-carved and sanded alabaster pipe from an itinerant craftsman; part of a collection I started years ago to memorialize a Deadhead mentor and friend who passed away far too young.
Stranded in the beer garden by the opening band, whose name conveniently escapes me as did I their music, after a polite listen-I snuck a look at the pipe I had just bought, and for a moment it was if nothing had really changed. I was imagining the way to describe the pipe in my collection catalog, and I felt the same sense of anticipation, the same vague background thoughts of 'now how will the set be arranged,' though I knew that Ratdog sets didn't change much ... and the scene outside was actually invigorating, a throwback to the pre-Touch of Gray-era Dead shows when there was still a sense that the scene was stable, and could basically educate and absorb newcomers with grace and dignity.
All so odd to contemplate in the light of the announcement a few days earlier, that the remaining bandmembers had decided to retire the name Grateful Dead. Perhaps I project, but most Deadheads in my circle felt that it was a fitting and appropriate gesture to their fallen comrade; some even felt a sense of relief-it was a clean closure to the pain of Garcia's passing and his centrality in their musical pleasure for so many years. Whatever happened now was new and could be greeted with some semblance of optimism and rejuvenation: no absolute measurement against the old Grateful Dead, just 'what is it and is it good?' And, of course, the big question: can it recreate the sprawling alliance of subgroups and subcultures that made up the polymorphous ecstatic entity that was a Dead audience?
If I were asked right now ... and if things in Santa Barbara are a guide, then the answer is-on a microcosmic, stripped-down scale, but nonetheless ... yes.