Something New . . . Has Been Born:

Ratdog Revue at the Kaiser,
Mardi Gras, February 21, 1996
With the Neville Bros.

by Griffin Nicholson

A few notes and thoughts first, transcribed and fleshed out two days later from notes I took the night of the show, on eight 3-by-5 index cards and spilling over onto the back of my ticket stub. Only a few recorded here, but I eventually wrote a full review, based on all of those notes, which follows. A different sort of entry; both vestigial draft and final essay.

Like, perhaps, its subject; not a great show, but a thought-provoking one. Maybe it's only the wistfulness of memory, but for those fans whose expectations were conditioned by the Dead, Ratdog seems too slender a setlist to support the scene. Perhaps this is written from the perspective of one of those people who are getting shaved away from what was left of the Dead scene, already shrunk from the 15,000 Oakland Arena down to the Kaiser's 7,000. Or maybe the more proper way of putting it is that Ratdog had gone from playing the Warfield to the Kaiser; and if I'm disappointed at the jump, then perhaps I should remind myself that no band makes a leap of those dimensions without some growing pains. We'll see. All that seems abundantly clear now is that no band will fill those shoes, or any footwear of those dimensions, anytime soon. I wish them well.

And the final review, written and polished over in fits over the next two months . . . incredible, how long these things kick around (today is May 20) . . . as if I am waiting, daring the material to go stale, until I pull it all back out.

An odd, odd evening. I have always been one of those Deadheads who jotted down set-lists, for most of the hundred-odd shows I saw in my decade of show-going, even when not especially inspired. Sometimes I was inspired, and took notes as if for a wonderful, meticulous review; some of which even materialized. Some of which didn't. Tonight, for some reason I was prompted to jot down eight three-by-five index cards' worth of notes; for ultimate purposes unknown, I suppose. But it seemed important-that my presence portended significance of a sort. So I recorded.

Those notes have lain around as a prompt and a burr in my conscience since then. It is now exactly a month later, March 20, and I turn to those memories to see how they've settled, and how good those notes really were.

My first conscious thoughts-memorable thoughts-of that night happened when I chose a tee-shirt to wear for the show. It's a short stack of options for such occasions. A tie-dye seemed inappropriate, somehow; and it ends up being a rare choice, a screen-printed Deadhead special, a black cotton Haynes Beefy-T with a nicely-done scene of dancing skeletons underneath the quotation "the music never stopped," and the dates of the Oakland December run of 1994. A memorable run-my last shows, in fact. And the color seems especially appropriate: a fixture of Jerry's performing wardrobe. The tee-shirt is kind of unusual for me: I don't normally participate in the Deadhead consumer ritual of tee-shirt purchasing. I've bought a few, mostly well-done tie-dyes, but only once every couple of years.

A perfect mnemonic, though, and when I looked at it that morning, it easily conjured images of the scene when I bought it. Parking lot carnival in full swing, vendors of all manner and stripe, from huckster to shyster to craftsman to tour-rat, and I happened on this middle-aged Deadhead couple hawking dozens of these tee-shirts for I think $10 a piece. It was nicer than the vast majority of the screen-printed designs I normally saw, and clearly their own project, so I got one, and so did Mark, my friend; and it gave such a clear sense of the vibrant and visible supporting scene around the band and its followers. A good solid whiff of illicitude as well, with the threat of being busted by everything from undercover policeman and narcs to Grateful Dead and Bill Graham Presents (the promoter) security, for everything from selling beer-usually $2.00 for a cold microbrewery beer such as Sierra Nevada-to copyright violations, of which this tee-shirt would be a prime example. The buzz is that they focus on mass-produced ripoffs and blatant copyright violators who steal logos, and tacitly let artists and artisans who contribute something-especially something well done-to the scene flourish. And for every story of someone having their stock of shirts confiscated, there seem to instances of Dead roadies and band employees sending out their lackeys to purchase an especially good tee-shirt from a parking-lot vendor.

But it all lends to the mystique of the scene; like drugs, in that sense, only no one would rip the bootleg tee-shirt from your back if you actually had it on, the way a Hell's Angel would if he found a non-Angel wearing the 'colors.'

Inside and waiting at Rock Med, now-or should I say, once again; just like a Dead show. So many familiar faces ... strewn through so small a crowd. Surprisingly small: why so unsold-out, a friend asked? The question was asked by my friend David, who had just gotten his first job, post-Ph.D. The end of the Dead preceded the end of graduate school by a few months, for him, a perfect symmetry. But his trajectory is eerily reminiscent of the Anita Creamer reaction, whose vitriolic column in the Sacramento Bee encapsulated a major misunderstanding of the band and its followers: "Jerry's dead, Deadheads, so grow up and get a life." A mean-spirited version of a joke I made at the time: what will happen now that the Dead aren't touring? The U.S. GNP will rise five percent.

It's not implausible that, for Deadheads at a crossroads in their lives, some will drop back in. Some of that is just the drying-up of the tour-rat phenomenon-selling burritos and other essentials in the parking lot is no longer a lifestyle option. It made me think of a Deadhead couple I had met at the train station in Oakland, all of us on the way to Seattle, the next stop on the tour. An early Microsoft programmer, he had been a Microsoft millionaire for a decade. He and his wife were professional tourheads. And now-I wonder. Maybe already crunching code again.

No friends at the meeting spot, and its past time for them to meet me, so downstairs for a beer. Sitting now in what is called the 'beer garden,' a masterpiece of euphemism. Such a weird pen for legalized drug consumption; so dusty, shitty, ill-lit and smoky. Not even a paved floor-just packed clay and cement dust, it looks like. Maybe it is paved, which is even more terrifying; but it doesn't matter, because beer is flowing. And no one thinks I'm a narc here, scribbling away on my pad, industriously filling up little three-by-five cards.

Six p.m. or so. Beer downed; time to return to the seats, which are stage right-"Phil side"-and fairly far back; the sound should be good. Plenty of room in the stands for our little group, three already and soon to be seven. There's no problem with saving seats, though, with a distinctly pre-In the Dark flavor mellowness to things. A show for just our little insular community-lots of smiles, three of four generations, and a relaxed vibe.

At seven the lights dimmed, and the familiar Deadhead roar went up, sampled from a thousand Dead shows past; and it's the opening act at the Kaiser, still time to pretend that the main act is Jerry & Co., still time to dream. How much of tonight will remind us of what we've lost, I wonder; a somber note to have sounded in my mind right now, I realize. But the feeling lingers until the truth of it hits me: tonight Ratdog is consciously picking up the mantle from the Dead. This is a Dead party, in a Dead venue-Mardi Gras at the Kaiser, just like the old days. The thought makes me faintly upset.

The Neville's walked onstage at 7:10, and the comparison began with a vengeance. I saw the Neville's open for the Dead at New Year's Eve, 1988; and here it was, all over again, but in a space I associated even more strongly with the Dead-the Dead of my first show-going days, in the mid-eighties, just before they outgrew these more intimate-sized halls.

A full complement of Nevilles tonight: all of the brothers including Aaron, the man with the golden pipes. With a repertoire that covers a dazzling array of genres, it would be interesting to see what they chose for this crowd. An acknowledgement began their set with "Hey Pocky Way," a favorite from the Dead's Brent years. This was a first-rate rendition, with the band sounding tight and, above all, groove-oriented: no emphasis on solos to speak of, just incredibly tight, heavy rhythmic funk. I jotted down "weird, great funk time" in my notes, and I don't know whether I meant meter or atmosphere. Next came "Good Times (Roll)," which had a superb R & B-style sax part. As the song wound its way around and through and under the audience, everyone dancing, just transported-it occurred to me: the Nevilles really do have a different way of getting at that same transcendent interior that the Dead did, but theirs is more of a psychological soup. There's voodoo in their formulation of the recipe.

A night of musical tributes, apparently, with the next choice being "Fever," a Ratdog staple. Nevillized, however, the song had a funked up, driving feel. Horns felt hasty, even choppy here; and the chorus, "fever all through the night"-sounded positively nasty, much grittier than the Ratdog. By far the most pointed tribute of the evening, though, happened in their New Orleans-style rendition of "Fire On the Mountain," and the Garcia-style riffing during Jerome Kerns's "Old Man River"-and Kern is the man after whom Garcia's father named his son Jerome. Unfortunately, the guitar soloing didn't measure quite so highly during the Fire-a bit too spooky, perhaps, for the guitarist. The next tune-Uptown something, I missed the last word-was identified to me as a Professor Longhair tune, and it smoked. The contrast between the Neville's covering the Dead versus them here was astounding-this was their home turf, and it showed. They strutted, they soared, they growled; it was perfect. Pure essence of New Orleans R & B. Then came a bit of stage prosyletizing, one of the brothers addressing the crowd, whipping them up, old-time revival-style mongering, and pretty good crowd rapport ... 'if there's gonna be any change for the better, it's comin' from right here!'

Oh yeah!

And then the band launched into a tragic cover of "Come Together." As my Neville-fan friend turned to me, shrugging her shoulders, said: "if Aaron wants to play with the Nevilles, they have to let him sing what he wants, and that includes Beatles when he feels like it." And he felt like it; but they sure didn't, and it simply never took off. A bad, sinister version nonetheless. Aaron kept singing after that, doing a stunning acappella "Amazing Grace," and finishing with "One Love."

The parade began a little past nine. And what a parade. First came the Chinese New Year's flag-dancers, as I call them: people holding long, long poles from which were suspended flags, or elaborate bird kites, tethered by a short length of string. These were recurrent motifs during the festivities, stationed just outside of the great doors leading from the back of the auditorium floor to the stage. The procession went from there and down the center of the floor, veering off to the right and going out of the doors at stage left.

In classic Mardi Gras tradition, there were floats entered by various Deadhead groups. Among the floats were a VW Van, filled with Deadheads; a giant mushroom, on which Alice sat, along with the hookah-smoking caterpillar. There was also a bear in a rocket, a lizard in a pirate ship-which simply escaped me-and the centerpiece: a Oaxaca-style, brightly painted and highly stylized Iguana-no, it has all these sharp spikes, and a mean-looking face ... and a rat's tail-it's a Ratdog. And it's the Chinese Year of the Rat-so it all becomes obvious.

This is the next generation, what we all learned from the Dead. And a party-with a theme and a band. And it can be fun for everyone, including the band. Which is why so many side musicians, so many heroes of Bobby's that consented to play.

Then more dancers, another round of flags, as the band is just howling behind it all, a never-ending jam that now features a sax solo that is wailing so spectacularly, and the parade is leaping, jumping; this is truly a worthy spectacle.

Then a cart full of giant faces-heads?-more carts of weirdness and weirdos, as the band slides deeper and deeper into New Orleans mojo and funk, as a giant head in a giant wheel comes rolling past, replete with a large-scale Stealie (the Steal Your Face icon), surrounded by costumed capering bears.

With that float, the appropriation of the imagery is complete; and we are the Deadheads, convening again to celebrate ourselves and our community, with the band truly, simply providing the soundtrack to our own little acid test. And with all the trappings of a thousand different dionysian rituals of fifteen hundred years past, stilts walking past now, jesters caps copied from sixteenth-century illustrations, and skeletons and a skull riding past in a cart now; and it really could be a medieval carnival in the dark with lights and flames leaping, people wailing and dancing.

A few final floats, whose significance and relevance were as inside as the atmosphere now, and it sputtered to a close by 9:30, Bobby announcing to the crowd, "our thanks to the Neville Brothers."

And Ratdog began, launching into "Wang Dang Doodle," and the spell began its weave, lights playing over the steps on the far side of the auditorium from me, and I remember thinking about those steep, steep steps, and watching people go up and down them, and that image of effort, of work, and all the ages and the range of expectation and resignation on all of those fans around me became intertwined with that image for me, that night.

I should mention that you won't really be able to piece together an altogether complete or accurate set-list from this account. Somehow that goal got lost in the shuffle; this collage of first-hand impressions and hindsight-driven revisionism is the result.

While still jamming, Bobby introduced his first two sidemen that night, Johnny Johnson and Taj Mahal. This was going to be very interesting, I thought. I have one of Johnnie's solo albums, the one he did a few years ago for Virgin called Johnnie B. Bad, and Taj has been a hero of mine for years. I recall one night spending something like 30 minutes trying to decide what to play after a particularly moving experience listening to the second half of Taj's Greatest Hits, and I finally put on nothing-the only thing that could follow Taj at his finest.

At some point, the sister of bassist Rob Wasserman (blessed be his bass) sang; unfortunately, she was not a welcome addition. As I wrote in my notes, "if she's not careful, Cindy Wasserman is going to reintroduce the dreaded Donna Jean Effect to Ratdog."

Next was "Walkin' Blues," and from in front of me popped up this dreadlocked seventeen year old, so young and fresh-faced and well-scrubbed that the effect, with the dreadlocks, was somewhat pathetic; and so happy, so industriously practicing his Dead moves, his Deadhead dance steps. And it was so clear: this was It, for him, now. It was still alive and well, for him and his generation; they were still creating the community, and already had learned to ape the trappings.

A pretty good dance, too: the kid had learned a lot. It had a progression, a sequence of moves that were keyed to various parts of the song; there stages of movement that corresponded to song structure, mood, intensity of solo and degree of inspiration to the jams. And he was also feeding back to his girlfriend, who moved, but less freely; she was clearly still hesitant about this whole-hearted embrace of Ratdog. She was reluctant, and it showed; but her boyfriend responded to her participation, moved to and with her, bouncing with the crowd when they picked up the same vibe and the surge went up.

Weird. Happening again, all over again. How many kids are seeing their first taste of the experience tonight, and even in this watered down form, are captivated by the magic? It is inimitable; and maybe even like this, a crack-like reduction of the old laboratory-grade free-base form of Grateful Dead magic. Even Ratdog has the power to spellbind someone raised on top 40 pabulum. And the notion of this as a glorious initiation strikes a somber note in my musing; it is so hard to avoid seeing it all through the distorting lens of the past.

Heavy crowd pressure on empty seats now-with a couple of people in our party off to restrooms or in search of beverages, the number of seekers milling anxiously over the lower seats is intense. After all, if all but the nosebleed seats are filled, then you may as well hunt for a good seat as a bad one-or so goes the logic.

So many familiar Dead show symptoms: the parched mouth, the heat of the place, cooked up hot now, and the smell of sweat and excitement and beer and pot-all are exactly like a Dead show, a winter show especially. And far, far too much cigarette smoke-much more like an East Coast show than a West Coast show in that respect.

And can it still transform? Probably ... it certainly seems to be, judging by the kid in front of me. "Take Me To The River" wasn't quite up to normal Ratdog standards, I thought-just not as much punch. It confirmed a growing realization on my part that what was going on with Ratdog was something like Hall Fright: they were swallowed by the size of this venue, which was two-and-a-half times the size of what they normally played. And they just sounded 'thin and mean,' as the old Southern expression goes; they simply didn't fill the hall. 'Excuse me, sir, I've lost my Ratdog ....' Bobby was just a reedy voice in the dark, lost in the cavernous confines of the Henry J. Kaiser, and although "City Girls" picked up the pace, it failed to rekindle. Stepping bravely into Neville territory, Bobby took the band into "Fever," which foundered and bogged down quickly; or at least relatively-both to versions of theirs I have known in the past, and most painfully and especially to the one heard a few hours earlier, when it smoked and rocked. And now it was meek and at war with itself, falling off the stage in a kind of unified mess, with some good players to keep things together.

Some good lighting effects, though; and I was now lost in my own view of the Kaiser, entranced at the way the lights had caught the guy-wires arcing through the rafters, playing off the shiny web holding things together, taut and filled with cross-overs, turn-buckles, all disembodied loops, disembodied stitching suspended against the apparent solidity of the box around us. Perhaps an engineer's bizarre attempt to avoid massive loss of life in an earthquake. Faint hope, it seemed to me.

But the version was picking up steam now, Wasserman's bass lines snaking through the meander and bringing everything in tighter, and the drums assume a more and more commanding presence; this is commendable, and then a great bass solo erupts, the stage bathed in red smoky lights, and then the band starts "Eternity," with Taj and David Murray sitting in ... wow.

Such marvelous, controlled chaos; such cathartic dissonance, Murray just outstripping himself on the screeches and howls, shrieking as if its the end of the world; and I wished for the Dead's sound-system. It was loud, but I had to cup my ears to get the sort of maximum the moment really called for. That may have been the emotional high point, and musical peak, of their set.

And the fact that it was somehow lacking left an indelible impression on me. At my moment of bliss, of transcendence, the fact that I had to concentrate on my transport, that I had to cup my ears; that I had to shut my eyes because of the poverty of the light show, there was no seamless swirl of black behind the lids to the lights and spectacle of your dreams without; it just wasn't.

So I have been spoiled.

And "K. C. Moan" was nice, but not what it had been with Jerry, and the kid with the dreads moved perfectly, his own inventive semi-grunge, semi-hippie dance; this was the next generation. One foot on Kurt Cobain, the other on Jerry. A plaid shirt over the tie-dye. Smoking cigarette after cigarette during the show, with the occasional bowl of weed; thoughtfully accepting the challenge of the Joe Camel ads, if you want us to smoke, we will. Kill ourselves?-okay, we can do that. With all the typical purity of an uncompromised idealistic view of the world, and all the cold fury of a child, lied to and tricked into giving up his birthright.

"Masterpiece" was flawless. An elegant performance, a beautifully balanced arrangement; a take-off point for the show, I hoped; and with a loud, heart-felt audience sing-along at the end, "Some day, everything's gonna be different / When I paint, my masterpiece." Deadheads, seeking a new transcendence, a new savior; a new deliverance. And the aura of persecution was generational, once again; and perennially. The misfits still needed a leader, an alternative; a home. All of it shown stark in the garb of the waifs in front of me, with some clothes cut, slashed, restitched, pinned; a little punk, some Seattle, a touch of hippie. Mutilated and shapeless asexual clothing, perhaps a few more folds on the women, but not necessarily.

"Little Red Rooster" went from sublime to subpar, within a few moments. How very Dead-like, I finally wrote, a thought which was immensely cheering, actually. Unlike "New Minglewood Blues," which prompted the note "god, I miss Billy and Mickey." Mark leaned over to me and said, "Consider 'lugubrious,'" an accurate if acerbic description of the tepid rendition we were subjected to.

Leavened next by a moment of delight, though: a manifestation of Rob, the Dancing Bear, twirling and revolving through the crowd in his furry, lighted costume, spinning ball in hand, smiles lighting up all over the arena as they spot him. Such a nice bit of continuity. Nice that he still has a place to do that. And with that thought came a flash of how awful it felt to be the older Deadhead, kvetching and griping, 'it ain't like the old days, ya know..." Yes, we know; and it doesn't matter, because it's still the best game in town, gramps.

And the kids in front have stopped smoking those fucking cigarettes, finally, and a chance to dance without getting queasy from nicotine makes me get up on my tired legs, one more time; but first, a chance to have a quick hit without inhaling second-hand cigarette smoke, and a few puffs later, head singing anew from the weed, the lights dim and Bobby launches into "It Shoulda Been Me," his slow, moving ballad that's a part of his opus-in-progress, a musical on the life of Satchel Page.

But Mark leaves; not worth it, to him, with an impatient wife racking up karma points against him. "Don't tell me if it suddenly gets great," he said as he left, enough to guarantee at least a momentary elevation in the music. And it is: Lowell George's beautiful "Easy To Slip," one of the powerhouses of Bobby's solo repertoire. A showcase for his singing, as it is here, once again. Wasserman and Weir with dueling leads, Wassy's bass just animalistic, Weir hitting chords never heard before or since, hands dominating the fretboard, dissolving in to a Wassy / Jay Lane solo, replete with MIDIfied effects and weirdness.

Out of note cards now, I continue scribbling on the back of my ticket stub: "-but, during Wassy's bass solo, kids shake and talk to Rob to-It is happening. It has begun anew. "And they clap to Wasserman's Hendrix arrangement of The Star Spangled Banner, keeping time as he slides into "Satisfaction."

Then the band returns, launching into "Easy Answers" as my notes scribbled, in ever-more byzantine curls as I ran out of space, winding words around the margins now-"didn't come together; ragged-'Captain, she's breaking up, she's-.'"

Forgetting a chunk here, because I ran out of anything at all to write on, short of my hand. Appropriate as well, as the evening ground to a close. Things ended with Chuck Berry's "Promised Land," after Johnnie's "Tancqueray," which came off fine, but Johnnie locked into that boogie-woogie rhythm and carried it straight into the next song, "Promised Land"-and fucked up his own tribute, horribly. A complete train wreck. Weir seemed to accept it pretty philosophically, writing off the song even as he played it out. The price you pay for working with a legend. Or perhaps he had simply been in too many concert situations where an improvisation fell apart. Taj, however, kept frantically gesturing to Johnnie, who would look back quizzically and quiet down for a few bars, never altering the awful off-rhythm a jot, then cranking back up when he thought he was supposed to.

It was a definite culmination to the entire affair; like saying, squawking and dirty, like it or not, here is the phoenix-reborn, and we have to deal with it.

Copyright © 1996
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