The indefatigable energy of Grateful Dead music was strong in Ohio’s “Rock-tober” as drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann brought their new band, the Rhythm Devils, to the Midwest, followed shortly thereafter by guitarist Bob Weir’s Ratdog. Despite the bands’ many differences, both succeed in keeping the music of the Dead alive by continuing to push it in new and fresh directions. Hart, Kreutzmann, and Weir may all be approaching senior-citizen status, but their vibrant careers—now 40-plus years long—are still going strong.
It was a rainy Thursday night in Columbus when fans filed into Lifestyles Community Pavilion for the Rhythm Devils’ first Ohio show. The venue is unique in that it has two stages—one outdoors for the summer and one inside for the rest of the year. The outdoor stage is one of the best venues in the Midwest, with a small lawn and great speakers, and there’s not a bad spot in the house. The indoor setup is nice too, with a wide pit, spacious second level, VIP balcony, and outstanding sound.
Anticipation for the Rhythm Devils was high, as the band matches Hart and Kreutzmann with Phish’s Mike Gordon. Gordon is a longtime Dead devotee, and there is probably no bassist on Earth better suited to sub for the Dead’s Phil Lesh. Rounded out by Bay Area guitar luminary Steve Kimock, vocalist Jen Durkin, and Sikiru Adepoju on talking drum, the Rhythm Devils demonstrated that they are no mere percussion project but, rather, a full-on rock ‘n roll force.
“Scarlet Begonias,” one of the Dead’s most beloved classics, was a masterstroke opener, both an instant crowd pleaser and an appropriate tribute to Columbus’ Ohio State Buckeyes who were the number-one-ranked team in college football and whose colors are scarlet and gray. But it was the next tune, the original “Fountains of Wood,” which really set the tone for the evening. Featuring a funky groove and bluesy riffs over a hard-driving beat and new lyrics from longtime Grateful Dead wordsmith Robert Hunter, the song established the band as more than just a greatest-hits jukebox. In fact, new songs with fresh lyrics by Hunter make up the bulk of the band’s repertoire.
The Rhythm Devils took the energy of “Scarlet” right into “Fountains” and had the whole place grooving without missing a beat. Durkin’s vocals blend a bluesy Janis Joplin with a Sheryl Crow-ish pop-rock sound, one which goes well with Gordon’s dynamic deep end, Kimock’s spacey guitar, and the transcendental beats of Kreutzmann and Hart.
Kreutzmann provided the backbeat as usual, and, instead of playing a full trap-kit along with him, Hart stood and played a wide variety of additional percussion, taking the polyrhythmic sound to a higher level. Adepoju added another layer of flourish, lending a bit of a world-beat sound as well, while Gordon and Kimock provided the perfect foil for Hart and Kreutzmann to do what they do best. The first set concluded with another Dead classic, the traditional “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” which got everyone in the house feeling good.
The second set opened with three more original songs, and, though the tunes were unfamiliar, the supreme level of musicianship kept the crowd grooving. A turbo-charged “Cumberland Blues” took fans back to familiar territory, but also explored new ground as Gordon and Durkin shared vocals on the traditional worker’s lament. The high-powered jam eventually led into an intense drum jam between Hart and Kreutzmann.
The surprise of the show came shortly thereafter when the rest of the band returned and busted out Phish’s “Twist Around.” It was an intriguing choice since “Twist” was a song that never seemed to reach its potential and is hardly a “phan” favorite. But Gordon must have had that in mind: this version took the bass line to a previously unheard level of funk. Together, the Rhythm Devils created a monster groove that blew away Phish’s original arrangement.
“Twist” was followed by the new “Your House,” a song based around the same highly danceable beat as another long-time Dead staple, “Iko-Iko.” The band then capped the proceedings with an epic version of “Fire on the Mountain.” Durkin promised to sing the entire song (which has more verses than the Dead usually played), and she did a great job of providing those vocals while also saving fans from having to hear Hart’s awful rap version of the tune. Gordon and Kimock, meanwhile, channeled Lesh and Garcia masterfully, once again providing the pathway for Hart and Kreutzmann to conjure one of the all-time transcendental grooves of the cosmos.
Check back tomorrow for Nights of the Living Dead Part 2