Drums and space, the trippy improvised interlude of a drum solo that transitioned into a playful (and often scary) symphony of space noises, was once an integral part of a Grateful Dead second set. Now that Furthur, the current touring superstar of the Dead realm, has eliminated drums and space from their repertoire, fans of the loose and unpredictable performances are feeling a serious rhythmic void.
Thank god for Mickey Hart! The former percussionist for the Grateful Dead has devoted his life to the progression of drumming, both by learning about traditional styles of drumming and percussion from around the world and by developing new ways to make rhythmic sounds.
Hart’s career has taken numerous twists and turns, and each new project he starts leads to dramatically unique results. And in his latest endeavor, Hart has taken the concept of drums and space to a whole new, literal, level. Working with scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and technicians at Meyer Sound (both in Berkeley, CA), Hart acquired samples of sound waves that had been derived from light waves in the universe. He then used these samples to create new songs, uniting listeners with the cosmos through the beats created by our solar system.
The touring outlet for this new music is The Mickey Hart Band, an eight-piece assembly of musicians that has been Hart’s main support for much of 2011 (although the lineup for the current fall tour has been slightly modified from that of the summer).
Fronting the band are a keyboardist (and saxophonist!), Tim Hockenberry, and acoustic guitarist, Crystal Monee Hall, both of whom do the majority of the vocals in the band. Hockenberry, who bears an uncanny resemblance to U2’s The Edge and whose voice sounds a bit like Tom Waits, seems to be the most well-versed out of the band in mainstream music. He gives off a very crisp, marketable vibe.
Hall, his female counterpart, is an absolute vocal powerhouse. While talented on guitar, this woman’s voice is out of this world. During Hart’s more spacy songs, Hall uses her voice as a musical instrument, rather than as a vehicle for lyrics. Using an echo, her voice becomes simultaneously primal and ethereal.
In congruity with the Dead’s tradition of having two drummers, one for experimental percussion and to man a traditional drum kit, Hart was backed up on stage by drummer Ian “Inx,” Herman. The band is also joined by a third drummer, the Nigerian talking drum maven Sikiru Adepoju. Adepoju is a frequent collaborator with Hart, and is best known for his work on “Planet Drum.”
A standout performer in the band was guitarist Gawain Mathews, whose influence can be found all over the Bay Area music scene. Mathews looks young, but he has played with multitudes of other musicians, produces albums at his studio and has had his songs featured on “American Idol.”
Rounding out the band’s lineup were Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools, whose playing both compliments Hart’s cadence and serves as a part of the percussion section, and a second keyboardist, Ben Yonas. Yonas is the owner of Yonas Media, a production studio and management company whose clients include Hart, Hockenberry and Hall.
I had the pleasure of catching the Mickey Hart Band at Portland’s Aladdin Theater on Friday, December 2. The show was only the third tour date, following gigs in Eugene and Seattle, but the band was so tight that it was impossible to tell that they had only been on the road for a couple days.
The crowd at the Aladdin was mostly older, with a smaller group of representatives from the younger Deadhead set. Fewer tie-dyes were visible than at an average Grateful Dead side project concert. Many of the concert-goers went into the show with almost no idea what to expect — just knowing that whatever was played would be good.
The show opened with a whompy drone, an ominous and dark horn-infused intro that was so intriguing that it drew the crowd toward the stage like moths to a flame.
This sound eventually morphed into Starlight, Starbright, one of the band’s new compositions, which have lyrics written by the dominant lyricist for the Grateful Dead, Robert Hunter. Following Starlight was another new song, Let There Be Light.
After opening the show with two newbies, Hart gave the crowd an old favorite: Scarlet Begonias. This song was a bit more funkified than the original, and gave off a bit of a “Midnight Hour” vibe. Instead of following Scarlet Begonias with the expected partner of Fire on the Mountain, the band jammed into an energetic The Other One.
The band then went into Ticket to Nowhere, a song whose roots are with the Rhythm Devils. Though the song was played in the past, the version that The Mickey Hart Band now plays has been updated and has morphed into a very different song than it once was.
The first set closed out with Time Never Ends, a song that Hart wrote with Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist Bob Weir and Gov’t Mule guitarist Warren Haynes. The song was first played in an earlier incarnation of the Mickey Hart Band, before being played by The Dead on their 2004 tour. This is yet another song that has been modified in its revival by the current band, but its lyrical content describing scenes of the cosmos fits in well with the new, space-based songs.
Before beginning the second set, Hart took time to explain his latest project to the audience, finally introducing his new song Heartbeat by informing us that, “this is the sun. Your sun. This is what it sounds like.” Even the song’s title calls to mind the importance of the sun at the heart of our solar system, and the sound reinforces this.
Heartbeat was followed by three more new songs, Cut the Deck, which was a lovely song that prompted couples throughout the crowd to hold each other and sway, Djinn Djinn and Slo Jo Rain.
The stretch of new songs ended four songs into the set, when the band played one of the most beautiful renditions of Brokedown Palace I’ve ever heard, sung by Hall. Hall’s voice did that song more justice than many other voices, and she did not forget a single word (despite having less experience with the Grateful Dead’s music). Her singing was so beautiful that the crowd was more apprehensive than usual about singing along (though it still happened, eventually). Crystal Monee Hall, we love you more than words can tell.
The band got the crowd dancing again with another older Mickey Hart Band song, Who Stole the Show, a fun and funky rap that acknowledges and celebrates cultural change through a listing of influential people and events, before heading into an energetic new tune, Supersonic.
The band closed out their second set with Scarlet Begonias’ better half — Fire on the Mountain, Mickey Hart and Robert Hunter’s most famous collaboration.
After several minutes of explosive cheering from the crowd, the band reemerged onstage for their encore, the Buddy Holly classic and Grateful Dead favorite Not Fade Away. After the band finished the song, the crowd took over, clapping the song’s famous beat and singing, “No our love will not fade away!”
Following the audience’s lead, the band came out for a second encore, Down the Road, a song that originated with Mickey Hart’s Mystery Box and was later played by The Dead. Down the Road is unique because it features a rare treat: Mickey singing! It also features a verse about Jerry Garcia, another rarity from former Grateful Dead members.
The second encore only got the crowd more excited, and the environment outside the show was that of a satisfied and fulfilled party.
Despite the set lists of all the shows on the tour being relatively similar (they only differ by one or two songs), I would not hesitate to go see this band. If you’re on the fence about going to the show because you aren’t familiar with the music, get off the fence and into the box office. You won’t regret it.
The Mickey Hart Band
Friday, December 2
Starlight, Starbright (New song with lyrics by Robert Hunter)
Let There Be Light (New)
Scarlet Begonias >
The Other One
Ticket to Nowhere (Updated Rhythm Devils song)
Time Never Ends (Hart, Weir, Haynes)
Cut the Deck (New)
Djinn Djinn (New)
Slo Jo Rain (New)
Who Stole the Show (Older Mickey Hart Band song)
Fire on the Mountain
E: Not Fade Away
E2: Down the Road (Mickey Hart’s Mystery Box)