As the lead guitarist for Grateful Dead alumnus Bob Weir’s ongoing side project, Ratdog, Mark Karan hits the road regularly, performing across the country and even taking the occasional jaunt to Europe or Japan.
Playing lead alongside the signature rhythm work and vocal stylings of Weir (and having logged tours with The Other Ones, a band assembled in the late ’90s by the remaining members of the Dead), he finds himself in a musical position once occupied by the legendary Jerry Garcia.
One might imagine he feels a direct connection to Garcia and the woozy mystic realm of the ’60s. Yet Karan is decidedly down-to-earth about his situation, which he has been enjoying for seven years now.
“I don’t really think about Jerry that much,” Karan says.”We go out simply to play music and to be with our friends and fans. Bob is the only guy in the band that’s famous.”
Karan says Ratdog fans often don’t even recognize some of the band members when they’re off the stage. Yet despite his humility, there is an unavoidable sense of history and ongoing fanaticism that clings to the post-Dead outfit containing Weir, who, along with a cast of other colorful characters, burst out of the San Francisco psychedelic scene and roamed the country for 30 plus years in the musical carnival that was/is the Dead (which celebrates its 40th anniverary this year).
Any Weir outfit tends to attract curiosity, be it from nostalgia seekers or from new generations of fans. Bob was, after all, Jerry’s wingman in the improbably successful and relentlessly touring Grateful Dead. And while Karan chooses to focus on his own head, he recognizes the mythology that persists in the audiences he encounters.
“It’s funny to watch how fickle the crowd can be. People who like Dead-related music can be very discerning and you never know how they’re going to react,” he says.
“Our audiences are a lot smaller than those that turn up to see the Dead (who recently dropped the Grateful half of their moniker and now tour simply as The Dead) but our relative obscurity affords us a freedom that is sometimes lacking in the more formulaic shows that the Dead now perform. Ratdog is less structured. We do someting that’s really open-ended, which is what the Grateful Dead was about in the first place. We strive to have a many-sided musical conversation, which is what I always liked about the early Dead. You just never knew what was going to happen next.”
As a young teenager living in San Francisco during the heyday of the ’60s hippie experience, Karan had the luxury of attending free shows in Golden Gate Park that were peformed by bands including the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company, among other classic Bay Area groups. And while he and his friends soaked up the music and the lifestyle of the time, Karan says that (unlike some orthodox Deadheads) he was able to evolve beyond the era.
“The whole Haight Ashbury scene will always be a part of me, because it was an incredible time for music and for life. I liked the sense of adventure that it represented. But as the Haight explosion faded away, popular tastes changed and I changed too. I went on to enjoy music by all kinds of different artists.”
While much of his taste veers toward the classic (Tower of Power, Sly and the Family Stone, The Eagles, Gram Parsons and Eric Clapton, to name a few of his affections), his resume also includes a brief stint with The Rembrandts, a band perhaps best known for the popular theme song from the hit television show “Friends,” as well as a short time with pop rocker Huey Lewis.
He has also played with the likes of Dave Mason (of Traffic fame), Delaney Bramlett (who taught Eric Clapton to sing), Paul Carrack (songwriter for Squeeze and others) and Jesse Colin Young of the Youngbloods. He has appeared on the Today Show, Austin City Limits, Regis and Kathy Lee, and Late Late Night with Craig Kilborn. Yet despite all his brushes with these big names, he retains (perhaps intentionally) a certain anonymity.
“I have mixed feelings about fame,” he says. “I enjoy attention, but I don’t like or respect a cult of personality. And a lot of music today has more to do with image than with actual performance. In my opinion, aside from a brief period of sunlight in the ’60s, music as just music has never really made much money. The reason that the Grateful Dead were so adored was because for a while they were doing something very real and very exciting and that’s why people worshipped them. Personally, I like to play music because I really love it.”
The music of Mark Karan can also be heard on his own band’s CD entitled “Jemimah Puddleduck” (available at www.markkaran.com,). In addition to original songs such as “Time Will Tell” and “Rock Your Papa”, Mark covers an eclectic range of material: from the bluesy funk of Johnny Guitar Watson’s “You Can Stay (But the Noise Must Go)” to the alt/country-soul of Gram Parsons’ “She,” or the reggae-tinged jams of his take on Peter Tosh’s “Don’t Look Back” to Lowell George’s “Teenage Nervous Breakdown,” with vocals by Mark’s longtime bassman, Bob Gross.
Visit www.Ratdog.org. to join in the ongoing conversation about Ratdog, the Dead and other related fare.
Visit www.shotlovephoto.com.for images of Mark, Ratdog and other artists.