Want to see a bass player squirm? Ask virtuoso four-string master Rob Wasserman to describe his latest project with former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, the band called Ratdog.
Besides Weir and Wasserman _ a Grammy-winning bassist who's worked with everyone from Bobby McFerrin and Stephane Grappelli to Willie Dixon and Lou Reed _ Ratdog features former Primus drummer Jay Lane, Kingfish harp man Matthew Kelly and, in its most recent incarnation, former Chuck Berry piano master Johnnie Johnson.
Born of the two leaders' six-year-long partnership as a duo, Ratdog became a full-fledged band more than a year ago, shortly before Grateful Dead frontman/guru Jerry Garcia died.
Garcia's death turned the band from a fun-and-games side project to a front-burner priority _ further exposing the group's struggles to find direction as a sorta-country, sorta-bluesy, sorta-jazzy rock band capable of going in any of several directions at once.
"Despite the fact that we have a 72-year-old piano player and everybody else except the drummer is in their 40s, this is a band in its infancy," says a tired-sounding Wasserman, reached at his San Francisco home. "It's the first time since I met Bobby where our work isn't a side thing. We all have a stake in things now."
Of particular concern is figuring out how to integrate Johnson _ best known as the "Johnny" in Berry's legendary hit Johnny B. Goode _ into the band's already-established sound.
According to Wasserman, Johnson _ whose distinctive piano style can be heard all over classic songs such as Roll Over Beethoven and Maybelline _ is the only member of Ratdog who plays just one way; the same way he's played for more than 40 years, since the dawn of rock 'n' roll.
"He's not one of those young guys who plays every style in the book," Wasserman says of Johnson, who this year replaced former Dead keyboardist Vince Welnick in Ratdog as Welnick struggled to deal with his mounting depression that followed Garcia's death.
"(Johnson) plays himself, and you have to give him room to do that," the bassist adds. "We've spent the last few months jamming every day, trying to figure out how to put his influence into what's going on."
Further complicating things is the obvious attention accorded Ratdog as Weir's first post-Dead band.
The comparisons grew even more acute during this summer's 31-city Furthur Festival _ a traveling tribute to the Deadhead spirit that featured Ratdog, former Dead drummer Mickey Hart's band Mystery Box and friends of the Dead like Los Lobos and Bruce Hornsby.
Still, everyone connected with the band has tried to downplay expectations from fans. "We can't be doting on the past," Weir told the Boston Globe in July. "There are perfectly competent Dead cover bands in pretty much every town that can do a creditable job of playing those tunes. We're not going to build our show around them."
"Anything Bobby does is going to be considered a Dead kind of thing . . . but we're trying to create our own space," Wasserman says. "I hope people don't think we're trying to be the Grateful Dead. . . . The Dead couldn't even do that (now), because there's no Jerry Garcia."
But no Weir-led band could get through a show without playing a few Dead chestnuts, and Ratdog is no exception. During the Furthur Festival, the band tried its hand at well-known tunes such as Truckin', Throwin' Stones and New Minglewood Blues.
Don't expect to hear the Dead's biggest pop hit, Touch of Gray, though. Not because the band members hate it or anything; they just haven't learned it yet. ("We don't quite have the hang of it, but we're working on it," Wasserman deadpans.)
Other players with Wasserman's credits might balk at the enormous focus both the media and fans have placed on Ratdog's connections to the Grateful Dead.
Certainly, with his own impressive list of solo albums _ his critically acclaimed Duos and Trios albums featured guest stars such as McFerrin, Brian Wilson, and Neil Young _ the bassist could avoid standing in the shadow of a group as imposing as the Grateful Dead.
"I got used to it working with Lou Reed, where we'd got out and play all the new songs we'd written together and people would be waiting for Walk on the Wild Side," Wasserman says, laughing. "With Ratdog, people want to hear Truckin' and the stuff Bobby wrote for the Dead, which is okay. Just as long as we get our stuff in there, too."
With a show that ambles amiably from Wasserman's solo work to some of the pair's old duo tunes and full-on band work, Ratdog is a unit that easily fulfills the bassist's reputation for instrumental daring and creative challenge.
But these days, it seems the biggest challenge that remains for the band is defining itself. "I'm not even sure how long a set we're going to play when we get to Florida," Wasserman says, sounding a little confused. "I guess you could say we're still a band in transition."
AT A GLANCE
Ratdog appears with Joan Osborne, Chris Isaak, Dog's Eye View and the Why Store at the Third Annual Pointfest '96, Saturday from noon till 8 p.m. in Vinoy Park, St. Petersburg. Tickets are $18 in advance, $22 on the day of the show. For information, call (800) 531-1025, then dial 5555.