Mickey Hart's career, which includes a lengthy tenure as one of the Grateful Dead's drummers and global travel in search of the ancient instruments of long-forgotten cultures, has often been focused on the world and universe at large. These days, the percussionist legend is looking inward, toward cells and neurons, with the Mickey Hart Band.
This summer's tour brings with it a cache of surprises and a sense of growth hinging on seeing, hearing and learning, all of which have been important undercurrents in Hart's life.
For the road ahead, the current lineup includes percussionist Sikiru Adepoju, singer Crystal Monee Hall, drummer Greg Schutte, guitarist Gawain Matthews, bassist Reed Mathis, keyboardist and sound engineer Jonah Sharp and singer and multi-instrumentalist Joe Bagale. Of course, in the thick of it all, is Hart himself.
Bagale took a moment to talk with Scene about the tour before dashing off to a mid-morning rehearsal last week.
"It's a really fun group, and Mickey is our fearless leader," Bagale says. The band's new album, Superorganism, is due out Aug. 13, and it has the band playing at an unbelievably tight level. This weekend's gig in Kent will shine a light on the direction the new material is taking. And in many ways, "light" is sort of a theme throughout all of the band's latest shows.
"Along with all the songs you'll hear on tour, you'll get to visually see what [Hart's] brain looks and sounds like," Bagale says. During each show, Hart will be hooked up to an electroencephalography (EEG) machine, which will read his various brainwaves — alpha rhythms, theta rhythms, gamma rhythms — and transform them into light and sound. The crowd can expect a dynamic rhythmic foundation to take over the room, laying the groundwork for an exploration of the music within all of our bodies.
"The brain is firing on all cylinders, especially when it's being creative," he says. As Hart's brainwaves flow outward, the band will throw down a heady jam on top of those rhythms. It's the kind of musical journey that's never been taken before.
"I give you my brain — well, the sound of my brain, anyway," Hart told a crowd gathered for a presentation of Life's Rhythms Reimagined last year. That's among the projects he's working on with Dr. Adam Gazzaley of the Neuroscience Imaging Center. "Can you imagine being able to focus...on a certain part of the brain and see what part of the brain lights up when you play a certain instrument? What does the brain look like before, during and after an auditory driving experience?" Questions like those push Hart onward into the fields of science and research, though he always maintains firm footing in his musical endeavors.
And the music, truth be told, is damn good these days. Apart from the brainwave excursions on tour this summer, the band's newest tunes promise an evening of electric funk and swampy, percussive improv.
The album's opener, "Falling Stars," begins benignly enough. A chugging, tribal rhythm pulsates alongside SNES-era droplets of sound. Hall's vocals wash over the steadily building foundation, and Matthews' gentle guitar work leads the band into a calmly drifting river. All along, Hart keeps everyone locked in a forward-moving dance.
"The new album is quite a bit different from the last ones. It was a real collaborative effort, and cuts of the album are totally improvised," Bagale says. He references jam sessions in the studio where the band freely molds ideas, simultaneously tightening and loosening the bolts that hold the band's ethos together. Lots of gems result, as fans will find out upon the album's release and during the tour.
Come this weekend, the spirit of Grateful Dead jams past will roll into Northeast Ohio. Hart and crew tend to toss covers of Dead tunes into the set lists, offering glimpses of yesteryear. And with the caravan of fans and memories come the concretized realities of what the Bay Area's foremost rock 'n' roll band meant to much of this country.
The jam scene has certainly evolved over the years. Electronic instrumentals — differing in some small part from Hart's EEG experiments, though drawing on the same need to push boundaries — have come to dominate various corners of the market. Roots-based improvised rock 'n' roll, however, will indeed always find a home at the heart of the scene. Take Tea Leaf Green for example. Spin-off band Tea Leaf Trio will be opening for the Mickey Hart Band this summer, and Bagale and Co. are incredibly excited. For fans, it's a terrific combo onstage. As an interesting note, TLG bassist Mathis will also be performing with the Mickey Hart Band throughout the summer.
"He's a wonderful musician and a great friend of ours," Bagale says of Mathis.
From Tea Leaf Green to Mickey Hart's enduring legacy, the community of loyal fans remains steadfast. It's a family, really, first and foremost. The music's always there, but it's more of a conduit than anything else. A good show with good people is a sacred thing. Anybody who has the ticket knows that much.
"They're very dedicated and they're still there," Bagale says of the fans, many of whom have been harmonizing with Hart's work for decades. And these days the song remains the same, happily. "The environment will be nothing but love. On any given night, you're going to be taken on a journey that's completely different from the night before. Expect to dance. Expect to be taken into a dream."
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