April 25, 2012
Dallas, TX USA
Review by David DiPietro
Photos by Bill Ellison
Mickey Hart Band
Equal parts ambassador of rhythm, ethnomusicologist and musical mad scientist, Mickey Hart is perhaps rock music's most possessed artist. An intense obsessive in every sense of the word, Hart has been a part of the musical exploration that is the Grateful Dead since joining the band, mid-performance, as second drummer in 1967.
As diverse and challenging as the Dead's music was, whenever there was a need for it to be pushed even further into the realms of suspended animation and disbelief, Mickey Hart was always found to be the driving force behind such proceedings. The man was using live crickets as a percussion backing track during the recording of the Blues for Allah album in 1975, in an attempt to evoke the sparse grace land and arid highlands of the Sahara Desert. Hart truly drums on the edge of magic and inhabits a mindset and musical universe which, needless to say, is plainly out of reach to most. This was probably one of the reasons that Francis Ford Coppola enlisted Mickey and his hand-picked array of percussionists known as the Rhythm Devils to score the jungle sequences for his film, Apocalypse Now, in 1978.
So it came as a most welcome surprise to hear several months ago that the Mickey Hart Band was winging its way to Dallas - a first solo appearance by Hart in the area, despite the fact that he has performed solo (along with playing in the Dead) since the release of his Rolling Thunder LP in 1972. After all, the Grateful Dead themselves played Dallas a mere 5 times in their 30-year history.
Utilizing an eight-piece line-up, The Mickey Hart Band dazzled the Granada audience with the Grateful Dead tradition of two sets, and proceeded to weave musical tapestries which ran a gamut of styles, at times utilizing dissonance and feedback which evoked the sonic dreamscapes of space rockers such as Hawkwind or Amon Duul II, to percussive world beat, reggae and Motown. On 6-string bass guitar, the band features David Schools of Widespread Panic, one of the most revered modern masters of the medium.
The band hit the Granada stage at 8:15 and launched into a sizzling, "Not Fade Away," a Buddy Holly cover popularized by the Rolling Stones, but in the Dead repertoire since 1968. At this early point of the show it became immediately obvious that the Mickey Hart Band was not a Grateful Dead cover band and that they were fully intent on breathing new and original life into any Haight-Ashbury nuggets they resurrected.
At stage left, Hart stood throughout the duration of the show behind the biggest battery of equipment I have ever seen on the Granada stage. The number of electrical inputs needed for such an elaborate set-up must have been staggering. Like some sort of percussive Dr. Jekyll, Hart took great delight in his lab, often playing both sides of his set up simultaneously - electronic pads on his front left and a battery of acoustic drums and djembes on his right - in search of the proper rhythmic dosage for his aural concoction.
Behind him, on a red white and blue striped DW trap kit that seemed to visually mimic a set Hart played in 1970, drummer Ian Herman was left to deliver a more traditional back beat, in call and response to Hart's rhythmic explorations and triple paradiddles. Bassist, David Schools (who appeared onstage initially to audience chants of, "Schools rules!") was simply mesmerizing. Playing a Modulus Bass similar to that of Dead bassist Phil Lesh, Schools' frenetic, yet melodic fret work was a sound to behold, hitting incredibly deep, sonic craters; sensatory slabs which rattled the foundations of the Granada Theater.
"Let There Be Light," a tune from the Mickey Hart Band's newly-released album, Mysterium Tremendum (featuring sparkling new lyrics from long-time Dead lyricist, Robert Hunter), immediately entered ambient / space music territory, with Hart coaxing an incredible array of sounds from his Etherwave -Theremin, which sounded to have been hot-rodded and tricked out in the pursuit of Hart's restless muse. Looking to be playing two antennas, Hart resembled a ham radio operator gone haywire, an audio chemist perfecting a secret serum. "Djinn, Djinn," also from the new LP, proceeded down the same pathway, with Hart trance-like, trading grooves with longtime Hart sideman, Sikuru Adepoju on stage far right, playing the talking drum. The result was tribal, hypnotic, otherworldly.
An interesting cover of a tune with which the Temptations scored a No. 1 hit in 1972, "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," was given ultra-affectionate treatment, with vocalist and occasional acoustic guitarist Crystal Monee Hall, hitting soaring heights with seeming ease. Second vocalist and keyboardist, Tim Hockenberry, seemed to miss a few vocal cues on this song as well as the dead classic, "Franklin's Tower," which followed. This lack of precision seemed to somewhat annoy Hart, though I doubt many in the audience even noticed the flub. It was only on these rare occasions however, did the fact that this incarnation of the band being together less than a year even begin to show. This collection of musicians was, for the most part, as tight as a duck's behind - and that's waterproof, folks!
After a 20-minute intermission, the band again took the stage and Mickey, the master of ceremonies, told the crowd of about 600, "You guys know about what happens in the second set, right? The SECOND SET?!" Those who know of the Dead's live reputation are undoubtedly aware that the first set is usually built around shorter, more traditional songs, keeping things a bit safe, before the derring-do of the mostly improvisational second set. As members of the Dead have said, the first set is about making sure everything is in tune, and that the house sound is tweaked and about building a musical platform for the things to come later. The second set is where the band collectively dives off of said platform and into the land of serendipity.
The second set opener, "Heartbeat of the Sun," was an instrumental which featured some dynamic bass and drum interplay as well as some scorching leads by guitarist Gawain Mathews. As the youngest member of the band, he was probably a mere tot when the Grateful Dead played Dallas last, in 1988. This tune segued in, "Slo Jo Rain," one of the more outstanding tracks from the new album lyrically and musically. The segue from a long instrumental jam led into the Dead classic, "Fire on the Mountain," which elicited some of the mightiest crowd response of the evening. The band proceeded to add a new layer of magic to the tune; enhancement being added by the lush audio waves of Mickey's various electronic play toys.
"Supersonic Vision," led to a gargantuan drum and bass guitar duet which segued neatly into the Dead's autobiographical, "That's it for the Other One," which first appeared on the Anthem of the Sun album in 1968. The peaks and valleys of this tune are always tasteful and tonight was no exception. The Granada crowd knew every word to the tune and anticipated with relish the deep, guttural bass notes of the song's instrumental breaks. "The Other One," as it is more commonly known, is surely one of the more exploratory tunes in the Dead's canon and this one was tremendous, taking the crowd on an extended journey through multiple musical mazes, climaxing again and again, like a Turkish whore in heat.
"Bertha," continued the positive vibrations; the entire audience bobbling happily throughout. Again, the reading of the song on this night was different from the approach the Dead usually took with it, having a more formal rock and roll backing than the Dead's country shuffle meets bebop.
After leaving the stage to rip roaring applause, the Mickey Hart Band returned and gave the crowd a flower in the form of "Broke Down Palace," one of the most beloved petals from the bouquet that is the American Beauty album. This version took the form of a gospel hymn, in a church made of music. Crystal Hall's voice took it to heights that surpassed even those of Donna Godchaux, when the Dead performed the song in the 1970's. "Fare you well, fare you well / I love you more than words can tell / Listen to the river sing deep songs, to rock my soul." This tune was the perfect choice to end a stellar evening.