Getting the opportunity to cover the Mickey Hart Band is certainly something to be thankful for this holiday season. JBO headed up to Napa, narrowly averting sheets of rain from the dark storm clouds, arriving in Napa for one incredible evening of spirit-stirring tribal rhythm. All that dancing, all the drums, the beats, the voices – I think the rain dances worked to keep away the storm we were all warned of.
When I arrived, I learned there would be an opening act, a short set before the Mickey Hart Band would take the stage. As the house lights dimmed, out on stage walk four men, dressed in traditional African costume and carrying what looked to be handmade drums and instruments. The beat begins…… They were the African Showboyz, four brothers from Ghana South Africa. They started their musical journey after the elder, Napolean, received a vision about his future. I read a little about them on their website, www.africanshowboyz.com, and am amazed at their journey since this vision in the 80’s when they first made their instruments from bones and hides of animals that came from village hunts. They offered us a short 15-minute set of traditional African drumming, singing and dancing. Very impressive was their spirit and very joyous their smiles, really sharing their love of Ghana and their intent on showing the world from where they come. One very sweet moment was their version of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” – really just maybe the way Bob Marley first heard it in his heart; the simplicity of the drums narrating the rhythm of the wings of the bird, flapping in time and keeping them aloft.
The room was a buzz after the Showboyz left the stage – a very energetic way to get the crowd riled up and excited for more. A short break before the Mickey Hart Band would hit the stage, just enough time to grab a drink, go to the bathroom…… maybe run back to the hotel to get my other lens……… maybe not. Well, I opted for the run and ended up missing the first part of the opener, “Samson and Delilah”. I walked in towards the end but really, it was just the beginning of what would be a very incredible night. I did not take the brown acid. I did not drink the Kool-Aid. But, I tell you, what they did that night somehow changed my body chemistry.
The Mickey Hart Band is, well, Mickey of course, Dave Schools on bass (yes, Wide Spread Panic folks, and I think I realized just how crazy good he is by getting to watch him up close), Crystal Monee Hall on lead vocals (OMG, I am at a loss to describe this incredible voice, this spirit on the stage – I feel woozy when she sings, but in a very wonderful intoxicating way), Joe Bagale (Let me repeat myself by saying, OMG, again. How to describe this guy – scroll down to my description of West L.A. Fadeaway, that might help), Gawain Matthews on screamin’ lead guitar (Well, let me tell you – this guy can play. And, a photographer’s dream with how he performs. Check out some of the pics, he looks like he is having a blast and I know the audience was gobbling up every shredded note he created with his guitar), Sikiru Adepoju on talking drum (the man who Mickey refers to as “the Mozart of the talking drum.”) who first joined Mickey years back for the Planet Drum project, and Ian “Inkx” Herman on traps drums (check this, he was the house-drummer for the South African recording company Shifty Records, who recorded mostly anti-establishment/political music. Herman left South African for NYC in the early 90’s during the Anti-Apartheid movement. We’re glad he’s here.). There is one other person to mention. I almost didn’t notice him, but I certainly heard him. Well, I thought at times I was hearing keys but I didn’t see any so I figured it must be something that Mickey or Crystal or Joe was doing since they seemed to have all the extra toys. But, when I moved to the other side of the stage, I did see a guy sitting there but I thought he was at a computer. Well, maybe he was, or maybe there was a keyboard or both. This was one Ben Yonas, who may have been considered the musical director of the evening with his controls and production toys. I’m sure that was him making some very interesting sounds back there. Whatever he was doing, let’s keep it up!
They played two sets (yay!), really different and impressive renditions of Grateful Dead songs and, the music they have created with Mickey’s vision is just as tasty, just as spacey, just as thunderous, pounding and ethereal from one moment to the next. After the show was over, my first note was, “The Mickey Hart Band is non-stop energy, whether you are grooving to the beat in your heart or swaying to the spirit in your soul, you feeeeeeel it – deep.” Yep, that works……
After “Samson” was a song called, “Cut the Deck” which I really, really loved. This comes from their new CD, “Mysterium Tremendum”, and, according to the w-w-w, “All tracks include sounds derived from light and radio waves emanating from the universe.” To that I say, very cool, and then turn to make a note to myself: “Self, go buy this CD”…). The main phrase or refrain of this song is, “And I built your house, and laid your floor; I carried your flag, and I fought your war. I swear by the toes, of the Jones above. All I ever wanted was, some of your love, just some of your love, just some of your love………..” can only go straight to the core of your soul, giving unfolding love over and over, as the rhythm of the song confirms that is really all it takes, LOVE.
From the soulful unfolding, we are led directly into a frolicking high-energy old school version of “China Cat> I Know You Rider”. I say “old school” because of the way they include the harmonies, and sing the refrain “China Cat! Ahhhh – ahhhhh – ahhhhhhhh!” soaring higher and higher until it swirls and twirls down into Rider. Old school.
Their new song, “Jersey Shore” was a really beautiful ballad. We didn’t hear the story behind it but I think we all knew…. It was a soft and soothing tribute to those who survived the storm; a song filled with love and understanding that is meant to be wrapped around the people who live on the Jersey Shore like a warm, secure blanket. Seeing those pictures and hearing the stories of what had happened clearly moved Mr. Hart deeply, to give them this beautiful dedication.
OK, so the West LA was all about Joe Bagale. I’ve never heard it so bluesy, so funky, so filled with “uh”s and “ow”s being laid down as he was lookin’ for a chateau, with 21 rooms but one will do. He’s certainly got a swagger he puts to this song, you feel like you are with him, struttin’ down the dark streets of L.A., lookin’ for trouble, or maybe trying to avoid it.
The first set ended with “Let there be Light”, another from their new CD. This starts out very rhythmic and ethereal before it gets a little heavier with the lyrics shared back and forth between Crystal and Joe. Great set closer, a very spacey-jam, surreal song that at times felt like I was at a Dead show, listening to drums and space. It was out there – the mind expanding, skyrocketing guitars blended with the tribal, rhythmic, heart pumping beats, “pulsing and throbbing” as Mickey would say. Yeah, to say the least……
The second set started with another Grateful Dead favorite, in a wonderfully joyous 12-minute “Franklin’s Tower”. Adding to the back rhythm of the song, the African Showboyz were invited to the stage, filling the sound of the drums even heavier. Oh lively and happy the feet are now, boppin’ around the audience, waiting for the whole place to sing out, “if you get confused listen to the music play!” and in comes Gawain on guitar, sending us soaring to the high arches of the theatre. His playing is solid, a bit lower in tone that what Jerry would have chosen. Gawain offers a newer, slightly heavier tone at times but the way he uses the strings is reminiscent of the soul that Garcia had.
Immediately, it is that feeling again as this moves directly into a time and space that can only be created from the mind of Mickey Hart. A very heavy, spacey, circular “Time Never Ends” The guitar is speaking in tongue, Crystal and Joe singing in harmony, the drums pounding out the constant rhythm in the background. Oh, and then it gets real spacey and deep, moving directly into “Who Stole the Show?”, when Siriku and Crystal begin to chant in way that only your tribal soul can understand. The pre-recorded vocals and words emanating from Mickey’s kit certainly didn’t hurt the craziness of this song. So, who stole the show? I haven’t decided just yet.
“The Other One” was all about Dave Schools, Mickey Hart and one Inkx Herman. And Joe directs the lyrics between the rhythm – “the heat come round and busted me for smiling on a cloudy day!” Really, ‘nuff said.
The last few songs of the night I couldn’t find listed on any of Mickey’s recent CDs over the years. Possibly stuff he’s developed and just hasn’t recorded yet. I hope he does soon. I hear someone yell out “thank you all very much!” during the space of “Heartbeat of the Sun” and I think there were many in the audience who wanted to say the same. I don’t know if it was, “Falling Stars” or the combo “Train/Magic Wand” but there was a moment when I felt like I was underwater listening to the echoes of the world above; then I thought I was inside of a large room with nothing but my heart-beat; or was I floating up, spiraling towards the sky as the stars fell over me? It must have been “Falling Stars, but I’m still trying to sort all of those notes out in my head. Ms. Monee Hall plays with the microphones, at Mickey’s encouragement. She moves from one mic to the other, changing her tone with the mood the microphones create, giving out reverb and altering her voice into something not of this world. She is having so much fun, laughing and dancing around, really letting the whole band take her to new spaces. Where does this come from – must be from one deep corner of her beautiful soul.
I made little notes about each of the talented musicians Mickey Hart has with him right now: Gawain Matthews is such an incredible guitar player. Incredible seems like such a mundane word now, especially used to describe this guy. Must come up with a new way to describe him. Maybe his playing is edible, so thick and tasty you can serve it up for dinner and leave completely satisfied. I have so many pictures of him where he looks overjoyed, or that he’s laughing – maybe on the inside. Laughing because he is so blown away by the creation he is a part of. Then there is Crystal Monee Hall – as I said before, OMG. Hard to describe this wonderful woman, her energy, her voice, her creativity – oh where oh where did Mickey find her….. Joe Bagale, his rhythm guitar talents are remarkable; he moves and dances with you cuz he can feel it too. He also has two microphones for which to use, as well as some computer set up that he can play and add his own craziness to the moment. His voice is can also be very clear and with purpose, or, depending on which mic he uses, can leave you wondering what planet he is from. Oh, and one Dave Schools on bass! The guy genuinely looks like a big teddy bear, you want to hug him, squeeze his face, get yourself all wrapped up in Schools. He had his WSP peeps in the audience, yelling out to him throughout the night, stationing themselves on his side of the stage so they could feel his bass hit their clothes. And this drummer, Inkx, really holds it all together, fitting in noticeably yet unnoticeably. Quietly he watches the band, perfectly knowing the moments to go and fill in between Sikiru’s talking drum and the small world created by Mickey Hart’s big and wonderfully strange drum conglomeration. And then there is the heard but often unseen Ben Yonas – I’m still a little baffled by what he does on his keys and other toys. Baffled in a good way. Baffled that I would like to find out more about Mr. Yonas.
The communication on stage is impressive to watch. Mickey is the conductor, paying keen attention to each of them, noticing everything they do, hearing every note they play, every word they sing. He laughs and banters back and forth, having fun and staying connected on stage through every note. He seems to really love his band. If anything about the Mickey Hart Band, it doesn’t matter how big or small the venue or how close you are to the stage, cuz you don’t really need to open your eyes at all. You will see their music when you close your eyes, because what they offer you is a sound-spectrum of beauty that is well understood by your mind and soul.
The night ended with a full stage, when they asked the African Showboyz to come back out for a climactic closer, “Not Fade Away”, leaving the audience clapping in the rhythm that we all know will bring them back to us. And, are you kiddin’ me – Cream’s “White Room”? It maybe just blew Cream’s version away. Well, I guess I never did see Cream do this live, but this unexpected treat really finished the night off perfectly. All I can say is, the whole night was a perfect circle of rhythm and love. It starts with the energy emitted from the stage, you grab it up, ingest and digest it, it runs through your veins and grabs the reins of your soul, and seeps out from our pores back to the stage creating one huge circle of sound.
Mickey Hart Band, Thursday, November 29, Uptown Theatre, Napa
Set 1: Samson and Delilah, Cut the Deck> China Cat> I Know You Rider, Jersey Shore, West L.A. Fadeaway, Let There Be Light
Set 2: Franklin’s Tower, Time Never Ends> Who Stole the Show, The Other One> Heartbeat of the Sun> Falling Stars> Train/Magic Wand, Not Fade Away E. White Room (comment – that made Cream’s seem tame)