Two Weeks, Two Coasts, Two Bands
The Grateful Dead scene has split into two main camps. The stringed instrument players have merged into Furthur while those who hit skins with sticks are now in the Rhythm Devils. However the process didn’t stop there. Much like the Judean fronts in Life of Brian, there are even more splitters. Rhythm Devils became the 7 Walkers and Mickey Hart Band. Furthur might be going strong, but Phil is starting to have the urge to play with his friends again. On December 1 Mickey Hart played at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle; nine days later Phil was part of the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam. Due to the magic of transcontinental aeroplanes – a technology that uses distilled fossils to send tubes of metal in the air at tremendous speeds – I was fortunate enough to attend both.
The one advantage to single member solo projects is that you can really see what that person’s vision is. Multimember projects such as the Grateful Dead’s Furthur and Phish’s GRAB can become victim to artistic muddle; Bobby and Phil are different enough these days that Furthur doesn’t really have an original space to live in. Instead it tries to replicate the Grateful Dead experience as closely as possible (albeit with a different song catalog). While there are good aspects to that obviously – people liked the Grateful Dead; having a concert close to that is also likely to be quite enjoyable – it can occasionally serve the purpose of highlighting what is missing instead of what is there. Where things can get interesting is when the band ventures far away from the original arrangements and materials, taking the source and finding something new buried in it. Sure that can be risky; Ratdog does that and I find their smooth jazz, slowed down arrangements to be unlistenable . When it works, though, that’s when new magic can be produced.
The Mickey Hart Band started the night with people predisposed to loving the show. The Tractor Tavern is a small but comfortable venue. Seeing a member of the Grateful Dead there was an exciting concept even before the concert started. The stage was so small that keyboardist Tim Hockenberry had to play in the walkway leading to the backstage area because there was no room for him. Even Dave Schools was buried in the back corner of the stage. Hart also had a nod to the region, wearing an Issaquah t-shirt for a local high school that he had visited earlier in the day. Fortunately there was more to the night than a cool venue and a local reference.
Mickey’s band has a world music feel. Not surprisingly, it is very percussive, but Crystal Hall added some great vocals to the band. At times they sounded almost like Talking Heads (without the surreal lyrics alas), which made the sudden playing of a “Scarlet Begonias” or “Brokedown Palace” really stand out. The Grateful Dead songs were important to the night as a way of keeping everyone on the same page – the second set got bogged down a bit at times with a series of songs that the audience were unfamiliar with – but the band played originals like “Starlight” with an enthusiasm that made hearing them fresh instead of frustrating.
One interesting aspect of the Mickey Hart Band is that he samples sounds from outer space – or what they would sound like if we could hear them naturally – and adds them to the music. There’s another advantage to the solo project. In the Dead Mickey was the guy who sat in the back with the weird percussive equipment of his own invention but who frequently could just blend into the background. Put him on a stage of his own, and you find out who he is and why he was so intrigued by the band in the first place.
The Warren Haynes Christmas Jam is a much different experience than seeing a band in a club. A benefit event for Habitat for Humanity , the show takes over the Asheville Civic Center. It sold out quickly and had a line wrapping three quarters of the way around the building an hour before show time. While Phil and Friends were a main focus for the excitement around the show, they were not the only players. Bela Fleck (whose high energy bluegrass/jazz/rock fusion set might have been my favorite of the night), Los Lobos, and Gov’t Mule were also on the lineup. The joke I heard about the concert is that it’s the Warren Haynes Gong Show. A band plays for a while, then Warren comes out for a song or two as a way of letting them know their time is up. While that isn’t quite how things worked out this year – he was in the last two bands so he could hardly guest with himself – there were quite a few collaborations (most notably Jimmy Herring supplementing Jackie Greene and Warren Haynes on guitar for about half of Phil’s set and almost replicating the popular Phil Lesh Quintet lineup) including an early show pick up jam.
If Mickey Hart’s set seemed mainly influenced by the middle sections of the late period Grateful Dead second set (e.g. plenty of Drums and (outer) Space for everyone), Phil focused mainly on the early days of the Dead. Other than “Shakedown Street” and the “She Said She Said” cover that the Grateful Dead never performed, the newest songs Phil played debuted in 1971. Phil has always been about the improvisation and if it can occasionally stray a bit to the noodley side, such as the meandering “Dark Star” that was little too mellow for that late in the evening, the band can hit incredible peaks. It can be a struggle sticking with them but the final three minutes of the “Dark Star” are extremely good.
The highlight of Phil’s set was the ending “Sugaree.” Switching verses between Warren and Jackie provided two different takes on the lyrics. Meanwhile the mid-song solos were fiery; it was southern rock at its best. This lineup of Phil and Friends has a few Colorado dates announced next February. It’ll be interesting to see what could happen then and if it would inspire a future tour. Having more solo tours would make 2012 an interesting year for the Deadhead community.
 While driving around Asheville the day before, we randomly stumbled across a road named Warren Haynes Drive. It got that name because that was an area where the Xmas Jam houses were built. They sold replica street signs at the show.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page