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Concert Review: RatDog – Riverside Theater, Milwaukee, WI, 3/22/08

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The great news heard shortly before this RatDog tour began is that guitarist Mark Karan was given the all-clear from his long, hard and painful fight against cancer, and he would be with RatDog on this tour. The even better news is that MK must have been doing a lot of noodling on his guitar during his treatment, and got plenty of rest since he was in the best form I think I’ve ever heard him. The guy’s always great, but this night he was better than great.

The first of two parts of the performance began and ended with a slow, easygoing number, which, considering the excitement of the crowd was probably a wise move on the part of Bob Weir and RatDog. Perhaps he’s learned from experience. A RatDog performance is, to use the Sixties’ vernacular, a Happening. You’ve got fans ranging from junior high schoolers to Social Security recipients, and just as many women fans – not just arm-candy attendees with a date, but real, authentic fans – as there are men. People are in blue jeans and tees, in slacks and button-downs, in granny dresses, tie-dye, shorts, and every form of dress you can picture. Balloons were bouncing around the audience, pops punctuating the music. There’s a skunky-smelling haze in the air, even though smoking is not permitted.

A RatDog performance is a lot like a Grateful Dead performance, with good reason. First is because RatDog is the best by far of the jam bands performing today, and is undoubtedly the best at performing the Dead’s songs. ‘Course, you’re entitled to a different opinion on that, even though you’d be wrong. It also may have something to do with the fact that Bob Weir, honcho of RatDog, was a founding member of the Dead.

Weir, or whomever it is that runs the overall operation, runs a tight ship. There’s no wasted time between numbers, no wasted moves, and no unnecessary, or necessary, stage rearranging during the performance. Everything is planned to a “T.” This doesn’t mean there’s a shortage of improvisation. The lyrics of “The Music Never Stops” say, “… the music played the band.” And as somebody once described it, "It's like if you were a surfer riding a wave,” the wave takes you along. Wherever the music goes, well, that’s where it goes. The band also has a huge library of songs to draw from, and their playlist is as broad and diverse as anybody’s in the business.

The group’s efficiency runs likewise in the logistical arrangements. Consider what goes into any group’s concerts and you’ll clearly and easily see it’s a major undertaking for this group of musicians, their publicist, the roadies, and the administrative and sales support staffs, plus all their equipment, to get to the next performance. Especially with the weather we had the day they blew into town, and the weather they had the day before in St Paul, had effectively made the statement, “Spring? What spring? I ain’t done with winter.”

Another thing that impressed me greatly was that the Dog’s website – there’s more than one, so pay attention in your surfing – publishes the playlist from every performance. Why’s that important? Because within about ten minutes after the performance’s wild, joyful, celebratory, and extremely satisfying end, CDs of that night’s performance are on sale in the lobby. Be warned, however: although a few extras are made, for the most part the number of CDs made is determined by those who order before the show. So be sure to order before the show starts. The published playlist will then give you the CDs’ content. If you’re a Deadhead or a Doggie you most likely won’t need it – many in the crowd sang along with the band on every number performed.

About Lou Novacheck

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    “the best by far of the jam bands performing today,”

    I would go with Widespread Panic and Umphrey’s McGee. I am not sure that The Black Crowes are considered a jam band, but if so, I would rank them ahead. I hope to catch Ratdog when they come to Los Angeles.

  • kat spies

    that show made meee feel like i was back home!(with my family THE GRATEFUL DEAD)Bobby was amazing as always.Loved the Rooster not to mention the wonderful news of MK’S health :)!There is NO NO compairing RATDOG to umphrey’s!!!! THANK YOU ALL FOR A REAL GOOD TIME….Peace Chicago KAT