The Greek Theatre
Los Angeles, California
July 28, 2007
Words by Joy Rosenberg and photos by Keith Berson / keithberson.com
Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre, a 6,200-capacity, open-air theatre at the base of a steep mountainside in Griffith Park, is one of the first public park conservations in the nation. Its motto is "Live music under the stars in the heart of Los Angeles," and with almost 80 years of concerts, the crowd at the July 28 Keller Williams/Ratdog show was one of the most congenial ever to take in some of the finest music to echo off its slopes.
Keller Williams took the stage to open the last show of this summer tour, predicting things to come as he sang "Freakiness will hopefully ensue" from among his stockpile of instruments, setting out on his one-man mission to create groove loops that would have everyone dancing in the balmy, late-afternoon heat.
Keller’s joy in performing is so evident that it almost doesn’t matter what he’s playing—although covers of "Stayin’ Alive" and a solo version of "Pancho and Lefty" (made famous as a duet between Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard) were a tasty way to kick off the evening as the crowd slowly filtered in through the gates.
It appeared that Keller’s act would be a short one, until Bob Weir joined him on stage and the two paired their acoustic guitars for intimate campfire versions of "Monkey and the Engineer" and "Cadillac," which featured Keller on the Jew’s harp.
As if to say the evening would break all the rules, Keller said, "We don’t have time for one more, but we’re going to do it anyway—’cause that’s how it goes!" With that, they broke into "Dark Hollow," with Keller on mouth trumpet, a rare and appreciated treat for the audience just as the stage lights came on and the sun prepared to set over the hillside.
The almost-full moon shone increasingly brightly as the other members of Ratdog took their places behind their instruments to the cheers of the now-full theatre. The lineup featured Steve Kimock, who has been standing in for Mark Karan, as the guitarist has been undergoing treatment for cancer.
Ratdog’s set began with a signature jam opener that eventually coagulated into the dramatic first chords of "Help on the Way/Slipknot!" An extended jam in the middle provided the first taste of Kimock’s precise riffing as it deftly locked in with Robin Sylvester’s bass, itself coming through strong from the get-go. It was evident that this was going to be a night of precise musicianship and tight jamming.
The funk that would eventually comprise the second set was foreshadowed with Kenny Brooks’ deep sax as the band slid into "Easy Answers." At one point, Weir was down on one knee, wailing on his guitar to the cheers of an enthusiastic audience that gave him rock star applause. The tempo sped up and the crowd was out of its seats and dancing for "Frankie and Johnny."
A beautifully-executed triumvirate followed: "Lazy River Road," followed by "Cassidy" and "Bird Song." These flowed seamlessly into each other and the familiar tunes lifted the audience into a state of bliss, evidenced by cheers and whistles throughout the crowd. Bobby sang, "Laugh in the sunlight…Fly through the night," just in time for the sun to finally set and the moon to take over.
Set one ended with "Good Lovin’," and the Greek Theatre, from the first row all the way to the highest bleacher, was up shakin’ it as hard as they could, egged on by Bobby’s repeated shouts of "Who needs it?" that echoed the song’s chorus.
When Ratdog said they would take a short break, they actually meant it! It wasn’t long before Jay Lane’s ominous, commanding drums and Weir’s sparse chords became "Masters of War," the lyrics still as acerbic and apropos as when Dylan wrote it more than 44 years ago. This heavy political statement interrupted the party vibe of the evening, but no doubt served to remind the audience to remain conscious of world events even as they enjoy the good times.
From the same vein came "Black Throated Wind," which featured loud crowd cheers on the advice, "What’s to be found running around? You carry your pain wherever you go…You ain’t gonna learn what you don’t want to know."
For instant fun injection, just add Keller. He returned to the stage to lighten the mood and add wacky distortion from his guitar to a slow, thumping bass line that led to a seriously funked-up "Althea." It culminated in a tight, fast-paced crescendo that bordered on chaotic and had all seven musicians jamming at the top of their games. Kimock was on fire here, every note effortless, lubricated, and defined.
At the height of the jam, Brooks’ sax laid down the mountains and Jeff Chimenti’s piano coated them with a sprinkling of snow. All 6,000+ people could be heard singing along, "This place is getting hot!"
The band used that momentum to segue into a joyous "Scarlet Begonias." If there was prior doubt that the party was on, it was gone at this point. Weir could barely be heard over all the attendees singing at the top of their lungs in unison, "Had one of them flashes, I’ve been here before, been here before." The ecstatic audience howled to the dominant moon as Kimock led the band into a crescendo.
Keller took the mic, improvising trumpet sounds with his mouth—with the sax picking up the cue—and soon the two "horns" were trading phrases, with Keller leading and Brooks echoing impressively. The piano followed closely behind, eventually merging the duo back into the melee.
Michael Franti & Spearhead’s guitarist David Shul, in town working on an album, emerged in the middle of it all and added to the sound as Kimock, now wailing, skimmed the top. Sylvester’s bass held the anchor of the still-funked out jam that had been carried over from "Althea" and with a prominent lick, Kimock signaled the end of the megajam and the band segued into a quieter lull that emerged slowly, to the delight of all, as "Dear Prudence."
An abrupt but deft chord change switched gears yet again, this time back into a "Cassidy" reprise that threw everyone for a loop. No one in Los Angeles that night believed they would get through the night without a "One More Saturday Night," and Weir delivered. Changing some of the lyrics, he addressed the president as "George," and advised him: "break out your boogie shoes!"
After briefly leaving the stage, the band came out for one encore, wrapping up the "Slipknot!" from the first set and seguing to "Franklin’s Tower." As if giving a farewell wish to the west coast before leaving, Weir sang, "May the four winds blow you safely home."
In an inspiring moment of camaraderie and family, the entire cast and crew—arms around each others’ shoulders—held up a handmade sign on a long white sheet that read in block lettering, "Good Vibes MK," a wish for Mark Karan’s speedy recovery.
Ratdog is clearly a tightly-knit family, and the crowd was a part of that, all the way to the last note of the tour.