RatDog: North Fork Theater, Westbury, NY 10/30/07

Whenever I catch Bob Weir and his merry six-some, the same lead sentence always comes to mind: RatDog’s in a good place right now. Over the years—especially in the last two or three—the band has seemed ever more comfortable as a performing unit, and ever more essential a concert force. The "right now" modifier, in fact, no longer fits; memories of weak, inconsistent or frustratingly un-focused RatDog performances have faded, and the band’s strengths, even with a substitute player for this tour, are as apparent as ever.

Opening a two-night stand at this curious Long Island theater in-the-round, Weir and his crew were in satisfaction delivery mode, going for the familiar—Dylan chestnuts, Bob-sung favorites, a few fuzzy psyche-out moments—without taking too many chances until the end. Their opening run from "Shakedown" on was fun, but cursory; it wouldn’t be until a slow-burning, wholly dramatic "Loser" that they’d really lock in. Steve Kimock too, was a colorist up until that point, and only keyboardist Jeff Chimenti—absolutely this band’s undersung hero—had really grabbed the limelight, leaning barrelhouse for "Minglewood Blues."

But that’s RatDog’s emerging characteristic: not reaching when they don’t need to. Some might call that "holding back," but I prefer the band that cooked at Westbury: tight and direct, with well-played, well-sung, and forward-moving passages that laid a foundation so that when they did finally head into the headiest jamspace—as in the second set journey from "The Weight" until the end—they had shored up their resources and could make a go of it.

Weir’s voice was tops throughout; he toyed with phrasing, as is his won’t, on the blues ("Minglewood," "Little Red Rooster," a first-time "Been All Around This World"), and really locked in with the band’s swells during "The Weight" to drive the tune to an effusive climax. So much energy had been built up at that point that the band wisely held on and spun into "Milestones," rather than leaving the song as a standalone. The showcase transitional solo went to Kenny Brooks, who stretched fiery phrases into sheets and then pulled them back as shorter punctuation to balance things out. Saxophone integration is a deceptively facile addition to Dead-style jamming—too much can be fatally distracting, and too little means an interesting instrumental voice is irrelevant—but Brooks walks that line as well as any sax player since Branford Marsalis.

Dexterous and familiar with the Dead catalog as Kimock obviously is, he’s still adjusting to nightly interplay with as many as five foils that know each other’s own personalities inside and out. Earlier in the show, he’d play beautiful and twiny solos when it was his turn, but seemed reticent to join the group improvisation (or, the rest of RatDog was granting him space to toe into the pool).

But as the night opened up and the flavors of each set materialized, he was a lot more forthright. The mesmerizing "Stuff" jam segment, roiling out of a fizzy "Tomorrow Never Knows," had a lot going on but never lapsed into chaos. Other "Stuff" segments from this group in the past have been a drag—like the Dead’s "Drums/Space," to which it’s a vague analogue, it’s entirely hit or miss as a vehicle—but this one felt like a natural extension out of "Tomorrow," and when Weir returned to the stage for a mellow, spaced-out "Dear Prudence," it felt jointly like the calm after a violent storm and an eerie afterglow, the feeling you get when walking around outside after the rain.

Following it with "Throwing Stones" misdirected the energy a bit, and it was really, the night’s only misfire along with a place-filling "City Girls" at the beginning of set two. But "Stones" served necessary function as a bridge to the "Not Fade Away" closer, and the night had comfy closure.

Photos by Kraig G Fox at Ratdog.org

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