“Mission in the Rain,” a wistful 25-year-old Jerry Garcia-Robert Hunter tune that appeared on the third Garcia solo album, formed the cornerstone of Ratdog’s equally wistful set that closed the five-hour-plus So Many Roads fest Wednesday. Odd as it is in a set determined by Garcia’s bandmate Bob Weir, it pays tribute to their shared past and, as Weir waves the Grateful Dead flag in the second half of the summer (bassist Phil Lesh & Friends toured earlier), it delivers one of those little surprises the Heads live for.
Tour is dubbed “SMR” due to the lack of drummer Mickey Hart, who has been involved in the Grateful Dead-related Furthur Festival in the six years since Garcia’s death, but is sitting this one out. Sound is more contemporary than other Furthur Fests as none of these acts share any historical roots with the Dead.
Ratdog delivered an almost exclusively Dead set with Mark Karan once again filling in the Garcia parts. Weir has said the difference between the two bands is that Ratdog needs no warm-up period; truth is, Ratdog plays with a loping gait that, while enjoyable, never exposes any fiery potential.
Evening included the unrecorded Ratdog number “She Says” and ended in a mecca of early-Dead: “St. Stephen,” the very precise and slippery jam tune, gave way to the even jammier “The Eleven” before closing on the blues burner “Turn on Your Lovelight.” Great as it is to hear Weir revisiting the Dead’s past, the band gave the material little gas power to lift it into the realm the Dead has traveled in.
Festival’s spark came from Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. Denson, a jazz saxophonist, led his funk band through many of the numbers on his recent Blue Note album “Dance Lesson #2.” Denson’s seven-piece unit plays old-school funk that’s danceable and challenging on the ears simultaneously; when he sings, it gets into a classic Tower of Power groove that’s absolutely irresistible.
Rusted Root, which has been knocking around for years and helped blaze the jam band circuit, continues to prove that a little bit of some of these acts can go a long way. Keller Williams, an acoustic guitarist who, for some of his songs, electronically loops parts and then solos over the rhythm track, demonstrated an affinity for riffs that sound like they’re straight off a Dave Matthews record. His self-released album “Loop” finds him doing some of the same material he played Wednesday, but with more accuracy.
DJ Logic gave the between-band sets a hip-hop twist with some turntable tricks, returning later to jam with Ratdog when the band went into a bass ‘n’ drum segment. The road may still be going on forever, and clearly it’s catching up with the times.