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Published: 2008/08/25
by Mark Burnell

Rhythm Devils : Concert Experience

Star City Recordings

I was pressed to pinch hit as a reviewer for this release at the last minute, as Ye Olde Editor was running way behind schedule and just couldn’t cram this into his hectic schedule. Though my Dead-obsessive days are well behind me, I somewhat begrudgingly agreed to tackle this seemingly Dead-centric DVD. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this project for the simple reason that no member of the Grateful Dead has actually released an album of good new material since.Hell, maybe Shakedown Street 30 years ago. Let’s be honest, every member of the Dead who tours relies on the tried and trusted stable of old classics to form the backbone of their set, and most of the audience will happily admit that the new songs are beer or bathroom breaks at best. Glancing at the track listing for this DVD, I winced, as it was wall-to-wall new songs. "Ah well," I thought. "It’s a chance to sharpen my sarcasm."

I’m a jackass. I’m a jackass for pre-judging music before I hear it, and I’m a jackass for thinking that no member of the Dead could ever produce great new music because this DVD has simply been rocking my world since I got it. This project takes the Rhythm Devils, ropes in Mike Gordon on bass and Steve Kimock on guitar, and then creatively adds Sikuru Adepoju on talking drum and ex-Deep Banana Blackout chanteuse Jen Durkin on vocals. It’s not the most obvious combination of talents, but darn it, it simply works. Taking footage from two separate shows, ignoring the Dead tunes that were undoubtedly played and instead boldly presenting seven new tunes (all co-written with Robert Hunter) and one inspired cover, this DVD positively screams, “See, we still have it when we try!”

The playing is as crisp and fluid as you’d expect from this lineup, and Kimock especially shines by showing an unexpected but admirable restraint with his soloing that really suits the music. The singing is passionate and superb, with Durkin’s full vocal range on display for the first time in . well, perhaps ever. (Let’s face it, she didn’t get much of a chance to show her sensitive side with Deep Banana.) And the compositions are the icing on the cake, equal parts African guitar, Arabian textiles, and pounding rhythms from around the world. Naturally, they include all the global influences you’d expect from a Mickey Hart project, yet they're instantly accessible and quite uplifting. Visually, all the stops have been pulled out with specially compiled images projected next to and even over the top of the performers. Not all of it works, but it’s certainly more interesting than watching Steve Kimock stoically concentrating hard while wearing a silly hat.

The DVD, itself, comes in a handsomely illustrated slipcase/book combo (complete with a fairly pointless "Behind the Scenes" bonus disc), and the sound and picture quality are as good as anything I’ve experienced in this medium. It’s a terrific package and my favorite DVD of the year so far.

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