Monday, June 18, 2018

Whatever happened to the Grateful Dead? 2: Mickey Hart

The profile that follows was originally published in the weekly online magazine ‘Gonzo’, issue #225/6.  It was the second of a series of pieces I wrote for the magazine concerning former core members of the Grateful Dead, taking a look at their musical activities following the demise of the original band with Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995.

I felt that a lot of former ‘Deadheads’, especially here in the UK, had tended to lose interest in these guys’ activities, which seemed a shame as all four of them had, each in their own way, edged into new and worthwhile musical territories.  Obviously, those like me who did keep track could use the internet to keep abreast of their activities and access some of the music.  But for anyone who hadn’t bothered, I thought a few pointers towards selected highlights might be enough to rekindle interest.

My own interest is not so much on the live performance of the band’s old material, which – understandably in many ways – all four of them tend to fall back on.  Not that the reinterpretation of an old song hasn’t on many occasions wowed me, of course.  But it’s what they have done that is new and exploratory that excites me and on which I tend mainly to focus.

                                                               Devilish Rhythms

                                    The many creative ventures of ‘rhythm devil’ Mickey Hart.

Of all the musicians who were a part of the Grateful Dead, Mickey Hart has arguably had the most varied and unpredictable solo career.  Unlike his generally laid back Californian colleagues, Hart is a fast talking, self-promoting character with something of the showman/charlatan about him.  His interviews tend to read like press releases.  On the whole, there’s something endearing about his enthusiasm for whatever project his restless mind has latched onto.  I imagine, though, that he could be a bit wearing in person.

Between 2011 and 2013 he managed to braid together many of the varying threads of his work into one almighty outfit, the Mickey Hart Band, and this piece will focus largely on that intensely productive period.  Prior to that, however, let’s take a look back at his activities outside of the Dead since the early 70s, kicking off powerfully in the form of his 1972 album ‘Rolling Thunder’.  With a spectacular Kelley/Mouse designed sleeve, this album drew in large part from the pool of Californian musicians who participated in the making of Paul Kantner’s Jefferson Starship and David Crosby’s ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’.  It’s a rousing, energetic, mostly rock styled piece of work, containing several strong, memorable songs and it stands up well to this day.  Recording sessions continued with a view to a follow up.  It never found release but most of the completed or near completed tracks can be found for download on the web these days.

Hart’s ethnomusicalogical interests were already surfacing on this album, manifest in both the Shoshone Indian Invocation with which it begins and the contributions elsewhere of tabla player Zakir Hussain.  Hussain was a major collaborator in Hart’s next album, released on the Dead’s short lived ‘Round’ label and featuring an almost entirely percussive outfit known as the Diga Rhythm Band.  The focus on drums and percussive instruments remained throughout several more record releases, running up until the middle 90s.  These included ‘The Apocalypse Now Sessions’ (with Bill Kreutzmann), ‘At the Edge’ and ‘Planet Drum’.  There was a sense of parallel development between these albums and the increasingly elaborate ‘Drums’ segments which spotlighted Kreutzmann and Hart during Grateful Dead shows.  Rooted in what was frequently a bit of a curse in 70s rock music, the drum solo, these became one of the most exploratory passages in (usually) the second set.  Hart brought ‘world music’ to the table with things that rattled, things that boomed and things that buzzed, many of which I assume he’d located and collected on his travels.  There’d be an element of electronica creeping in to the sound too, especially as the remaining members of the Dead began to re-assemble and ‘Drums’ morphed into ‘Space’.  In the late 80s and early 90s there was often little difference between these improvisations and the new and fashionable music of outfits like The Orb.  Hart’s albums likewise, whilst zestfully rhythmic naturally, explored sound textures and ambience inventively.

Outside of his own recordings and performances, Hart – as mentioned – spent a great deal of time travelling, studying and recording music across the world during this period.  He was looking particularly for forms that were in danger of cultural extinction, in association with such august bodies as the Smithsonian Institute, and issued a large number of these recordings, details of which can be found on his website.  He was also writing fairly prolifically.  At least four books on music have appeared so far.  Haven’t got round to reading any of them myself, but from the titles I see in Wikipedia I’d say it’s a safe bet that the emphasis is largely on percussion.

But unpredictability has been a constant facet of this man’s career and the release of the album ‘Mickey Hart’s Mystery Box’ in 1996 certainly took me by surprise.  It was a song based album, and though some of the tracks were ‘rapped’ by Hart (a touch affectedly, in my opinion), the majority were graced by the elegant vocals of the Mint Juleps.  Originally UK based, the Juleps were a multi-ethnic female harmony singing group, who I’m pretty sure made regular appearances on UK TV programme ‘The Tube’ in the early 80s.  How they ended up in Hart’s orbit I’ve no idea, but their superb vocals on a full set of lyrics by the Dead’s Robert Hunter were a match made in heaven.  The music behind the vocals remained largely percussive, but with bass, keyboards and occasional guitars thrown in.  ‘Mystery Box’ remains a personal favourite of mine to this day.  A fine twelve minute version of one of the stand-out tracks, ‘Sito’, performed at one of the 1996 ‘Furthur Festival’ gigs, can be accessed on YouTube.

Over the next ten years Hart continued to release still more albums of mainly percussion based music, whilst participating in the post Garcia groupings of The Other Ones/The Dead and collaborating with other musicians besides.  Then, in 06, he got together with Kreutzmann once more, reviving the name ‘Rhythm Devils’ – a nickname with which they’d been dubbed in the Dead and had used for the ‘Apocalypse Now’ album – and recruiting the hugely accomplished Steve Kimock on guitar, along with Mike (Phish) Gordon on bass.  With a mixture of material from their existing repertoires, plus a handful of new songs with lyrics provided once again by Hunter, they took to the road.  They added singer Jen Durkin, who’d previously been in a band known as Deep Banana Blackout.  After the bliss of the Mint Juleps, her strident voice didn’t quite cut it for me.  Credit where credit’s due though, she managed superbly a tongue twister written by Hunter in the chant-song ‘Fountains of Wood’.  You try rapidly repeating ‘Multiphonic, supersonic, catatonic, anodyne,’ a few times, let alone singing it.

There were various incarnations of the Rhythm Devils over the next five years, several musicians passing through the ranks.  Invariably tight and very much a dance act, they struck me as one of the most interesting and exciting new projects from any ex-member of the Dead.  But what came next was quite transcendent.  Although he somewhat prosaically stuck with the name Mickey Hart Band, the outfit he formed between 2011 and 2013 (releasing two albums and undertaking two US tours) was a near perfect synthesis of just about every pie that Hart ever dipped finger into.  I can find little whatsoever to criticise about the Mickey Hart Band of that time, except perhaps that Hart might have done better to steer clear of his own attempts to write lyrics.  No matter, they mostly sound good even if on the whole they don’t seem to make a lot of sense, and both the albums have a further dose of yet more lyrics from the ever prolific Hunter.

But the music, that was pure transport.  Sometimes I imagined it as a cross between the Grateful Dead and Daevid Allen’s Gong at their very best.  It’s pretty damn good on both the albums, particularly the first – somewhat portentously titled ‘Mysterium Tremendum’.  Live they took it to the max.  Fronted by two powerful singers, one of whom was an outstanding black female vocalist named Crystal Monee Hall, they brought together the complex, multi faceted rhythms of world music, a bunch of really memorable tunes, a slew of Orb-esque electronica and samples and a whole division of deep, deep drones.  Hart even managed to find yet another superb guitarist in Gawain Mathews.

 Their shows were non-stop, mixing material from the albums with a selection of often radically re-arranged Grateful Dead songs and the occasional fascinating cover (Cream’s ‘White Room’ was a cracker).  Hart brought a few marginally gimmicky concepts to the feast – tone patterns based on signals from stars and other heavenly bodies, followed with the second album by sounds generated from a skullcap of sensors picking up rhythms from his own brain as he played.  There was a fair bit of bull in all this, but it was all part of the fun (just as that bit of daftness was, I think, with Gong).

Live soundboards of the second tour shows were available for a while on Hart’s website, but were not to be found when last I looked.  The albums (the 2nd one was called ‘Superorganism’) give a fair idea of the band’s strengths, but if you can find any soundboards of the shows on file sharing sites, I’d recommend them.  Hart, like most of the Dead, takes care these days to keep soundboard recordings largely off the internet and audience recordings tend to muddy the complex and layered sound – but there are a few on the Live Music Archive and some are fair recordings.

To my disappointment, as the faff about the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary shows began to accumulate, Hart let the band members go their separate ways.  Though he and Kreutzmann doubtless add sparkle to the currently running Dead and Company band, it all seems a bit business-as-usual compared to what was achieved by the MHB.  The only thing that’s caught my attention from Hart in the last year or two was a studio collaboration with veteran jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd, of which there was but a five minute extract on YouTube available last time I looked. 

Nevertheless, Mickey Hart gives the impression of being a pretty tireless guy and age does not appear to have slowed or mellowed him that much.  I live in hope of more pleasant musical surprises from this rhythm devil before he and his drumsticks make their exit.

Not all that long after the above piece was written came the announcement that Hart was to release a new album, 'Ramu', which then appeared late in 2017.  In many ways it was pretty much what I was hoping for.  Although not a re-appearance of the Mickey Hart Band it had the same level of vitality and inventiveness that I found on their albums.  One track featured a further collaboration with Charles Lloyd and there were strong contributions from a number of other performers of varying degrees of fame.  It was not accompanied by any live performances at the time, presumably due to Dead & Co. commitments.  I reviewed the album in Gonzo 272 and may well re-run the review here once these 4 pieces have run.

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