Nights of the Living Dead Part 2

The Rhythm Devils

by Greg M. Schwartz

15 November 2006

Like great jazz players, rock musicians with an improvisational background age like fine wine.
The Rhythm Devils 

After playing in Toledo on the 21st, the Rhythm Devils traveled to Northeast Ohio for a third Buckeye-state concert at downtown Cleveland’s House of Blues. The pre-show mood was a bit dreary, as it was another gray, blustery day, and the Cleveland Browns had just turned in a pathetic performance in a 17-7 loss to Denver. But the Rhythm Devils were in town to save the day, and spirits began to rise as fans downed pre-show libations at the HOB restaurant around the corner.

The smaller HOB provided a more intimate atmosphere than the Columbus show, and the Rhythm Devils opened strong with another killer rendition of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” one which almost seemed dedicated to the long-suffering Browns fans. Later, Dead classic “New Speedway Boogie” was also aimed in the same direction. Originally penned in response to the Hells Angels’ murder of a fan at the 1969 Altamont festival, the song spoke to the hometown team’s futility: “one way or another / this darkness got to give.” And give it did as the band closed the first set with a rousing rendition of “Good Lovin.’” Mike Gordon and Jen Durkin teamed on vocals again, channeling the spirit of Pigpen—the Dead’s original keyboardist who died in 1972—as the band conjured the late ‘60s/early ‘70s version of the song.

The second set highlighted new material in three of the first four songs, including another stomp through “Fountains of Wood,” which followed another run through “Cumberland Blues.” But, it was in the post-drum jam segment of the set that the musical fireworks again exploded, as Gordon dropped the singularly identifiable bass bomb that heralds entry into “The Other One,” a seminal psychedelic classic and one of only a handful of songs that remained Dead staples throughout the band’s 30-year career. The intensity of the show soared to a higher level, and, if you closed your eyes, you could imagine the year was 1969—drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann were showing no signs of age. Gordon was a monster on the bass, as Steve Kimock provided the signature psychedelic riffs and Hart and Kreutzmann continued to build the song until it exploded into a frenzy of primal psychedelic thunder. It was a stunning demonstration of how rock musicians with an improvisational background are like great jazz players: they age like fine wine.

The treats kept coming as the band broke out “The Wedge,” a beloved rarity from the Phish catalogue. This was a great choice, as the song has a tricky beat that benefited from the presence of three percussionists. Gordon funked it up again, getting off on what was clearly a true crowd pleaser. As with “Twist” in Columbus, the song was jammed to a funkier level than the standard, syncopated version, and Gordon and Durkin teamed beautifully on the song’s catchy harmonies. After the spacey new “Hoodoo You Think You Are,” they threw down a huge rendition of “Fire on the Mountain” to close the set. A deep groove enveloped everybody as the band and crowd joined to form the circuit that opens the door to the transcendental groove. After both shows, Hart encouraged the crowd to take the positive energy and go out and do something good with it, like vote—something rock fans aren’t known for doing in great numbers.

Messengers Hart and Kreutzmann must be commended for putting together such a stellar touring unit, and until such time as his old band might reunite, it looks like Phish’s Gordon has found the perfect place to hang his hat.

Check back tomorrow for Nights of the Living Dead Part 3 with Ratdog

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