You Gotta Have Hart

Former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart kicks off the Westcott Theater's 2012 slate.






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Publication: Syracuse New Times
Author: Benjamin, Neil
Date published: January 4, 2012

Some things are just difficult to explain to outsiders. But there's a musical entity out there that goes beyond "difficult to explain." The Grateful Dead, the band that spawned a generation of wayward travelers and funky clothes, is a group that some "get," while others only try. To an outsider, a Dead show is nothing more than a place where concertgoers get wasted and noodle dance to a never-ending wave of guitar solos and spaciness. For insiders, though, it's another story.

From 1965 to 1995, the Dead played more than 2,300 shows until leader Jerry Garcia passed away. You'd think the supreme commander of the Deadhead army's passing would shut down the nomads, tie-dyes and VW buses, but nothing could be further (or Furthur) from the truth. The surviving members have continued to play together and with solo outfits, holding festivals and touring incessantly, allowing fans to continue the long strange trip that began nearly 50 years ago.

On Friday, Jan. 6, 8 p.m., at the Westcott Theater, 524 Westcott St., one of the Dead's two drummers is bringing his solo act to town for a night full of classics and new compositions. Mickey Hart, who would rather be known as a percussionist than a drummer, is putting his own spin on some familiar tunes for a show that's sure to be different than any other post- Jerry incarnation of the band.

"This band is pure magic," Hart says in a phone interview from California. "It's exciting and it's new every time. The three or four hours we're playing, we're trying to take the crowd on a magic carpet ride because this is about the band not being boring. This band, we all hear everybody. It's a musical conversation because jamming isn't about playing solos over riffs, it's about being a group: sometimes indepth, funny, emotional, fast, slow, but it's always a conversation."

Hart's words ring true. At the BellaTerra Festival in Stephentown that ran Aug. 18 to 21, the band performed a three-hour set that resembled the Dead in song only; musically, Hart was the clear leader, the Garcia of this group. He led his counterparts by giving cues verbally, visually and rhythmically and wasn't shy about it, as he weaved his way past Jupiter and on to Saturn, then back to Earth. The group had only played a handful of shows to that point, yet it seemed like they had been together for years.

Aside from a handful of Dead classics, Hart's group focused on a bunch of new numbers that are, well, from out of this world. A few years back, Hart had scientists from Lawrence Berkeley Labs in California capture light waves from outer space which were then transformed into sound bytes. Hart took these sounds and either wrote new material based off the cosmos, or directly incorporated them into said tunes. Just don't expect to get the Dead's trademark "Drums>Space" routine.

"The Big Bang happened 13.7 billion years ago, and we got the light from the pulsar supernova," Hart says. "This is not space like {the Dead} used to do; we're not interpreting what space is. This is us using the source material, the sounds of space, to play with our sound. This band can do that."

The lineup certainly is a grab-bag from many genres. On bass is Dave Schools, also the bassist from Widespread Panic, who Hart describes as "a mountain of bass." Tim Hockenberry sings and plays keyboards with Ben Yonas. Crystal Monee Hall does some stunning vocal work, taking lead on many songs. Ian Herman will be on a drum kit and Sikiru Sdepoju, a member of Hart's Rhythm Devils, is playing an array of drums from around the world.

Gawain Matthews tackles lead guitar, but do not expect a Garcia clone: This guy has some serious chops that fit perfectly with this band's galactic sound. Hart has a setup that includes some pieces of a kit, a lot of percussion toys and a computer, which he uses to play many of the space sounds. "I won't be bringing out the Beast on this tour," Hart says, referring to the massive drum kit he used with the Dead from the mid-1980s on.

Something that should thrill Deadheads is that Hart has written a few songs with Robert Hunter, the man behind the words of some of the Dead's most influential material. "It's been a gas working with him again," Hart says.

Hart reports that all of the shows he's playing with this band are being recorded for eventual release as an album. He also notes that the group has finished recording a studio album "that should be released in two to three months."

If you've ever wondered how Hart, 68, can continue to play marathon gigs every night, the drummer himself will refer you back to his days in the Air Force, where he became fluent in multiple types of martial arts that he still practices. "It takes a lot of discipline and stamina and that helped turn me into a long-distance drummer," he explains. "I learned a lot about how dedicated you have to be {in martial arts}. Well, I am also dedicated to music, where you can't be vital unless you believe in it. They're very similar."

The conversation shifted back to Garcia at the end, a person Hart continues to admire. "He'd love this band. If he were playing with us, he'd smile the whole time and play his ass off," Hart concludes. At least that part was easy to understand.

Tickets to the Mickey Hart Band concert are $35 in advance, $40 at the door, and available online at www.thewestcottthe ater.com or at the Sound Garden, 310 W. Jefferson St.

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