Going into the Mickey Hart Band show at the Stone Pony, I tried not to clutter my brain with possible expectations for the night of music ahead. As I arrived to the tourist section of Asbury Park, I saw Steal Your Face logos and tiedyes scattered amongst beach goers that were accompanied by a distant sound of a drum circle that resided inside the gates of the Pony’s outer portion. The circle eventually died down and the crowd awaited the band to take the stage for the first set.
Mickey’s projects have always held to one standard, which naturally matches his capabilities behind any arrangement of drums or electronic effects. While all his experiments bring something new to the table, often rooted in African musicianship and World Music arrangements, the 2012 Mickey Hart Band has developed the knack for staying in the realms of a rock band while using it as a vehicle to explore space. Though “space” anywhere near a Grateful Dead reference usually refers to what Dead Heads call the lengthy predecessor of the Rhythm Devil’s freeform percussion jam “Drums,” the music off of recently released Mysterium Tremendum uncovers sounds that authentically occurred in space billions of years ago. Future technology has allowed the Grateful Dead percussionist to render those exact sounds which he samples and works into the structure of the song.
Hart is also known to bring an impressive group along for the ride and this lineup speaks that message loud and clear, bringing along Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools, vocalist and occasional guitarist Crystal Monee Hall, vocalist and guitarist Joe Bagale, who is partnered with young and accomplished lead guitarist Gawain Mathews, Sikiru Adepoju on the talking drum and other percussion, Ian Herman on the drum set, and Ben Yonas on Keys. The backgrounds of these musicians alone speak the miles of diversity that is possessed in this group’s originals, whose lyrics were written by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.
Even though the band was touring in support of Mysterium Tremendum, the first set was dominated with staples in the Grateful Dead repertoire. The opening “Scarlet Begonias” into its brethren “Fire On The Mountain” communicated the universal language in the band; exploration. Amidst the 20 minute jam, Mickey Hart demonstrated a slew of his percussive and electronic artillery that would be used throughout the night. The contrast of the Deadhead anthems with the psychedelic originals from Mysterium Tremendum kept the packed crowd on their toes, with no telling what would come next.
Crystal Monee Hall led the group with her R&B seasoned voice, even picking up a guitar to strum along from time to time. Though during instrumental periods, the spotlight was consumed by Gawain Mathews bending strings and moving his fingers across the fret of his guitar, extracting a unique and stunning sound that fit snug in the astronomical theme to the music.
The second set featured Grateful Dead classics like “The Other One,” and “I Know You Rider,” surrounded by very deep and detailed tunes from the latest Hart record, specifically “Let There Be Light” and “Heartbeat of the Sun.” The ability to fit a song like “Heartbeat of the Sun” before a famous Dead jam like “The Other One” and have the transition flow as well as it did, proved that this band was rehearsed and on fire. The encore was a perfect cap to the night, featuring Crystal Hall’s majestic voice tackling the Hunter/Garcia song “Brokedown Palace.” Though Hart’s most impressive moments tend to be in more upbeat situations, his band seemed to shine no matter the style or speed.
This band has mastered the art of space travel by incorporating the power of music to bring their audiences back to sounds that we may not have heard otherwise. Make sure to watch out for their remaining tour dates and future material from this band, as Mr. Hart proves why he’s one of the best percussionists around.
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