Mickey Hart Band 12.10.11
Words & Photos By J-man
Audio Recorded By Corey Sandoval (Kind Recordings)
The Grateful Dead are by far the most coveted band on our scene. They were the pioneers of a musical and cultural movement. Even the success of the incarnations of the band and the different offshoots have been overwhelmingly positive. Hinging on the music that was the base of their musical career, these projects including Bob Weir & Ratdog, Phil Lesh & Friends, The Rhythm Devils and Furthur, among others, have continued down the road. The same can't be said for Mickey Hart's solo work. While heading down the road, Mickey hit a fork that took him to outer space. He has focused a lot of time and energy into the exploration of sound. His projects seem to often reflect a perceptive take on Dead tunes with a twist of innovative exploration. Saturday night at The Oriental Theater in Denver, I had the pleasure of seeing one our scene's greats.
The day before the show I received a call from Jay Bianchi who was promoting the event. He asked if I was interested in helping to load-in for the band. On the day of the show, a team of folks met at the theater to unload the band's gear, instruments and equipment. It was a quick process that left me feeling nostalgic for times that I had missed. The gear boxes were covered in Grateful Dead related stickers and stenciled paint. On one of the boxes I noticed the original Grateful Dead steely logo fading with age; on another the "Deadheads For Obama" sticker. The experience was unique and the catering spread quite nice.
I returned to The Oriental later that evening following the early door time. There was a decent turn out, however the crowds didn't show until later in the evening. I was greeted at the door by one of the owners who undid the rope and let me in with a smile. That evening would mark my first experience at The Oriental. I entered the main room to get a feel for the venue. The theatre was lit with different colors and the upper portion of the walls reflected an almost Persian/Arab scene. Traditional Indian music was played over the house speakers leving me in a state of relaxation and bliss.
I found myself at a table in the lobby people watching and writing. Across from where I stood was a table of jewelry, pipes and other various hippie trinkets. Many smiles and familiar faces translated into musical conversations and catching up with good friends. Just prior to the show I was approached by taper, Corey Sandoval, who informed me that the scheduled opener, Sam Holt, would not be performing for one reason or another. A few of the folks standing around speculated as to the cause of the cancellation.
As the lights went down in the main room, I situated myself on the main level near Corey and the soundboard. The Mickey Hart Band took the stage around 9:30 pm to a sold out crowd...
Mickey Hart Band Live at Oriental Theater on December 10, 2011.
SET I: Let There Be Light, Starlight, Djinn Djinn, Iko Iko, Endless Skies, Time Never Ends >Drums & Bass Jam >The Other One
SET II: Heartbeat, Slo Jo, Brokedown Palace, Cut The Deck , Who Stole The Show?, Scarlet Begonias >Fire On The Mountain
ENCORE: Band Intro/Happy Birthday to Dave Schools, Not Fade Away, Down The Road
"Ok, Wow! A lot of people out there..." Mickey said surprised. "Well I guess we're just going to have to give it up for you tonight. It looks like we'll have to give you the real deal. Wow, I don't know... I think we can do that."
Instantly we were hit with intense worldly tones and percussion on "Let There Be Light." The song opened up to funky guitar chops and auto tones coming from the keys. The soulful vocals of Crystal Monee Hall echoed throughout the venue and throughout our minds. Also on vocals as well as keys and trombone was Tim Hockenberry, who from the get go assumed a front man type role on stage. Initially I was not digging the raspy, somewhat forced/over-produced vocals coming from Tim, however, with Crystal right behind him it seemed tolerable.
Guitarist Gawain Mathews impressed early on, tastefully stepping up and tearing into the groove. The set was one song deep and sounding like a closer. From the back of the stage you could hear the man of the evening, Dave Schools, dropping phat bass lines. The next song was the still tribal, though more popular sounding "Starlight." It was interesting to hear the mechanics of what Mickey was doing textually. The vocals however were almost too produced and with a chorus that boasted such lyrics as "Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight..."; I was not impressed.
The track that followed, "Djinn Djinn," was yet another extremely tribal sounding track. With hints of Arabian bells and Indian Tabla, the beautiful rhythms unfolded into soothing vocals. The subtleness of Gawain's guitar with Crystals vocals really made the track.
The answer is three. How many tracks did Mickey play before getting to a tune that the Dead used to play? Three, with the fourth song on the setlist being "Iko Iko." The track was what you would expect it to be... danceable, piano lead jams with call and response lyrics. The unfortunate part was the call. Mickey's vocals were raspy and unappealing to me. Then came the trombone. If there is anything this band didn't need it was a trombone. I began to zone out while waiting for "Iko Iko" to end. After eight long minutes it did.
What came next could only be described as, in all fairness as the song in which one opts to do anything else but listen to that song. The options were limitless... Bathroom, grab a beer, step outside for some fresh air. "Endless Skies" seemed not to end. Eleven minutes later it did and "Time Never Ends" took over with some menacing tones and a dark groove. The progression took on the minor penatonic of a Pink Floyd progression.
Layer upon layer built up to massive crescendos. The combination of Mickey's percussion with Inx on the drum set and Sikiru Adepoju on the talking drum was intense. I was completely blown away by the chemistry of the percussive trio. "Time Never Ends" transitioned into a drum and bass led "Other One" jam that made way for some tasty bass and guitar fills. The transition of the jam in "The Other One" was for me, the highlight of the first set.
The second set, much like the first, opened with some interesting sounds that began quietly and got louder and louder...
"What you're listening to now is the sun. This is the sound of the sun, from light waves into sound waves, into your body... I'm also going to focus on some stars deep in space from the 2278 cluster. So, enjoy the ride," Mickey said to open the second set.
"Heart" was indeed spacey. The Oriental seemed to expand as the twirling lights on the ceiling began to speed up. There were alien noises coming from the stage... Sounds that I had never heard before. I was captivated. The balcony was packed with folks transfixed on the musical experience before them. "Heart" ended leaving us in a rainforest of music. "Slo Jo" began with the tribal intensity of many of the tracks that we heard that night, but this time with bird calls and the rainforest in the background. The music was a trip.
Though I was enjoying the tribal experience, I was relieved to hear "Brokedown Palace." It seemed to be a sweet escape in the middle of a musical jungle. Crystal's strong soulful vocals sounded great. "Cut The Deck" followed with an innocent noodley sound that wore on me fairly quickly, though I did dig the soft guitar lines and solo work. "Who Stole The Show?" started off with a whirlwind of sound. The tones scrambled before resolving into coherent instrumentation and Mickey's raspy vocals. For some reason, his vocals seemed more fitting for that track than a couple of the previous.
Going into the show I had one hope... Hearing a "Scarlet Begonias" into a "Fire On The Mountain." To close the set we got an interesting "Scarlet Begonias" that featured some odd vocal arrangements and timing. If nothing else, the harmonies sounded great, but why change the vocal arrangements now? We loved "Scarlet Begonias" as it was. At the end of the song it got quiet and slowly and with excessive noodling, they transitioned into "Fire On The Mountain."
Instrumentally it sounded great as Mickey took over on the xylophone with the melody. Once again we had to endure Tim's drawn out vocals on a Dead song that we all love and cherish. Fortunately, the jam to close the song and the set was awesome!
"Thank you so much! Goodnight!" Mickey yelled into the mic before the band exited the stage.
The band returned to the stage for Mickey to introduce everyone and to wish Dave Schools a happy birthday. The crowd erupted with cheer as the band went into to a version of "Happy Birthday" with swagger. Then the recognizable drum intro of The Grateful Dead's version of "Not Fade Away" kicked in followed by a bright, Jerry sounding guitar lick. Crystal's vocals triggered a massive sing-along from the crowd. The band got quiet and the crowd took over with continuous clapping in an organized fashion to the beat of the song.
This continued for a couple of minutes until the band began again with a song titled "Down The Road"; not to be confused with the Dead's "Going Down The Road." The song consisted of slow melodies and rambling/rapping/spoken word over the song. It was up there with the worst of the evening and made no sense to me or those around me as a closer. I guess the strategy was to "leave em bored." I dug the music, just barely tolerated the vocals and enjoyed both the projections and The Oriental Theater. The experience was a trip.
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