Longer, stranger trip

Harvesting universal light into danceable sound with the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart

Mickey Hart, the celestial percussionist.

Mickey Hart, the celestial percussionist.

Photo By Michael Weintrob

J-Max Productions presents the Mickey Hart Band Friday, March 9, 9 p.m., at the El Rey Theatre.
Tickets: $30
El Rey Theatre
230 W. Second St.

Drum and rhythm master Mickey Hart finds the term “world music” much too limiting. So, the man who spent about 25 years as a member of the Grateful Dead has broadened his musical scope beyond the horizon by actually scientifically harnessing and collaborating with the whole universe. … No, really.

Speaking from his studio in west Sonoma County during what he said was the final production week for his new CD, Mysterium Tremendum (due out April 10), Hart said that the new record (and the live-music product he’ll bring to the El Rey Theatre with the Mickey Hart Band Friday, March 9) contains samples from outer space.

Beginning as light waves captured from deep space then converted into audio bits with the help of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and Meyer Sound in Berkeley, these faraway sounds have been sorted and filed, and the samples are then accessed and released into the Mickey Hart Band mix with the help of a sophisticated computer tool Hart called a RAMU (Random Access Musical Universe).

“It’s a very emotional experience,” Hart said. “We’re changing the light waves into sound waves and having a conversation with them. I make music with it and dance with it. I like the energy.”

In addition to reaching into the universe to capture sound, Hart is also a passionate and respected musicologist, gathering field recordings of traditional music from around the globe in the style of legendary folk-music collector Alan Lomax. In late 2011, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings released The Mickey Hart Collection, which includes 25 albums drawn from The World, a series that incorporated Hart’s solo projects, field recordings and titles he produced for other world musicians. (Get free tracks at mickeyhart.com.)

Even without the addition of celestial sonification, Hart’s new ensemble is more diversified than his many past projects, which have included Planet Drum, Bembe Orisha, and the Global Drum Project, all of which have focused on celebrating rhythms and percussion.

The Mickey Hart Band, which has been organically forming only over the past nine months, also produces danceable jam-rock, a couple of ballads and makes a few visits to the Grateful Dead catalog, for such pieces as “The Other One,” “Fire on the Mountain,” and the Buddy Holly tune that the band often covered, “Not Fade Away.”

The band has also developed several new songs with the lyrical help of Robert Hunter, who penned most of the Grateful Dead’s classics.

“Hunter wrote around this [celestial] theme,” Hart said. “I think it is right up there with his best work. When you get Hunter really focused you have something of great power and insight.”

The band includes players with wide-ranging r"sum"s. In light of the other-worldly digital ingredients at play, Hart has the good fortune of partnering with technical whiz and album co-producer Ben Yonas, who is a sonic sculptor with the band both onstage with keyboards and a Mac, as well as behind the scenes with visuals.

Soul singer Crystal Monee Hall, who had a leading role in nationally touring and Broadway productions of the musical Rent, and is a familiar voice on the jazz-festival circuit, plays a major role here. Hunter said her version of his Grateful Dead ballad “Brokedown Palace” was the best he’d ever heard, according to Hart. Hall shares singing duties with Tim Hockenberry, a recent touring vocalist with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, whose raspy, emotional voice is often compared to Joe Cocker or Tom Waits.

Bass player Dave Schools, a neighbor of Hart’s, also happens to be a core performer of Widespread Panic, a member of jam-band-scene nobility.

In addition to Hart’s contribution on drums, percussion and RAMU, Ian Herman lends additional drum support and 20-year Hart sideman Sikiru Adepoju adds rhythmic interpretations with his handheld talking drum.

“The band was chosen with this new energy in mind,” Hart said. “I asked, ‘Do you want to go on a little sonic odyssey around the music?’ They all lit up. They are ready to transform into the vision of this music, which is still rock ‘n’ roll.”