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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.

There’s also none of the typical “it’s great to be me” speech given by so many entertainers today. (Even one is too many.) A few cogent, telling comments punctuating nearly three hours of great music. No time-fillers, no stalling, just serious music. Fittingly, the performance closed with RatDog’s rendition of “Ripple,” my choice for the Best of Class for Grateful Dead songs, and one of their best known.

In between the opener – which, if you’ve never been to a RatDog concert before, when you first hear it you may think it’s the musicians tuning up – and “Ripple,” winding down the show, you’ve got a whole lot of great music. (You can see the night’s playlist below.)

And just wait ‘til you hear the Dog’s version of “All Along The Watchtower.” It starts off really slow and bluesy, with lots of twang, then quickly moves into a kind of reggae beat with Dylan’s words, which surprise you initially because of the rhythm and pacing. Four-and-a-half minutes later, when MK steps into the foreground, a smile will find its way onto your face as he picks up the pace, and begins to make his guitar talk, sing, and even dance a little. Two minutes after that, when Jeff Chimenti brings his keyboards into play, you’ll be grinning broadly, maybe even giggling a little. The rhythm slips back into the reggae beat for another minute or so, then the pace picks back up, and you’re unable to sit or stand still.

Every band member gets a chance to show off a little, with Jay Lane giving lessons toward the end of the show on “Stuff.” This blends into “Come Together,” with MK again showing his guitar prowess, then easing out with a reprise of “Bird Song,” and the closer, “Ripple.” It’s now three hours later and we have to face the mounds of snow everywhere, but we were undaunted, we were well fortified, and it wasn’t just “One More Saturday Night.” It was a very special Saturday night.

P.S. If you’re a Mark Karan fan, as every Ratdog fan is, check out Mark’s website, and pick up a copy of the CD available there, Jemimah Puddleduck.

Set One
Jam>Feel Like A Stranger
Casey Jones
Jack Straw
Little Red Rooster
Odessa

All Along The Watchtower
Dire Wolf
Birdsong

Set Two
You Win Again
Catfish John
The Weight
The Last Time
Good Morning Little Schoolgirl
Ashes and Glass
Stuff
Come Together
Bird Song (reprise)
One More Saturday Night

Encore
Ripple

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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