Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mickey Hart Band - Live At The Englert Theater

Mickey Hart Band
Live at the Englert Theater, Iowa City, Iowa
August 22, 2012

I’ve always liked Mickey Hart. Out of the two Grateful Dead drummers, he’s definitely my favorite. It has nothing to do with his talent or his tenacious desire to spread the power of percussion to the world or his love of World Music and his efforts to bring that music to Western consciousness.

No, my love of Mickey is based on my gut feeling that he was the most unstable member of the Grateful Dead.

This instability was briefly addressed in a documentary about the Grateful Dead’s tenure with Warner Brothers. The Dead’s relationship with their record label was strained, to which Hart compared the band to a ship that neither the band nor Warner Bros could steer.

Joe Smith, an executive at Warner, was less tactful in his comments about the group, targeting Phil Lesh with the most pointed of recollections, but saving the most memorable comments for Mickey.

“I thought [Hart] could be institutionalized.” Smith recalled during the film. “I thought he was crazy. He did not seem to be on the same planet most of the time.”

Knowing this factoid of Grateful Dead lore and considering the large quantity of drugs that Hart was undoubtedly consuming during this period, it’s perfectly natural to view Mickey with a bit of trepidation.

This is exactly how I viewed the prospect of attending a live show of the Mickey Hart Band recently when I discovered they were playing a small local theater in Iowa City.

Iowa City, Iowa is a typical, liberal college town with plenty of jam-band supporters as well as their more tenured counterparts who never quite seemed to move beyond the comforts of their lefty oasis, even when they had reached the end of their collegiate experience.

I only bring this up because I expected more of a showing than the half-filled venue. The seats that were taken were occupied by only the most faithful of fans, the vast majority of which were older than me.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a little bit of gray in your fan base; Hart himself is approaching 70 and as someone who started to become folically challenged after hitting 40, I’m looking forward to attending shows where I will be the oldest person in the crowd.

These geezers were rowdy, hollering and yelling when Hart took his own sweet time bringing his band to the stage. They were also high, or at least a few of them were as I caught a whiff of marijuana from my seat in the balcony at the Englert Theater, something that I hadn’t experienced in many years-at least in an indoor venue-thanks to our country’s zero tolerance of anything requiring a Bic lighter at a show. Oh sure, the incandescent glow of a smart phone or the blackout-inducing $7 beer mixed with Lord knows whatever prescribed narcotic the ticketholder consumed earlier is perfectly fine. But when a bros tries to “spark a doobie” in some bullshit Live Nation venue, then just watch the rent-a-cops come with tiny Maglites, ready to 86 your ass for breaking their fine print rules.

Mickey Hart knows all too well about fighting the establishment, but I wondered if he knew about how to put a band together. More importantly, would he be able to get and retain a band, pushing them to their limits without chasing their tails in endless jams and World Beat excursions that fail to recognize what made the Dead such an iconic band: their roots were firmly planted in American music.

Pulsing, pulsing
It’s hard to tell from my shitty camera phone photo taken from the balcony at the Englert Theater, but behind the band was a very amateur looking banner that featured some kind of space motif. It reminded me that Hart’s last project had something to do with sounds emanating from space or something. It’s hard to recall because the idea and the ridiculous album art was enough for me to scoff at and forget that during the Dead’s brief hiatus (and his own departure), Hart actually managed to release a decent solo album.

“I have a feeling that something special is going to happen here tonight.” Hart announced after making his way on stage, from behind his circle of drums and other bits of equipment that kept the festivities filled with atmospheric sounds and loops. I have no idea what half of the instruments/devices did or were called, but there was a guy with a beard and a wool cap that Hart would turn and yell to whenever things went technically astray. He also came in handy by picking up all of the sticks and mallets that Hart would drop, placing them back into their proper holder for future use.

Hart’s choice in Dead material was pretty eclectic, ranging from some stellar performances (“Samson and Delilah”) to the pretty pedestrian (“West L.A. Fade Away”). But all of them were necessary to sedate the Deadheads in attendance, particularly since the show weaved in and out of the guitar-oriented jams with the “pulse and throb” vibe that Hart is trying to accomplish with his original material.

That material is spearheaded by two of the band’s main focal points: vocalist Christie Monee Hall and keyboardist/vocalist Ben Hockenberry. Hall is a tremendous vibe, having saved the show on more than one occasion with her incredible range and radiant personality. She brings an Earthy quality to the band, especially when Hart keeps trying to take them to places that they might not have enough fuel to get to.

This happened more than once; the band would be off on a notable journey only to find band members looking at each other, just waiting for someone to make a move. While not exactly exciting to listen to, it was more painful to watch, particularly when the band’s namesake walked off stage at one point, mid-song, addressing lord knows what off stage. Whatever it was, nearly every band member had their eyes glued to Hart’s whereabouts, which in turn had everyone in the audience looking to see what was taking place.

Hall and Hockenberry would occasionally move to one of their two microphones, one of which was rigged up to some kind of effects unit. As utterly frightening as that may sound, it actually added to some of the material, giving the newer material a trippier vibe than what I expected.

Guitarist Gawain Mathews has some nice chops and may be a force to be reckoned with in a few years in the jam band community. For now, it sounds like he’s trying to figure out his place in the band and in their mix.

Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools is with this touring edition of the band, and aside from one criminally short solo, was totally underutilized in both presence and sound.

Seriously, initially I worried that I had forgotten my ear protection to the show, but the mix was nowhere near loud. I mentioned something about my concerns on the potential to my neighbors-a couple in their mid 50’s, I’m guessing-at the start of the show. By the start of the second set, they were gone, either a casualty of the workweek (the show was on a Wednesday night, and the second set didn’t get underway until 10) or maybe they just weren’t turned on by Hart’s direction.

And there in-lies the problem: there was little direction present, and I attribute that to Hart’s own leadership skills and his aloofness. Imagine a reasonable facsimile of a Dead show, with the set going from Not Fade Away>Space>Iko Iko>Space>Scarlet Begonias>Space.

The first set clearly showed some potential, but the second set was a shamble, particularly with the aforementioned walk-off noted earlier. The only thing comparable to that in the first set was when Mickey walked out from his drum circle and went around to each band member in front of the stage, banging on a drum and bearing this crazy, wide grin. It was creeping me out, and I was in the safety of the balcony, far from his Manson eyes.

His mood definitely changed during the second set, to which he announced that it may be likened to “strange occurrences in the desert.” There was definitely a “strange occurrences,” but nothing that sounded like any of us were being taken anywhere special.

Hart must have felt it too. With the band-again-looking to their leader for direction, he promptly began blowing kisses to each member, a subtle clue to wrap it up and end the show with “We Bid You Goodnight,” another bit of Dead nostalgia that caused the loyal remaining to scratch their heads when the band failed to return for an encore.

It was a good two-hour show, with the word “good” being the only thing in question, and the second set just barely adding to the total time. There were moments of legitimate levitation, which may make those moments that didn’t achieve orbit so pronounced.

He’s still my favorite Dead drummer; I’d take another Mickey Hart Band show over a Bill Kreutzmann gig any day of the week. And one of the reasons is that unpredictability that Hart brings, that craziness that made Joe Smith so on edge. Besides, it is good to know that not only is Mickey Hart still on his trip, but his still doing his part to make it a strange one. 

1 comment:

Kiko Jones said...