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by Dan Grunebaum

The redheaded stepchild makes good

Former Grateful Dead guitarist and Jerry Garcia's right-hand man Bob Weir talks about high times and his new band, Ratdog.

Bob Weir (third from left) and Ratdog

Why didn't the Dead ever come to Japan?

A couple of reasons. One, it was just too damned much trouble. It's awfully expensive to get to Japan with our setup and we're real picky. Other bands would rent equipment in Japan but we had to have our own. And then there were the legendary problems with drugs: some of the guys didn't want to leave their pot behind, and Jerry was into heavier drugs and didn't want to leave those behind. Subsequently I've been over there with a couple of ensembles, and had a great time. I'm not a two-fisted pothead, so I have an easier time traveling than some of the guys.

That's not so much a part of the experience for you now?

No, and for a lot of the guys in the band, it's just not the same anymore.

You've been here with Ratdog. Was that your first time?

It was the first time for Ratdog, but the second time for me. I went over with an all-star outfit, and we played at Fukuoka.

Did you get a sense that there were fans of the Grateful Dead there?

Absolutely. I saw a lot of tie-dye out in the audience. I met a lot last year at the Fuji Jazz Festival. And the atmosphere there was pretty loose, pretty relaxed. I've met a number of Japanese Deadheads in America, so I kind of got to know what they look like.

There's a certain amount of crossover between rave, improv music and the Deadhead/jam band movement here ...

In that case I think they're going to like Ratdog, because what we've been working on for the last little while is looping stuff. It seems to me that's a natural confluence that wants to happen-trance and rave music into jam band music. Because if practiced right they're both highly improvisational.

On the whole issue of drugs: Do you feel like they still hold the same position in terms of mind expansion and in terms of a counterculture that they did back in the '60s?

I don't think they can. It was so new back then, and so immediate. Back then, the establishment was pretty reactionary, and just waltzed right into the Vietnam War without a second thought. The notion that war was a perfectly acceptable way to resolve differences-that kind of thing was what we were up against. So something was needed to crack through that phalanx that was marching society into horror .... And the experience of taking LSD for instance-or even smoking pot for me-when I saw that I was part of a large movement that was clearly into expansive thought and feeling, along with that came the sure and certain knowledge that anything was possible.

What do you see as the main difference between the Dead and your solo projects?

It's the same m.o. We develop scales much in the same manner as the jazz tradition. Basically, what I do in both bands will, in years to come I think, be considered jazz. It just sounds like rock, that's all. All that said, Ratdog is different. But the difference is more in the personnel. It's the color of the souls that I'm involved with that makes the music. It's just a different ensemble, so it's necessarily going to sound different, even if we're playing the same song ... Also, there's more of a tendency to quote, "Do the right thing" with the Dead material in the Dead, and I have no intention of doing that with Ratdog.

You don't have a four-decade tradition to uphold …

I can be iconoclastic dealing with the Dead material in Ratdog, and I do. Because there's a soul and spirit to that music that goes beyond arrangements and details a lot of people hold precious.

Were you surprised by all the publicity surrounding Jerry Garcia's death?

Well, not really. It was a big deal to me.

The Dead were always a counterculture icon. Was it a surprise to have the mainstream so involved?

Not really. Because by the time he checked out, we'd sort of crossed the line: "The redheaded stepchild made good." People in the straight culture were way more accepting of us at that point. We'd actually cranked out a tune or two that most anyone could enjoy. And it was evident to everyone that we were doing what we loved to do, and had stuck to our guns, and it was an American success story. For that alone we were regarded as heroic, even by people who didn't care for our music.

What has changed the most in terms of the dynamics of the band without Jerry Garcia?

Not that much. I don't even miss him. I don't think I'm stretching it to say that he's not gone-that he's here. Not to mention the fact that at all times he's sitting on my shoulder kicking me in the ear.

What is he telling you?

"Don't go there. Yeah! Go there, go there..." All that kind of stuff. It's hard to miss a guy when he won't go away.

Bob Weir and Ratdog play the Field of Heaven at Fuji Rock Festival on July 25. See concert listings for details.

Credit: Smash

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