Rhythm Devils, Carnegie Music Hall, Homestead, PA – 8/26
Photo by Chris Neverman
With just about 200 people in the crowd, a sense of awe filled the Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead, just outside Pittsburgh, Pa. A small crowd in an undersold theater can be a death knell for a rock show – an event that thrives on audience/artist give and take – and just before Rhythm Devils took the stage, that whispered concern was palpable.
But any worry was blasted away after just a few minutes; Rhythm Devils, the touring vehicle of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, and the least publicized Dead offshoot by far, were there to play, and play well. While each offshoot has its own musical personality, Rhythm Devils may stray the farthest from those bounding, elastic Dead jams; this was a pure rock show with mere jam tendencies, like the Black Crowes covering the Dead.
It’s an unexpected shift away from sunshine-y jamming, but Rhythm Devils nailed each twist and turn of an impossibly tight show.
The trio of “Scarlet Begonias, “Fire on the Mountain” and “Friend of the Devil” began set one, with Kreutzmann and Hart taking full advantage of the gift the old theater offered: with high ceilings above the small room, drums echoed off of every wall, often placing percussion at the center of the rich sound. But while Rhythm Devils are called so for a reason, there’s little proof that these famous drummers feel anything is owed to them. Instead, the band was perfectly balanced and playing in inspiring harmony, locking into mesmerizing grooves without any frayed edges, churning out tight, pulsing Southern rock takes on Dead classics.
Hart, always the wild, spacey drummer to Kreutzmann’s steady beating, didn’t step to the forefront until “Fountains of Wood,” a new track with Robert Hunter lyrics, when his woozy synth touches floated through the subdued jam. His playing sounded great, but failed to make a real melodic connection, instead slowing down an already locked-in groove. Rhythm Devils recovered quickly, and when the vocals of guitarists Tim Bluhm and Davy Knowles kicked back in, the song became a sexy, minimalist, airtight groove – like an extended, much improved Spoon song.
I know, I know. What is a Spoon reference doing in a Rhythm Devils review? And sure, it does sound weird. But Rhythm Devils seem truly unfazed by taking a less-traveled path; these guys aren’t afraid to get weird, to shift the style of Dead classics, forming a new and consistently exciting rock beast. It’d be a failed experiment were it not for guitarists Bluhm and Knowles. Each arrived with a distinct style: Bluhm is a Clapton-esque wounded-heart player, with each solo singing in slow, beautiful tones. Knowles’ guitar work replaced soft emotion with brute force. He played “Jack a Roe” like his guitar had done him wrong, and he was out for revenge.
Together, Bluhm and Knowles led the transformation of two sets of Dead songs into some freshly raging rock. Even the beautiful, pensive “Cold Rain and Snow” had a heavy pulse; “Cumberland Blues” took on a red-hot temperament, reminiscent of Gov’t Mule’s best.
That expansive style, along with the spotlight shining on the whole band rather than the band’s most famous members, pointed to an important message. It’s the message of the Dead: the music stays alive and growing not because of any of its original musicians, but because it’s still explored by players and fans, new and old. Shows like this ensure that the Dead’s music will not just thrive, but continue to move forward and push further.
“Bo Diddley” and Dire Straits cover “Sultans of Swing” were both driving and note-perfect, ending a surging, bright second set. Encore “So Many Roads,” gorgeous as it was, began a little too gently to warrant its show-ending spot. But the tune built to a heavy, pounding conclusion, absorbing the small crowd’s last bit of energy.
Hart, the last Devil on stage, smiled and said, “You guys are small in number, but big in spirit.”
The audience, looking admiringly back at him, could’ve said the same thing.