Hydra, Catalyst, Santa Cruz- 4/7
I had to go. The first-ever Hydra show, a pairing of The Grateful Dead's drummer Mickey Hart, and Particle, L.A.s finest electro-jam band, in my home town of Santa Cruz— out of curiosity alone I had to go. What common ground could the rhythmic, rootsy and vocally-challenged Mickey Hart find with the peaked out "funktronic" dance grooves of Particle? And Why? Of all the young jambands on the scene for Mickey to join, why the one that seems to have so little of the soulful earthy energy of Jerry and the gang? As it turns out maybe the difference in styles is just what the other needed.
It was a mellow Thursday in The Catalyst night club which was full but not packed. What was packed was Mickey’s side of the stage. Drums, drum pads, wires, two separate computer screens and their housing that stood as tall as their master filled much of the stage. Not only was the stage packed but one half of the balcony was completely taken over by a soundman and gear devoted completely to Mickey. This was in addition to the soundboard for the band as a whole. Apparently it took most of Wednesday just to find and eliminate a buzz in Mickey’s earpiece.
The buzz in the catalyst however was not so noticeable as the band took the stage to a relatively subdued room. The band quickly launched into "Stellar Particles," a Hydra original like most songs of the night. It was one of many meandering and long but not unlikable songs of the night. This song, like most they played, built slowly, layer upon layer with Particle’s keyboard wiz-kid Steve Molitz. providing luscious textures but far less soloing than the Particle I am used to. Mickey Hart also embellished from his two tons of equipment, occasionally locking into some nice trade offs with Particle’s drummer Darren Pujalet.. Unfortunately the bass was not in the mix as prominently as electronica/jam hybrid music demands. At times during this song (and the rest of the set as well) it seemed the band wasn’t quite meshing. This is to be expected for their first show. Fortunately Particle’s guitarist, Charlie Hitchcock, was able to drive home this and most of the songs to a fulfilling conclusion when the band seemed to be wandering.
The tempo throughout the show was slower and had a tribal feeling compared to most Particle music. At times it seemed like Mickey and his slower pacing were holding the band back but it also kept the music accessible to the older generations in attendance whose feet don’t fly as fast as they used to. No doubt Mickey is helping in the already apparent mellowing of Particle. Molitz on keys no longer flails and writhes as he plays. Now he kicks back and commands his sonic spaceship with the laid back poise of a cool cat who had his worlds explode into rock fame but found his feet again. What really makes Hydra’s partnership work better than I expected is Hitchcock’s maturation on guitar who has learned to not overplay as much as he used to. His solos may not be quite as riveting as early Particle but he now has the sound of a craftsmen building the energy up patiently.The first set ended with the appropriately named "The Heart of The Hydra" which showcased both the appeal and limitations of this band. Hitchcock really drove this one home on guitar but the band didn’t know how to quit while they were ahead. The climax at the end of the song was mildly painful as it was all cylinders firing but the band still not quite launched. The guitar raged and the drummers wailed but somehow the repetition of the same rhythms and chords gave the music a powerful but stuck feeling that it couldn’t shake. Something about the songs and their lack of much melodic content or many real twists or turns make Hydra a tricky beast to ride. Strangely enough it was the drumming that was the least moving. There was some nice interplay between the two drummers and a little soloing as well but the trancy rhythms couldn’t help but invoke STS9 and any comparison leaves Hydra wanting. There was none of that Sound-tribal, fury and reckless abandon at breakneck speed on the skins, just a consistent (if a bit plodding) beat. Mickey (the rhythm devil himself) did dance around Pujalet’s foundation nicely, there just weren’t a lot of fireworks. I certainly have seen Mickey create dramatic soundscapes , but not since the passing of Jerry have I heard him with the same passion (as well as chops) that he displayed so stunningly through most of his years with the Grateful Dead. Fortunately he did not try to make up for this through lots of singing. The one song he sang was tasteful enough. In addition, the obscene amount of equipment notwithstanding, he came to the stage with little of the overflowing ego one might have feared. The Second set featured more original material from Hydra (or Harticle as some would call them). There was also an instrumental version of the Dead’s "The Other One." It didn’t seem like this GD classic was taking off at first but Hitchcock came through with some of his most spirited guitar work in the end as they pretty much nailed it. The encore was also well done as one by one, each band member left until Molitz was the only one remaining. He in turn slowly wound down the beast to a classy conclusion (much the way Page would end Phish shows as they encored with "Squirming Coil"). The show certainly was not short with over three hours of music.
So in the end Hydra is a mixed bag. Mickey brings with him a maturity and tribal resonance that Particle was missing. This helps to ground Particle so they don’t spin out of control into their own cyber-circlings as they have at times. On the other hand some of the more interesting and frenetic wanderings of Particle seem unattainable with the slower rhythms of their new larger than life drummer. It certainly is an interesting merger that brings together disparate elements of the jam scene. I look forward to watching this new creation grow and to my next encounter with the Hydra.