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Published: 2006/09/20
by Mike Greenhaus

We Are Antenna: Mickey Hart Resurrects the Rhythm Devils

It’s the night before the inaugural Green Apple Music Festival and Mickey Hart has just finished sound check at New York’s Canal Room. A few hours away from the festival’s official pre-party, the Canal Room’s staff scurries at a frantic pace, clearing chairs and preparing tables for the small army of Deadheads who have slowly congregated on the corner of Canal and West Broadway. Though a member of the Grateful Dead seems to roll into New York every financial quarter or so, tonight’s show has attracted more attention than usual—-turning a traditionally sleepy corner sandwiched between Chinatown and Tribeca into a veritable Shakedown Street, complete with a Hart-approved drum circle. Within the club’s confines, an array of jamband heroes has also amassed, some to perform (Mike Gordon, Steve Kimock) and others simply to observe (Rob Barraco, Dark Star Orchestra’s Dino English). This is, after all, the first time in decades that Hart has performed with Bill Kreutzmann as the Rhythm Devils and even the event’s promoters aren’t entirely sure that what that means.

Hart’s story is no doubt familiar to most readers. Born in 1943, the percussionist spent his formative years in New York and California, absorbing a number of ethnic sounds and cultural flavors. As a self-described soda jerk’ in New York (where Hart, unknowingly, worked in the same restaurant where Bill Graham served as a waiter) he first heard the music of Tito Puente and began exploring the roots of Latin and Caribbean music. “I came from New York and was surrounded by those sounds,” Hart says. “That was the first hit I got—-music from of the Caribbean. Tito used to sneak me upstairs and let me play conga beneath the grandstand he was playing on. ” After relocating to California, Hart stumbled into the Dead’s circle of musical conspirators, signing on as a full time member in September of 1967. The same year he met Ustad Allah Rakha, an associate of hippie-sitar guru Ravi Shankar, and heard Babatunde Olatunji’s seminal Drums of Passion record. “It took me to African music and it all stemmed from there,” Hart reflects thirty years later. During his self-imposed hiatus from the band in the ealry-1970s, Hart issued his first solo album, Rolling Thunder, which featured Allah Rahka and Zakir Hussain, as well as his estranged bandmates. The project opened the door for a series of percussion-driven word music releases. Chief among Hart’s accomplishments are the film score to Apocalypse Now and Planet Drum, the latter of which stayed of the top of Billboard’s World Music charts for 26 weeks and earned the percussionist the first Best World Music Album Grammy.

Since the Grateful Dead’s disbanded in 1995, Hart has divided his time between song-oriented offshoot groups like The Other Ones/The Dead and more world-driven collectives like Planet Drum. He briefly tried to bridge those words with his short-lived Mickey Hart Band and his electro-oriented Hydra project with Particle. Ultimately it took Green Apple’s loose, party vibe for Hart to find the perfect balance between rhythm and rock.

After agreeing to appear at the Green Apple Music Festival and its crown jewel, the Jammy Awards, Hart and Kreutzmann began constructing a band for their Earth Day performances. With the aid of the festival’s staff, the Rhythm Devils assembled a dream team of talent, drawing upon the eclectic mix of performers already in town for the weekend’s festivities: Mike Gordon, Steve Kimock, Jane’s Addiction’s Steven Perkins, Charlie Musselwhite, Baaba Maal, the Mutaytor and "2001" author Deodato, among others. Using the pre-party’s sound check as their primary rehearsal time, the loose union of musicians quickly compiled a set filled with covers, free-from drum jams and requisite cuts from the Grateful Dead’s canon.

Of the “core four” remaining members of the Grateful Dead, Hart remains the most academic. He’s worked with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution and Save Our Sounds. His regular pilgrimages to Africa have advanced the possibilities of world music recording. Yet, his vocabulary is drenched in the hippie-idealism so essential to the Grateful Dead.

“Everyone is constantly exploring new ideas and it actually reminds me of the Grateful Dead when we first started,” Hart says. “We had all these nooks and crannies we were exploring, before we really got the songs nailed down. It’s the Wild West musically-speaking. You can do anything you want as long as it makes some kind of sense. It’s about trying to get band head’ really. If we don’t play together as a band, we just beat shit up. You need a gang mentality; its ensemble music—-everyone I am playing with now loves the group mind and is free musically speaking.”

The Rhythm Devils’ Jammys performance was a hit and, a day later, the group played a free Earth Day show outside Grand Central Station. Turning several heads, Hart invited out an additional percussionist, veteran newscaster Walter Cronkite. “In 1987, I did Walter Cronkite’s report of the America’s Cub from Australia and what started as a business agreement turned out to be much deeper. We liked each other a lot and became best of friends. Our relationship really compounded over the years. We’ve been to each other’s homes and gone sailing together. We go out on the town. Once you get over that you’re hanging with Walter Cronkite, you realize he is just a great hang. He actually lives for music and rhythm. I said, Walter you can sit in the VIP area or you can be onstage in the heat of battle’ and he said, I want to be in the heat of battle.’ ”

A few months later, Hart and Kreutzmann decided to make their partnership more permanent. Shedding a few pounds (and percussionists) since the spring, the Rhythm Devils has quickly aged into a carefully toned, traveling super group, with Gordon and Kimock serving as Hart and Kreutzmann’s chief minstrels. Like-minded musicians such as Sikiru Adepoju, Glenys Rogers, Bobi and Atom Smith rounded out the group’s summer lineup. The Rhythm Devil’s October dates will also feature vocalist Goapele and talking drum master Sikiru Adepoju. Unlike the Dead’s nightly percussion excursions, the Rhythm Devil’s sound is much closer in kin to Fela Kuti than the Dead’s nightly drums-and-space segments. Hart, for one, enjoys the music’s openness. “Obviously there is a lot more freedom with the Rhythm Devils than the Dead. With the Grateful Dead we have a form we have to follow. While we do have some sort of form, it’s more exploratory here.”

As Hart began viewing the Rhythm Devils as a more permanent project, he also began working on a batch of new songs. Soon after, he turned to his old friend Robert Hunter, who pasted a fresh set of lyrics onto Hart’s new set of grooves. “They aren’t actually his typical song forms,” Hart says of his newest batch of co-compositions with Hunter. “They have phrases in them and some have chants. I gave him a different directive for this batch of songs. It wasn’t his standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus. I actually asked him to not write in this mode and he accomplished that. They are going through my mind, I can’t get them out. I think Hunter is in a magnificent writing space now.”

A far cry from the days when Hunter composed with Garcia on the road or through a thin house wall, these days the longtime friends use modern technology to create new music. “I’ll send Hunter an MP3 of the groove and, before I know it, there will be the words in an e-mail. Then, I’ll use those words to rearrange the song. We will talk on the phone and, sometimes, I’ll get off the phone and check my e-mail and there they are, posted onto my e-mail.”

Setting up shop in Phish’s Barn for a dew days this summer, the Rhythm Devils perfected a number of new originals including “Fountains,” “The Center” and “Who Do you Think You Are.” Soon after the group set out on its inaugural tour, which culminated with a guest-laden performance at the Gathering of the Vibes. “The Hyrda shows I did with Particle were the proving ground for a lot of the stuff we did in Rhythm Devils,” Hart says. “My hydra instrument had to be developed on the road and playing with Hydra paved the way for that sound.” The all-star ensemble will mount a second tour in October leading up to the second annual Vegoose Music Festival.

To mark Planet Drum’s fifteenth anniversary, Hart also reunited with Zakir Hussain, Sikiru Adepoju, and Giovanni Hidalgo for a September series of West Coast shows. “Thanks to the new studio developments, we can accomplish things we only dreamed of in the old days—-signal processing, specifically, and also new delays. All types of fantastic deep space drum stuff which can only be accomplished in the studio and never live in real time. But, now, the technology has caught up with the music.”

Indeed, perhaps it took the chaotic atmosphere of Green Apple for Hart to sculpt his worldliest improvisations into more tangible songs. “There has to be some kind of a form which allows for some sort of improvisation. New rhythms are emerging and we are antenna which will catch them.”

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