Driving, exuberant waves of hot guitars-sax-organ-drums-bass all jamming washed over the summertime crowd, beneath meteor shower stars. Barefoot dancers twirled in flower dresses and tie-dyes at this RatDog show in Lowell, Mass on Aug. 12. A pocket-sized venue with trees and grass in the middle of the city, it had the feel of a larger show.
With Steve Kimock continuing to fill in for Mark Karan on guitar, RatDog kicked off a northeast tour first at the Gathering of the Vibes in Bridgeport, Conn, followed the next night by this special Jack Kerouac-themed stop in Lowell to recognize the 50th anniversary of On The Road’s release.
Opening the show, Bob Weir, looking fiery in beard, Yosemite Sam mustache, shorts and sandals, stepped up to the microphone, singing: “Blow the horn, tap the tambourine/ Close the gap on the dark years in between/ You and me, Cassidy”
This was a tribute to the man who inspired the song – Neal Cassady. A treasure of the nation’s counterculture, Cassady (called Dean Moriarity) was the driving force in Jack Kerouac’s groundbreaking novel On The Road. "Cowboy Neal" also ended up behind the wheel of the fabled Ken Kesey – Merry Prankster “bus to never-ever land,” enshrined in Tom Wolfe’s famous book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – and the Grateful Dead song “The Other One.”
Before the show, Weir had a casual sit down conversation on stage with Dennis McNally – author of Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation and America and A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead (which he terms a two-volume set of history) – telling stories about his relationship with Neal.
“Did he really teach you how to drive?” asked McNally. The crowd chuckled. In a rambling tale about how Neal could have five conversations at the same time – all while talking in rhyme – we learned that indeed he did, said Weir, all while Neal was “driving with one hand, feeling up his girlfriend sitting between us with his other hand…and playing the radio buttons so what was coming out of the radio was a direct conversation with the inner voice within my head… and he’d be raving in verse in a commentary about all this…. driving in rush hour traffic…he could see around corners…”
Comparing him to a saint or some other highly-conscious being, Weir said, “He was more than just here, he was HERE [saying it really intensely] – and beyond. Our boy Kerouac wrote books about him but only took nibbles out of the big picture.” Weir also related how he wrote the second verse to “The Other One” with the line “Cowboy Neal at the wheel …” and found out later that he wrote it on the very night Neal died in Mexico in 1968.
Without these pioneering Beats, McNally said, “there would never have been a Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia told me they helped define his life, set his course, his system of ethics – art was always more important than money. He felt that way until the day he died.”
McNally surprised the crowd coming out before the second set to read passages about Neal and other Kerouac writings from On The Road, accompanied by RatDog pianist Jeff Chimenti. To start the second set, Weir played an acoustic guitar on the traditional number “On The Road Again.” Performed for the first time by RatDog, it was an obvious tribute to Neal and Jack. His energetic rendition got the crowd joining in on the chorus with him: “She’s on the road again, sure as you’re born, Natural born easy on the road again…” The crowd also joined in loudly later, on “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”
The set moved into “He’s Gone” with the crowd cheering at the telegraphed arrival of “The Other One.” Then McNally walked back onstage to take a mic – as Neal himself loved to do at early Acid Tests – to rap more lines. Kerouac’s fables and visions mingled with the band’s electronic thunder as McNally spoke: “I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm….and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of uncreated emptiness, the potent and inconceivable radiancies shining in bright Mind Essence, innumerable lotus-lands falling open in the magic mothswarm of heaven…”
McNally projected the writer’s words, weaving them with the band’s hypnotic music. They echoed down Kerouac’s Lowell streets – and seemed to help lift the barefoot dancers and everyone’s spirits up into the starry summer sky.
Poet Lawrence Carradini, who is president of the non-profit organization Lowell Celebrates Kerouac!, summed up the significance of the show:
“The influence of Neal on Jack and the impact of that influence on Kerouac’s writing resulted in a new, more immediate communication style. Jack’s writing poured into the youth of America, dissolving borders. It was a gas and helped to fuel a non-stop excursion that brought on board tailgated trucks and tour busses, foot-powered rucksacks, multiple generations of like-minded seekers who keep Jack’s Roman candles lit, adding color to eternity. That is the significance of a concert like this – the recognition by members of a dream, a continued celebration of that force – that spirit that embraces the heart of anyone open to its power.”
The 50th anniversary On The Road in Lowel celebration features an exhibition of Kerouac’s original scroll manuscript not far from the concert site. Other events scheduled in Lowell include a concert by David Amram on Sept. 7, 2007.
Photos by Steve Clark