The wheel keeps on turning for former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who knows well that you can’t go back and you can’t stand still (a line from the GD’s classic song “The Wheel”). Hart’s musical endeavors have been all over the map since Jerry Garcia’s untimely departure from the planet in 1995, some good and some bad. But the current version of the Mickey Hart Band seems to have found a niche to explore some new sonic ground while still mining some old favorites.
The future of Grateful Dead music seemed to have been obliterated when Garcia passed on, leaving the band without its reluctant leader. Yet Hart and guitarist/bandmate Bob Weir were right back on the road in the summer of 1996 with Hart’s Mystery Box project and Weir’s Ratdog on what was billed the “Furthur Tour”. The prognosis was downright depressing though, as the 20th century version of Ratdog had yet to find its legs and Mystery Box was widely hailed as the worst project involving a Grateful Dead band member before or since. But Hart, Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and several friends reconvened as The Other Ones for a triumphant tour in 1998. It was a pivotal tour as the band members recognized that this mythical music has a staying power that supersedes any one member, even Garcia.
It’s been a long and winding road, with the band members drifting apart in the early part of the new millennium, only to gather again for another triumphant Other Ones tour in 2002, followed by a name change to “The Dead” in 2003-04. The Dead dissolved again in 2005 but Hart and fellow GD drummer Bill Kreutzmann led one of the best band side projects in 2006-07 as the Rhythm Devils, teaming with guitarist Steve Kimock and Phish bassist Mike Gordon. The Dead reformed and last toured in 2009, after which Lesh and Weir decided to team up without Hart and Kreutzmann to carry on as Furthur with younger bandmates.
Furthur has been hailed as sounding the most like the Grateful Dead of any post-GD project, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still room for additional explorations of the rich catalogue of music and improvisational spirit that the Grateful Dead pioneered. Kreutzmann formed 7 Walkers with New Orleans-based guitarist Papa Mali to put a southern fried twist on the music, and now Hart is back in the game with his own project that features new music and sounds.
Having a great bassist is key, for Lesh’s sonic shoes are quite large to fill and the gap here is what makes many GD cover bands sound rather pedestrian. Hart tapped Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools for last year’s tour and struck gold again this year with Tea Leaf Green’s Reed Mathis, a virtuoso player from the next generation of jamrock talent that’s bloomed in the two decades since the end of the Grateful Dead. Mathis and Tea Leaf keyboardist/singer Trevor Garrod and drummer Cochrane McMillan also open the tour as Tea Leaf Trio, giving the San Francisco band some welcome exposure to an older audience.
Yet an unannounced change in set times sends Tea Leaf Trio on at 7 pm tonight instead of the billed time of 7:30, causing many of their fans to miss the trio’s set. The last song sounds great and it’s intriguing to hear how the band’s sound remains largely intact in the trio format due to the immense talent of Garrod, who can hold his own as a solo act as well. Venue management blames the bands for the time change, though a Tea Leaf member indicates a contractual snafu as the culprit when talking to some fans at set break. But regardless of who’s fault it was, someone should have tweeted about the change for the savvy social media users.
The main event is still on tap though and it’s an interesting lineup that Hart brings to the stage. Hart plays an elaborate percussion kit alongside drummer Greg Schutte, with Mathis on the low end and longtime Hart compadre Sikiru Adepoju on talking drum. The front line includes lead guitarist Gawain Matthews along with vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Joe Bagale, vocalist Crystal Monee Hall and keyboardist/sound designer Jonah Sharpe. There’s an emphasis on tribal beats and eclectic electronic soundscapes for a relatively unique sound carrying over from Hart’s new album, Superorganism.
When the show opens with the GD’s staple cover of Gary Davis’ “Samson and Delilah” featuring the line, “If I had my way, I would tear this old place down”, it seems all too appropriate to the locals. With its spotty acoustics, lack of a smoking section and limited beer selection, the San Diego House of Blues is not known for being particularly fan friendly. Whether the opening selection is a commentary on this is speculative, but the GD were certainly known for tuning into the vibe at a given venue.
The new material has an energetic quality and it’s easy to see that Hart is emotionally invested in the project. The guitars tend to be more in the background, allowing the global rhythms and beats to shine up front. “Chabadas” has a trancey vibe, while “The Sermon” has a bluesy groove and deep beat that invokes a shamanic quality. But of course it’s the Grateful Dead material that really gets the crowd going, such as the classic “China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider” combo that closes out the first set. The GD’s Lesh has often spoken of how the band’s songs are open to various musical interpretations and the “China Cat>Rider” combo takes on a fresh sound with the electronic flavors in the mix.
The second set includes a performance art aspect when Hart dons a cap that measures his brain waves and projects his brain activity on a screen above the stage. Hart then aims to play along to his own brain waves (as illustrated in a video at his website, MickeyHart.net.) The trippy “Mind Your Head” is an appropriate opener, with a soundscape that conjures visions of a desert vision quest before the band segues into a rocking “Not Fade Away”. Hall shines on “Mountains of the Moon”, with her soulful vocal giving the classic psychedelic ballad a compelling twist. Hall also stars on “Don’t Let Down Your God”, a spacey blues with an anti-war undercurrent. The set climaxes at the end with a raucous “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad”, with Hart and Mathis sending the bouncy groove into overdrive.
At the end, Hart implores the crowd to take the positive energy out into the world and do something good with it, a message he’s been delivering for years. The vibe isn’t quite like revisiting a Grateful Dead show that fans can find with Furthur, but credit Hart with following his muse to deliver something that seeks to push sonic boundaries while still holding onto a foundation of “good ol’ Grateful Dead” music.