02/23/07

Rhythm Devils

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The Prehistory of the Rhythm Devils

When the Grateful Dead returned to performance following their hiatus of the mid-’70s, there was a desire to expand the percussion potential of the drum break in the second set. Mickey and Billy went up to Rolling Thunder’s encampment in Nevada to design and work out the setup. (Rolling Thunder was a Native American Chumash medicine man who had a long association with the band, particularly with Mickey.)

When they returned, Ramrod and the crew constructed the first version of The Beast, a percussion and drum “enclosure” immediately behind their trap sets, which ever after was a prominent feature of the Grateful Dead’s onstage setup.

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Mickey and Billy performed as the Rhythm Devils with an early version of The Beast at the Grateful Dead’s From Egypt With Love concerts at Winterland in October, 1978. It was here that Francis Coppola first saw the Rhythm Devils perform, including the participation of friends and family onstage, including Francis, who had been provided with hand-held percussion instruments. This led to the recording of the percussion soundtrack for the film Apocalypse Now, and to a record album in 1980, The Apocalypse Now Sessions: the Rhythm Devils Play River Music.

The Rhythm Devils’ set up for the recording subtleties of Apocalypse Now was percussion extreme. “We built all the instruments ourselves,” Hart said then, “probably over 200 in all, at the Dead’s studio, miked them up and then walked through the jungle. We built wind chimes, glass harps, scritches, tubalongs, and instruments of the future.”

During 1979-1980, Mickey and Billy continued to call their drum break The Rhythm Devils, after which the name was retired until the 2006 renewal. – Alan Trist

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Uniting the World in Rhythm
Mickey Hart on Rex and the return of the Rhythm Devils

By Casey Lowdermilk

The passion for a pulsing, rhythmic life has brought Mickey Hart and Billy Kreutzmann together countless times behind their drum kits post-Grateful Dead. Their bond is undeniable: soul brothers with a deep knowledge of each other’s drumming styles. Their synergistic relationship behind the drums has attracted a legion of music fans at every performance.

In the late ’70s, director Francis Ford Coppola, then working on Apocalypse Now, went to a Grateful Dead concert at Bill Graham’s invitation. Intrigued by the drums segment, he invited Hart and Kreutzmann to contribute to the movie’s soundtrack. Gathering a few friends – Airto Moreira, Mike Hinton, Jim Loveless, Greg Errico, Jordan Amarantha and Phil Lesh – they recorded what’s been called one of the best percussion albums of all time, The Apocalypse Now Sessions: The Rhythm Devils Play River Music. (The Rhythm Devils’ only recording, it was reissued on CD by Rykodisc in 1990.)

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The Rhythm Devils at Winterland, San Francisco, October 1978, with the Coppolas in attendance.

Deadheads everywhere felt tremendous excitement and anticipation with the announcement of a Rhythm Devils tour last fall. Just the fact that Billy and Mickey would be touring together again was thrilling enough for any fan, but the accompanying lineup of musicians they gathered launched this new incarnation of the Rhythm Devils into the stratosphere. The stellar lineup of Steve Kimock on guitar, Mike Gordon (formerly of Phish) on bass, Jen Durkin (former vocalist of Deep Banana Blackout) and percussionist Sikiru Adepoju (in the words of Mickey Hart, “the Mozart of the talking drum”) promised a tour full of wonder and elation for musicians and fans.

The core of Hart, Kreutzmann, Kimock and Gordon first found a common musical ground performing last spring at the 2006 Jammy Awards. The addition of Durkin and Adepoju brought an appealing element to this new sound, and lyricist Robert Hunter has also contributed a batch of new songs, including “Fountains of Wood” and “The Center.”

Over 40 years since the beginnings of the Grateful Dead, Mickey and Billy have brought together a band to match the musical freedom and creativity that attracted so many Deadheads. In December, the collective spirit of the Grateful Dead community was revived at the Warfield for a Rex Foundation benefit, Vibes for Peace. This evening of rhythmic delight brought together two of Mickey Hart’s loves, Planet Drum and the Rhythm Devils (with Bob Weir), and some have called the resulting experience simply “magical.”

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The Rhythm Devils headlined the Vibes for Peace Rex benefit at the Warfield in December.

Planet Drum is Mickey Hart’s 1991 Grammy Award-winning project that enjoyed a 15th anniversary tour in 2006. It brings together some of the world’s greatest percussionists, including Hart, Adepoju, Zakir Hussain, the world’s preeminent tabla player, and Giovanni Hidalgo, regarded by Hart as “the greatest Latin percussionist in the world.”

The Rex Foundation recently was able to spend some time with Mickey Hart, who’s also a member of the Rex’s board of directors, to talk about the benefit at the Warfield, future plans for the Rhythm Devils and his thoughts for 2007.

Rex Foundation: Why is it important for bands such as the Rhythm Devils to support the Rex Foundation and other charities?

Mickey Hart: Well, it’s important on many levels. First of all, Rex does good in the community, and Rex is all about finding ways to make a better world where others don’t really go. It’s one of those in-the-cracks kinds of organizations. It was always meant to do things that we considered important but weren’t necessarily mainstream or popular.

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Planet Drum opening set ( from left: Hidalgo, Hart, Hussein, Adepoju)

Rex: December 1, 2006 was the Rhythm Devils benefit for the Rex Foundation at the Warfield. How did it go?

Hart: Also importantly, it was Planet Drum and the Rhythm Devils on the same night!

It couldn’t be a better night for me. It was over the top – both of my loves musically, in one night, right after the other. Oh gosh, it was just sublime! I had a great, great time. It couldn’t have been better, a wonderful experience.

The two bands got to intermingle. Interspecies communications in between the two bands, and some of them didn’t know each other because they had never played together. It was just really great watching the different combinations, with Planet Drum coming back on stage and playing with the Rhythm Devils at the end there. I just sat back and listened to it all go by. I thought it was marvelous.

Rex: You’ve filled out the band with an amazing lineup. What do these other players in the lineup contribute to the band?

Hart: They are the sound of the Rhythm Devils. Kimock, of course, has the melodic stuff, and Mike covers that bottom end perfectly. Billy and I are the engine, and Sikiru starts in between with his beautiful talking drum. Then of course there’s Jen, who sings the songs that Hunter wrote for the band.

Hunter actually pulled himself away and re-devoted himself to some serious songwriting here. I think we got nine or 10 new songs by Hunter. It was so exciting to play new things – it’s like primo Hunter. He just went with the music; he really liked that we had a great composing time. He just unloaded just a batch of good… some of his best songs, I think.

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Bob Weir joins the Rhythm Devils at Vibes for Peace. (from left: Gordon, Weir, Durkin, Hidalgo, Kreutzmann, Hart, Kimock). Photo: Susana Millman.

Rex: Have the new songs evolved at all during the live performances?

Hart: Oh, of course, that’s what always happens in performance. I like to burn the songs in anyway before we record them. But this was kind of so organic.

A marvelous producer and engineer with studios in Pennsylvania decided he wanted to do a DVD. We recorded the Rex and we recorded other shows. You can hear these songs in evolution, because part of the DVD will come from the first part of our tour. Another part will probably be in Chicago or somewhere around the middle, and we’ll wind up with some clips that might come off of the Rex show.

You get to hear how this band matures and how it develops group mind, which is probably the big heading here – how a band finds group mind. That’s in playing and going out on tour and being together and playing the new music and really getting into it, and then winding up at Rex.

Rex: Any more details on the upcoming DVD?

Hart: I saw part of it in Pennsylvania a couple of weeks ago and it just sounds great. I haven’t seen the visuals yet, but that’s what’s coming up in the next few weeks. I imagine the DVD will be out definitely before the summer. It really sounds good; Billy’s really playing, kind of a jackhammer groove, and it all just rolls right out. Bill and I are playing great together. (Rhythm Devils and Planet Drum) are the most fun bands that I’ve had for a long, long time.

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Mickey Hart at Vibes for Peace. Photo: Susana Millman.

Rex: There have been several unique lineups recently featuring former members of both the Grateful Dead and Phish together, with the Rhythm Devils being one of the most interesting. What do the different members bring to these collaborations?

Hart: You bring a sensibility. With people like Mike you don’t say what to play, he just plays it. Mike was in our world, you know, but if I were in their world I would just do the same thing as I do now, nothing would change.

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Vocalist Jen Durkin wails with the Rhythm Devils at Vibes for Peace.

As a matter of fact, we took a Phish song, “The Wedge,” and Mike told me we played it better than Phish. I have never heard Phish play it, so I wouldn’t know. But that was an interesting thing. We picked up on what they had done – I only heard the recording once and I thought, well, we just gotta do it our way. But our way turned out to be, in Mike’s opinion, better than the original, which happens a lot.

So what you’re doing here is improving, which is a great way for music to live and progress. That’s what it’s all about, and doing it in a friendly atmosphere. There’s really no competition in this world, in this jam zone where people are respected for what they do, and they do it really well, and they have fun in doing it. That was always the Grateful Dead insignia. That kind of spirit just plays itself out in all of our lives in everything we do, and it makes it a lot of fun. If you’re having fun you can create something really special.

Rex: Have your inspiration and motivation for drumming today changed since when you began to play with the Dead?

Hart: I wake up every morning with the idea of making some kind of rhythm, or to be in training with it. I see the world in rhythmic terms – with the kind of cosmology I have you tend to rhythmize things and see things in ways of rhythm and pulsing. Grateful Dead music – same way. I wake up in the morning today with the same feeling as the first day with my time with the Grateful Dead. No, nothing has changed on that level.

Rex: What are drummers today doing that is different or innovative compared to what you were doing when you began?

Hart: There are always slight variations of the groove. The whole thing is about a groove; it’s not so much what you play, it’s do you get the feel of it. Of course, people get the feeling from different ways.

When you’re learning an instrument, you usually base your knowledge on a body of work that preceded it. The jammers that came out 20 or 30 years after us, they based a lot of it on stuff that we did. And that’s really good, because that’s how music reinvents itself and lives. There are variations all over the place. Bill and I certainly were variations on the theme, that’s for sure.

Having multiple drummers gives each one of us a security, and also a freedom to fly. That’s what it’s all about, a freedom in the music. If you get that, then that’s really the enchilada. The rest of it is just technique and skill.

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Bill Kreutzmann at Vibes for Peace. Photo: Susana Millman.

Rex: What are you looking forward to in 2007?

Hart: I would say in one word, five letters actually, it would be music. I’m really getting seriously into Planet Drum recording and working with Kitaro (multi-instrumentalist from Japan). I have been working with Kitaro for a while; we’ll be putting something out of rhythmic nature, something to do with trance. And of course, there’s the Rhythm Devils stuff that will be coming out.

This year, 2007, is going to be a year of a lot of new and innovative stuff. There are other things on the horizon that I can’t speak of. It’s going to be a very, very interesting year.

I just hope for a lot of health for everybody, and peace. I hope that everybody can be in rhythm together in the world so we don’t blow it up. Everybody should be able to negotiate without having to kill each other, which would be a start for a good thought about 2007.