The cultural explosion of America’s baby boomer youth renaissance found solace in a small arts district in San Francisco, CA, as the ’60s wore on. Flower power reigned and at its heart was the psychedelic cornucopia of forging political views, sexual promiscuity and expansive thinking. With a sea of people occupying the sidewalks below, the street signs which marked the crossing of Haight and Ashbury stood as the metaphorical changing of the guard.
Living in the old Cranston-Keenan building at 710 Ashbury St. was a small group of bluegrass inspired musicians who were mixing the groove of rockabilly with the ramblings of an American grassroots revival. Their name was The Warlocks and their following thrived on the extraordinary experiences of hallucinogenic intoxication.
The acid tests captivated the allure of the Bay community’s cultural inhabitants as 1967 approached, thrusting them into a spiral of euphoric decadence. With music as their pied piper, the Bay Area transformed the concert realm into a transcendent ceremony of ritualistic soul sacrifice. At the helm were The Warlocks, not only with a solidified brotherhood but sporting a new name, The Grateful Dead.
“It was as wide open as anything could have ever been,” says Bob Weir after just taking his hands off the knobs of the sound board in his home studio. “It was a renaissance where everyone was questioning the old beliefs by just experimentally finding out what works and what doesn’t. It was an apex of youth sub-culture.
“Our roots were in Americana, if that is even the word. We were improvisational and adventurous, with adventurous in capital letters. That is what we stood for. We tried to be as broad as possible and as eclectic as possible in interpreting our influences.”
Carrying on the legacy of a musical tradition, accompanied by a never empty tank of gas on a forever traveling tour bus, The Grateful Dead released a plethora of recordings between 1967 and 1995, resulting in a dedicated fan base through relentless booking schedules. They are singlehandedly responsible for laying the groundwork for the modern American grassroots movement, festival circuit and a nationally revered publication in Relix.
They band consisted of Phil Lesh (bass), Jerry Garcia (guitar/vox), Bob Weir (guitar/vox), Ron McKernan (keyboards), and Bill Kreutzmann (drums), before adding second percussionist Mickey Hart (drums) for an appearance on 1968’s Anthem Of The Sun.
They were warriors of the open road, but to the fans that followed them, they were simply known as The Dead.
“We have been lucky enough to have, typically, a very well musically educated audience which allowed us the liberty to try new things and have people be responsive to it, more so than I think your average pop audience,” says Weir in a deep tone.
They were an American touring staple, who lost one of its brethren as a result of the untimely death of Jerry Garcia in 1995. But Weir forged forward in the form of a small jazz trio named RatDog, which was promoted to his primary creative outlet, and founded the Furthur Festival in 1996 with Mickey Hart.
“RatDog took its time coming into being,” offers Weir. “It started as a little side duo, just as sort of a vacation from The Grateful Dead and it has just grown and evolved from there.”
What it has grown into is a full-blown rock spectacle that has reworked the basic arrangements of the original jazz ensemble, which was comprised of Rob Wasserman and Jay Lane, into a dense tone of live outdoor captivation. With a revolving cast of characters Weir shares how the philosophical and musical ideals of The Dead and RatDog are one the in the same. “It is like going at the same project with a different box of crayons. You will come out with a different feel while still having the same kind of MO.”
The conversation alters quickly from the structural makeup of musical endeavors to what it feels like to be a muse, and the cultural shift which spans the generations.
“Being on stage is electric in the classical sense. I become unaware of my physical self and it all becomes a combination of light and sound,” says Weir. “It is like being in a dream situation, only you are at will and at cause to some degree. The best that you can do in a quasi dream situation is to facilitate the character and the stories, letting the songs just reveal themselves. It is about being light on your feet and being able to go all the way when music is coming through.
“Music used to get the best and brightest our culture had to offer straight out of school, or in many cases kids who never made it through school, like me. I just went straight into music because there was a real bright future there. You have to be really lucky these days to make a living as a musician where in times past musicians made spectacular livings,” explains Weir.
“These days I speak to a lot of writers who are in New York and they describe the situation as clubs just closing down left and right because there are not enough musicians to fill them. You don’t see many musicians now because it is hard to make a living at it. That is something that needs to be addressed.
“The music industry has changed dramatically,” says Weir, reflecting on the evolution of generations. “Back when we were starting out radio was going through sort of a revolutionary phase. You could hear just about anything on the radio. We would show up at FM stations in San Francisco to do interviews with a stack of our favorite records. Most of the time they would include anything from jazz, to classical, to rock-n-roll and maybe even a county or a bluegrass record thrown in there somewhere. You could hear any type of music on the radio at any given time of the day out there.
“What caused the change is when they tried to compartmentalize the audiences by saying, ‘We are going to do hard rock here and disco there.’ The rest of the stations turned into pop stations because that is what the demographic would be. What was created,” Weir continues, “was what we know today as the target demographic, with people having to label themselves as punk fans, or disco fans, or grunge fans.
“I think that whole situation is staring to implode on itself. I think people are starting to get tired of being pigeonholed ,and marketing music instead of being offered music. Something like heart is quality in music you can’t fake. A lot of people today are trying to make a living by doing that, but the real thing is undeniable. There were a lot of Bob Dylan imitators back in the day, but there was only one king of the hill. So many pretenses came from kids saying otherwise but having nothing to back it up with and I think that is still true today.
“I have worked my entire life to try and change that,” he says as laughter follows with a sincere tone of unsure accomplishment. “I do what I do, and I love what I do. If I had to offer advice to younger musicians it would be to just do what you do and love what you do. Let it take you where it is going to take you. Don’t try to be up on the latest trend because that situation constantly collapses on itself.”
Bob Weir and RatDog will be performing at Central Park SummerStage in NYC on July 9. The band will also perform with Keller Williams and the Allman Brothers Band at the Tweeter Center in Camden on Aug. 17 and at the PNC Bank Arts Center on Aug. 22. For more information including photos and additional dates, the band’s homepage can be viewed at rat-dog.com
Photo Courtesy of Alvarez