If you ever wondered why the Dead needed two drummers, hear is your answer. Billy Kreutzmann played the straight man, jazz schooled, capable of thrills and fills but never far from the backbeat (for reference, listen to his performance on Jerry Garcia’s first solo album). Mickey Hart is a very different drummer; his is a cosmic journey to explore rhythm in all its various guises, from the natural to the supernatural. Rolling Thunder reveals that journey in its early going, although Dead fans will find plenty of familiar stops along the way, from jam sessions with Jerry Garcia (“The Chase,” “Deep, Wide And Frequent”) to actual rock songs (“Playing In The Band,” “Blind John”). If you have any expectations of what a Mickey Hart album would sound like, of course, you’ll need to leave those antiquated notions at the door. You weren’t expecting it to start with a howl and an Indian invocation. You weren’t expecting the Tower of Power horn section or the demented psychedelic pop of “Fletcher Carnaby.” While there is no such animal as a typical Mickey Hart album, his subsequent efforts have focused mostly on rhythms rather than traditional song structures. Thus, Rolling Thunder is, if not atypical of his later work, not representative of it either. It would seem that Hart was initially double minded as to whether he should make a proper solo album or use the opportunity to explore new musical realms, so he chose both paths. “Playing In The Band” and “Pump Song” will remind listeners of Bob Weir’s Ace, “Blind John” suggests a hippy-trippy Traffic featuring vocals from several key members of the Jefferson Airplane/Starship axis, and “The Chase (Progress)” points forward to future works such as Diga and Yamantaka. Ultimately, Rolling Thunder is a mixed bag featuring some famous buds, a few good songs and some interesting experiments interspersed.
Kronomyth 3.0: SOMETHING FOR THE HUNGRY DEAD(HEADS). In the 70s, Henry Wolff and Nancy Hennings recorded two albums featuring the sounds of Tibetan bells: Tibetan Bells (1971) and Tibetan Bells II (1979). Sonorous and otherworldly—literally, in the sense that the bells were traditionally used to communicate with the dead (hungry ghosts in particular)—these records have been cited as some of the earliest examples of new age music. Clearly, the music spoke to at least one member of the Dead, Mickey Hart, who collaborated with the pair on their next album, Yamantaka. For those of you without the Gods & Demigods supplement to the Dungeon Master’s Guide (only kidding, since I don’t think he’s in there), Yamantaka is a Buddhist god of the underworld who often manifests with multiple arms and heads, most of them angry looking. It’s not clear to me whether the music of Yamantaka is intended as a meditation on death, a musical offering to the god himself or something in between. There are moments on both “The Revolving Mask of Yamantaka” and “Yamantaka” that feel like landscape paintings of the afterlife; bells ring through an endless wasteland, sounds hum with the tedium of eternity, lost souls loom with no physical frame of reference. I couldn’t tell you how this compares to the first two Tibetan Bells, although it seems that Mickey Hart’s contributions expanded the landscape to include a mix of exotic and innovative instruments. I can tell you that Yamantaka is an interesting trip for navel-gazers, although at 35 minutes it might have been a longer trip. The later CD reissue switches the order of the original two tracks and adds three new compositions from Hennings and Wolff to the mix. The new songs fit more easily into the “new age music made with Tibetan bells” category, noting that if any such category does exist, it owes its existence to the original Tibetan Bells albums and, perhaps moreso (given the visibility that Hart brought to the project), to Yamantaka. Unless you’re inclined to sit still for forty minutes of ambient music, a good ten minutes of which is simple resonance, you can pass on this record. But if you believe that music can consist of nothing more than finger cymbals and feedback, a new world awaits on Yamantaka.
The solo career of the second drummer in the Dead has essentially been a series of fascinating drum solos, by which I mean that his music has focused on percussion to the exclusion of almost every other instrument. Rolling Thunder (1972) was the exception: a Dead soundalike (of sorts) with vocals and actual songs. Hart’s next effort, a collaboration with Zakir Hussain and nearly a dozen different percussionists billed as Diga Rhythm Band, turned out to be the true direction of his muse. Mixing eastern and western percussion instrument (with a modicum of guitar from Jerry Garcia), the panethnic percussion of Diga (1976) was years ahead of its time.
Hart’s next few albums included some highly experimental efforts. Yamantaka (1983) focused on Tibetan bells; Music To Be Born By (1989) was built around his newborn son’s heartbeat. At The Edge (1990) and Planet Drum (1991) returned to the multicultural, multiplayer percussion of Diga Rhythm Band; the latter even landed Hart a Grammy for Best World Music Album. Although Mystery Box (1996) again proved Hart to be highly capable of making commercial music, his main musical interest remains pushing the boundaries of music through a mastery of percussion and its potentialities. If you’re inclined the follow the beat of a different drum, the music of Mickey Hart beckons.
During the Dead’s second 70’s hiatus, Mickey Hart joined Zakir Hussain in a newly formed “percussion orchestra” (Hart’s words, not mine) dubbed Diga Rhythm Band. It may not have been the groundbreaking cultural crossover it should have been—the world still wasn’t ready for an entire album of panethnic percussion—but Diga certainly succeeded at stretching some skins and expanding a few minds. The album in its original form starts with a pair of short pieces augmented by Jerry Garcia’s guitar, the second of which (“Happiness Is Drumming”) went on to serve as the inspiration for Shakedown Street’s “Fire on The Mountain.” Both opening shorts introduce the idea of wisps of melody (via marimba, vibes and sparing guitar) enveloped in a thick swarm of eastern and western percussion (tabla, drumk kit, tympani, bongos and so on). The three longer pieces feature less melody and more percussion, shifting the sound in a rich kaleidoscope of trills, rolls, beats, bumps and assorted onomatopoeia. It’s an amazing album both in its revelation of the musical potentialities of percussion and its cross-cultural mission to blend east and west into something new and exciting. Of course, appreciating this album presumes that you’re open to forty-two minutes of sonic sensory exploration. If you found the drum solos during the Dead concerts a bore, you’re not going to dig Diga. But if you did enjoy them, Diga is in many ways their logical culmination: an entire album consisting of almost nothing but drums. I’d tell you this is one of the most fascinating side chambers in the catacombs of the Dead, but I’m an incurable navel-gazer at heart. Note that, for some reason, the subsequent CD reissues changed the track order and edited a few minutes from “Tal Mala.” I prefer the elpee version, since the shorter tracks with Garcia ease you into Diga’s unique soundscape.
Kronomyth 6.0: ANCIENT HARTSTORY. This is the musical companion to Hart’s autobiographic/academic exploration of the ancient history of percussion, Drumming At The Edge of Magic. Recorded with Zakir Hussain, Babatunde Olatunji, Sikiru Adepoju, Jerry Garcia and Airto Moreira, At The Edge mixes world percussion and electronics to create an ambient album that more often sounds like the work of Brian Eno (“Eliminators”), Tangerine Dream (“Cougar Run”) or Cluster (“Slow Sailing”) than the Grateful Dead. It’s a pretty spacey album some of the time, and I wouldn’t put it past Hart to have conceived this as a soundtrack for the creation/evolution of man (although, if that’s the case, we’ll be babbling idiots in our final stage). Of course, this disc is best appreciated by the percussively inclined. If you don’t dig drums, you won’t find any hidden treasure here. But if you’re already on familiar and friendly terms with the work of Hussain or Olatunji, then At The Edge may be of more than peripheral interest. Hart’s soundscapes, several of them written with Hussain, are interesting, evocative and no doubt conducive to contemplating your navel (as opposed to, say, operating heavy machinery). In the wider panethnic percussion circle that includes Hussain, Olatunji, Moreira, Acuna, etc., Hart may be our best North American ambassador. Although I found the followup fare of Planet Drum more to my tastes, the decision to engage the services of Jerry Garcia on At The Edge may give it the edge for Deadheads. Both are worth hearing and possibly owning at some point, presuming that forty minutes of pure percussion doesn’t beat you down.
Mickey Hart and a drum circle of friends that most would envy: Airto Moreira, Flora Purim, Babatunde Olatunji, Zakir Hussain, etc. Planet Drum actually earned Hart and company a Grammy for Best World Music Album, though where such things are concerned it’s a small world after all. Using percussion instruments from around the world as well as voice, this is an interesting departure from the average. I wouldn’t call it groundbreaking, since uber-explorer Brian Eno arrived here nearly a decade earlier on works like My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and Possible Musics, but Planet Drum is an equally exotic postcard from the edge. Some of the tracks are a little dry, which you might expect from a percussion-only album, but the stretch of music from “The Hunt” to “Evening Samba” delivers plenty of surprises. There are swinging, shifting grooves, water sounds, muffled voices, primitive and ethereal, native spirits and sexy shadows. Amazingly, no two tracks sound alike, the circle expanding, contracting and changing to include different players and different instruments. Here, Hart’s planet is more of a united nation representing African, Asian, North and South American styles into a new rhythmic language. Among the ancillary Dead discs, I buy Jerry Garcia’s stuff for the same reason a dog sits under the table during dinnertime. I buy Mickey Hart’s music to expand my world. (I don’t know why I buy Bob Weir’s records.) Planet Drum is definitely a different destination than the Dead, but I’d recommend it to rhythmagicians in a Hart beat.