VALLEJO — The Empress Theatre’s Wednesday Night Ramble with the North Bay All Stars continues Feb. 6 and will feature guitarist Mark Karan.
The ramble is all about creating magical musical alchemy and fun, so who better than someone who played guitar in the Grateful Dead spin-off band Ratdog for 12 years?
While the band has been on hiatus since Grateful Dead/Ratdog member Bob Weir started the band Furthur three years ago, Karan is still “grateful” for the opportunity he had playing with them, as it fulfilled several dreams. The Marin-based musician was a fan of the Grateful Dead in the 1960s, before the traveling community called deadheads were even in existence.
“One thing that blew my mind on the Ratdog tours was how the audience constantly refreshed itself. There would be new 15-, 16- or 17-year-old kids climbing aboard the bus on each tour,” Karan said. “That’s not true with a lot of bands from that era. To see how many new young fans discovered and got really passionate about it was mind-blowing.”
Karan cut his teeth on the girl groups of the ’50s and ’60s, such as The Chiffons and The Ronettes and, like many thousands of other American teens, got the bug to create his own music when The Beatles exploded onto the scene. Karan never had a clear-cut career plan, but he always knew it would involve his first love, music.
“I’ve always known that I wanted to play music and do it not only as my passion, but for what I do as a living,” Karan said. “It’s taken me on a lot of different highways and byways in my life. I’ve kind of allowed the music to take me where it wanted to, as opposed to having a specific plan in mind.”
Some of the places that music took Karan included working with those he idolized growing up. He loved Paul Carrack and wound up playing with him. Dave Mason was another musician Karan went from spinning records by to sharing stages with. His own guitar style was developed by listening to people he later played with, such as Delaney Bramlett.
“Unless you just mimic one guitar player then you are going to have a style because you are your own unique combination of influences,” Karan said. “The stew or the goulash that comes out of that is our style.”
In 2007, Karan was confronted with the reality of his mortality when he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He was given about a 10 percent chance of long-term survival.
“It was pretty revelatory. It’s the kind of thing we think happens to other people, but when it happened to me, I was basically given a gift,” Karan said. “When I awakened from my biopsy procedure, rather than go into the whole movie of ‘Why Me?’ I very clearly got that I was supposed to grow and learn from it. I really responded to the treatment and I have been fine for five years.”
While he was once a “plug and play” guy who would play anything for an income and/or the joy of playing, these days Karan has narrowed the field a bit to musical landscapes he feels passionately connected to and can put his personal spin on.
“It’s not wholly dissimilar philosophically from what the Grateful Dead were all about. They seemed to gather their favorite songs from whatever genre, and they would put it through that blender of their own sensibilities and explore the limits of what you could within the song. As Bob Weir puts it, ‘Take the song for a little walk in the woods,’ ” Karan said. “That’s kind of what I do. I love a great, well-written song that really touches my heart or really lights me up because of its melody, lyrics or both.”
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at [email protected].
The Wednesday Night Ramble with the North Bay All Stars and special guest Mark Karan
- 7-10 p.m. Feb. 6
- The Empress Theatre
- 330 Virginia St., Vallejo