"What does the universe sound like, man?"
Sure, this may seem like the kind of dopey questions asked, over Funyuns and gooballs, in the parking lots of a thousand Grateful Dead shows. But Dead drummer Mickey Hart asked the question seriously and — with help from some scientists and Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools — answered it.
The result is his latest project, the Mickey Hart Band. They bring the sounds of the universe, along with songs from the Dead and Hart's rousing solo material to the Belly Up on Saturday, March 2.
With his eight-member band, Hart has combined his rhythmic gifts, his knowledge of world music and his interest in science into a sound that's genuinely new. This isn't a former member of the Dead trying to recreate what made the Dead great 30 years ago — this is an artist fully engaged in his craft and pushing its edges.
Last year, the band released "Mysterium Tremendum," a 12-song record built on Hart's inquiry into the sounds of space, with a cast including longtime Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, Schools on bass, and talking drum virtuoso Sikiru Adepoju.
"The Mysterium Tremendum material, that's what pulled me in," Schools told me from the road. "Do I love the Grateful Dead? Hell yeah. But do I like new fresh music that I can really be encouraged to innovate with? Definitely. And everybody feels the same way. So it's become very interesting: this mixture of Grateful Dead catalogue and very forward-thinking music — it just works."
Hart has been making solo albums since 1972, when he was on hiatus from the Dead, and continued after reuniting with the band. Recent years have seen him embedding with African drumbeat and world musicians.
Saturday's show includes an opening set from the African Showboyz, a group of drumbeat masters from Ghana. If the stage will fit them, expect the 'boyz to sit in with Hart and give a taste of his 2007 "Global Drum Project."
"It's a fascinating experience," Schools says of the blend of jam band, world music and interstellar experimentation. "We have space. We have the world. We have the Grateful Dead and we have all these different voices that commune in a band."
The space experiment began taking shape in 2009, when Hart hooked up with scientists from Penn State University, the Lawrence Berkeley Labs and Meyer Sound who had developed technology to record the soundwaves made by orbiting planets and galaxies. From those celestial sound waves, Hart began crafting rhythms through a process he calls "sonification." Those turned into songs, with the help of Schools and his bandmates. When they put Hunter's lyrics, voiced by the soulful Crystal Monee Hall, on top, "Mysterium Tremendum" was born.
"To be able to convert the sounds from radio telescopes into musical sounds you can use as compositional tools is amazing," says Schools. "And of course only he would latch onto that and create a process called sonification."
You might be tempted to call Schools' collaboration with Hart a torch-passing moment. Widespread, along with Phish, has carried on the spirit of the Dead over the last two decades, with improvisation-heavy shows and legions of fans following them around the country and beyond. But Schools, who was last in town with Widespread for a three-night acoustic run at Belly Up last winter, says the influence is less direct than you would think.
"It was permission given by the success of the Grateful Dead that was a big influence," he says. "When a band is given permission by their fans to perform a 30-minute improvisational segment in front of 90,000 people in a football stadium, that's something a young band should take to heart. It's like, 'We can be allowed to be ourselves!' And that was a huge lesson."
Schools and Hart actually met in the unlikeliest of ways, given the shared musical DNA of the Dead and Widespread. Schools moved to Sonoma County six years ago, from Georgia, and his next-door neighbor, it turned out, was Mickey Hart.
"I never wanted to meet anybody from the Grateful Dead as a fan," says Schools. "I always hoped that, should I meet them, it would be for the purpose of playing together, musician to musician. That dream has been realized. I always enjoyed the drums and the space parts of Dead shows, so getting to collaborate on a new fresh version of that music, that we can create it on a nightly basis, that's just exciting to me."
Technology and music have been increasingly intertwined in recent years, giving rise to electronic dance and dubstep. The Mickey Hart Band is likewise using technology to make a new kind of music. And though the sounds are different, Schools thinks techno devotees are natural allies to this band.
"I don't know how I'd do at a giant rave with a bunch of computers on stage," he laughs. "But I think if that crowd can come and see this band, then they would get it. And it would be more organic than what they're used to getting. It's a deeper integration of the digital technology into the analog humanity."
By - Andrew Travers