"Friend of the Devil" from the album Live at the Roseland
Lucky Enough" from the album Evening Moods
"I was a Grateful Dead fan before there was a term 'Deadhead,'" says Mark Karan, longtime lead guitarist of RatDog. "My friends and I used to go see them at Golden Gate Park and Winterland in the late '60s — some of the infamous shows."
Today, Karan plays Jerry's role to Bob Weir's rhythm guitar, performing many of the same songs he used to get down to in his youth. A member of RatDog since it became Weir's main project in 1998, Karan took most of 2007 off after being diagnosed with throat cancer. After a year of recovery in which he received more than 2,000 get-well notes from "the Grateful Dead family," he rejoined the band last month for their spring tour.
"You could say I'm thrilled," says Karan. He points out that so far, the tour has taken them across the frigid northern U.S., so they're "stoked" to be playing Charleston and the South this month.
Bob Weir & RatDog first formed as an acoustic combo called The RatDog Revue in 1995, when Weir and frequent collaborator and virtuosic bassist Rob Wasserman enlisted guitarist and harp player Matt Kelly of Kingfish and drummer Jay Lane of Primus and Freaky Executives. The current lineup includes Weir, Karan, Lane, bassist Robin Sylvester, sax player Kenny Brooks, and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti.
RatDog's formula is much like the Dead's: play a different set list every night, switch it up each time you return to a city, and keep the fans excited and anticipating what you'll pull out.
"We have a set list pre-show, but it's kind of an all bets are off situation once we hit the stage," says Karan. "If Bobby or one of us gets a wild hair up our butt or a brilliant idea, or a jam obviously feels and sounds like a song that's not on the list, we'll just go there."
Like the Grateful Dead — the original jam band — RatDog follows a similarly exploratory route. Although the Dead produced a number of studio albums in order to fulfill record contracts, they never thrived in studio. With RatDog, Weir has largely avoided the studio altogether, with the exception of the album Evening Moon, released in 2000 on Arista/Grateful Dead Records. The band's dedication to stage work led to the release of the double live album Live at Roseland (Arista/Grateful Dead) in 2001. Weir's 2004 solo release Weir Here (Hybrid) compiled various recordings from his musical career.
"We're always writing new songs, and the threat of another RatDog record looms on the horizon, but somehow that horizon manages to stay equally distant from wherever we are," says Karan.
For a band like RatDog, touring is bread and butter. Karan describes one of his first moments where he realized the gravity of playing with Grateful Dead alums as the Other Ones tour in Alpine Valley, Wis., in 1998.
"We came out for the encore to this giant wall of flaming, glowing Bics in the night, and I got shivers and total chills," he recalls. "It was like, 'Wow, this is for me, and I'm up here with Phil and Bobby and Mickey and Hornsby and all these cats.' Excuse my French, but it was pretty much of a mindf*ck."