CANNABIS CULTURE – The Grateful Dead will always be associated with the sixties, LSD, tie dye, and those swirling dancing bears with the inexplicable smiles on their faces.
For some, their name is synonymous with freedom and the open road, while for others, they represent the worst of rock and roll excesses with the early deaths of the original keyboardist Pigpen and guitarist Jerry Garcia serving as a cautionary tale for a reckless culture.
In the midst of all these associations, the surviving members of The Grateful Dead have had to deal with their history and the expectations of legions of fans when creating new music. Bob Weir and Phil Lesh have most recently done this by creating ‘Furthur’ – a collective of musicians with a long history in jam band music. This outfit faithfully recreates the Dead’s legacy live on stage as they continue to tour around North America. As intense and satisfying as a Furthur performance can be, it must be acknowledged that so far they haven’t created much in the way of new music or extended their trademark sound in any way. Surprisingly, innovation has rested solely in the drummers’ corners with Bill Kreutzmann release of the excellent ‘7 Walkers’ CD in 2010 to be joined now by ‘Mysterium Tremendum’, percussionist Mickey Hart’s challenging and expansive new collection of music and songs.
If the idea of a solo record by a drummer is normally enough to send you running in the other direction, be assured that ‘Mysterium Tremendum’ is quite unlike any other percussion based album you’ve ever heard. First off, ‘Mysterium Tremendum’ isn’t simply an album of drumming and percussion workouts. Rather, it’s a compelling series of soundscapes and songs that were created using sounds NASA gathered in outer space as the foundation or bedrock for each composition. Hart first became fascinated with the sounds of space when he created the visual imagery for the Dead’s 2009 tour by accessing videos from the NASA archive. At that time, he began to become fascinated with the sounds that NASA incidentally captured along with the video footage. By manipulating sounds from this ‘billion year old orchestra’ and using them as an undertone in these new songs for the other musicians and vocalists to bounce off of, Hart has created a collection of tracks that are truly unique and fascinating.
People who are familiar with Hart’s discography are aware that his solo works follow two distinct paths. Releases like ‘The Apocalypse Now Sessions’ and ‘Supralingua’ feature soundscapes and percussion heavy trance music that rely equally on ancient rhythms and electronic beats while other albums like ‘Rolling Thunder’ and ‘Mystery Box’ are more structured and song oriented. ‘Mysterium Tremendum’ features the best of both worlds with its mixture of heavily rhythmic instrumental tracks and a selection of more conventional songs with newly created lyrics by Robert Hunter.
Musically speaking, ‘Mysterium Tremendum’ is an unqualified success that may eventually be considered as the finest release in an already impressive canon of work. The CD starts out intensely with the swirling percussive drone of ‘Heartbeat of the Sun’, a track that is bound to get the experimental dancers at Hart’s live shows out of their seats and onto the dance floor. Hart then tones down the sinister vibe and glides into the big beats of ‘Cut the deck’, a song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a mid nineties Stevie Winwood album. This pattern repeats itself with slight variation throughout the record as heavier instrumental tracks such as ‘Supersonic Vision’ with its blend of natural sounds and alienating electronica giving way to more melodic, conventional numbers like ‘Starlight Starbright’ featuring the amazing Crystal Monee Hall on vocals.
The singers and musicians that Hart gathered to collaborate on ‘Mysterium Tremendum’ are certainly part of the reason for the album’s success. Unlike most other releases from Grateful Dead alumni that continually draw on the same circle of players to round up their lineups, Mickey Hart cast a wide net this time out. Other than Dave Schools, the bassist for the jam band, Widespread Panic – who does a very capable job of linking disparate elements in the music together with his playing – most of the other musicians in the Mickey Hart band are strangers to the world of the Grateful Dead. Crystal Monee Hall was singer in Rent, the Broadway musical while the other lead vocalist Tim Hockenberry is an alumni of the Trans-Siberia Orchestra. Hart’s own ragged and lived in vocals are featured on several tracks, but it’s Hart’s continually innovative approach to rhythm and percussion that is the star here. To that end he’s ably supported by longtime collaborator Sikiru Adepoju on talking drums and the South African legend Ian ‘Hinx’ Herman on the standard drum kit. Together the trio make a delightful racket while creating invocations guaranteed to wake sleeping giants and fiery wendigos from their ancient slumbers.
If you’re a Deadhead, ‘Mysterium Tremendum’ is reason to rejoice. Though the music on it sounds almost nothing like the sounds the legendary group created during their heyday, Mickey Hart’s album joyfully captures the Grateful Dead’s ‘take no prisoners’ exploratory spirit more than anything since the Dead quit in 1995. If you’re not a Deadhead, give ‘Mysterium Tremendum’ a listen with open ears. You just might find that it’s nothing like you thought it would be. Against your better judgement, your feet start tapping and your body starts shaking because you love what you’re hearing.
You can hear selections from ‘Mysterium Tremendum’ on www.mickeyhart.net.