There was a general sense of excitement in the air as Mickey Hart brought his band back to New York City after a stop at the Brooklyn Bowl not too long ago, however this time the line up was slightly different. Joining Mickey on his sonic voyage this time around was Ian Herman on the drum set as well as talking drum master Sikiru Adepoju. Crystal Monee Hall and Tim Hockenberry shared a majority of the singing duties while also holding it down on several other instruments. Playing lead guitar was Gawain Mathews, while Ben Yonas danced around the keyboards and Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools supplied all you could need on the low end. Now everyone knows that Mickey brings the space and grooves like no other but as Widespread Panic's big guy made his way out from backstage, the possibilities for this group opened up just a little bit more.
The choppy yet ever so funky riff that signifies "Not Fade Away" started the night off and literally grabbed a tight hold of several people throwing them into a disjointed but seemingly graceful display of dance. Smacking the audience and at the same time planting smiles on everyone's faces with her vocal range, Crystal belted out " I'm gonna tell you how its gonna be," leaving no question that we were going to have a damn good time as long as it were up to her… and good thing it was. Throughout the night the band proved that they could get people up and dancing or keep them stuck in time and space at their command, which proved to be the case during the next song. With a completely different vibe to it, "Time Never Ends" filled every square foot of the venue with hypnotic grooves and repeating vocal lines evoking thoughts of heaven and hell. Everyone in the audience was locked into the same swaying motion, mesmerized by the singing of Tim Hockenbury. Fitting perfectly with the feel of the evening up to this point and really giving Dave a chance to get into it, "Slo Jo" stirred up the full spectrum of emotions… musically speaking. As things started to gel, Mickey began jumping up and down almost in perfect coordination with the intensifying drum beat and escalating lead guitar, all the while a huge grin covered his face. Really feeling the groove and feeding off the intricate rhythms laid down by Mickey, Sikiru and Ian, Dave Schools ripped into the bass sliding the entire length of the fret board before settling into the heavy jam himself and ultimately taking it to a close.
What Mickey presented next was his musical interpretation of the heartbeat of the Sun in the appropriately titled "Heartbeat". The song consisted of what sounded like a basic didgeridoo drone layered among various keyboard effects played by Ben, vocal arrangements by Crystal and other sounds from Tim playing a distorted trombone- a cheetah print trombone- all the while a consistent pulsating drum beat was present but never overbearing. Holding steady with a repetitive bass line but running wild in between, Dave was really feeling this tune and absolutely left his mark. The overall feel to the song was very ethereal and much of that can be attributed to the vocal effects being manipulated by Crystal.
Mickey Hart is nothing short of a musical genius and it shines through in everything he does. Whether he's working with Steven Spielberg, NASA, or throwing together a unique group of musicians for a band, its apparent that Mickey isn't satisfied doing the same old thing and is clearly a forward thinker… but what came next was a no brainer.
Starting off with a soft funky rhythm that gradually built up into one hell of a power house, "Supersonic" was an absolute fan favorite that couldn't have been placed into the set list at a more appropriate time. During the song, it sounds as if foreign vocals were looped and interwoven with echoing guitar work all coming together to creating a very spacey vibe which ultimately rises in intensity and then just lets go. Seeing such a traditional instrument as the talking drum on stage and thriving in the midst of such modern and forward thinking music was inspiring, especially as we lose so much history and tradition on a daily basis. Following "Supersonic," Kenji Williams of the opening group Bella Gaia came out and added colorful violin work to "Djinn Djinn." Although it was one of the more stripped down and less intense songs of the night, it paired beautiful effect-laden vocals with the violin and really dominated the atmosphere momentarily.
Deep into a jam at the end of "Djinn Djinn," a few in attendance picked up on a familiar beat being pounded away off on Mickey's side of the stage. As they started to get a bit wild, a lady from the west coast commented about how much she loves the in your face East Coast fans and their enthusiasm, all of which was on full display as "The Other One" took shape. Being a Deadhead for most his life, Dave Schools must have loved being on stage with Mickey to begin with but when they broke into "The Other One," he was all smiles. The crew was running on all 8 cylinders at this point and hitting every turn with precision. "Cut the Deck," a very peaceful and re-energizing song containing the mantra like line "show me your love" followed. Although the song may get overlooked amongst the more experimental or groove heavy tunes in the catalogue, it features tasteful guitar work and absolutely fit within the setlist.
With the floor packed and the stage lights cutting through the thick smoke towards the front of the stage, Crystal's sultry voice barely got through the word "fare" as the crowd instantaneously cheered for "Brokedown Palace." With such a talented group of musicians behind her, Crystal had nothing to worry about and was able to focus on just delivering a song cherished by so many. She is truly an asset to this band as she displayed impeccable range and originality all night long, switching styles with the greatest of ease and also using her voice as an instrument as opposed to singing like a traditional singer the entire night. As "Brokedown" came to an end, Gawain started with some funky little guitar lines that morphed into "Going Down the Road Feelin' Bad". The energy was through the roof and once again you could catch Mickey grinning like a mad man. This time it was out of sheer enjoyment as he seemed to be throwing curveballs at Dave then waiting to see how he decided to handle them. Everyone on stage, and in the audience for that matter, seemed to be experiencing the same sense of elation because there wasn't a speck of negative energy in the building.
Sometimes everything just falls into place on a particular night in regards to song selection and the positioning of the songs in the set list and that sure seemed to be the case at the Highline.
Closing things with "We Bid You Goodnight" made sense and felt right but there were definitely people out there hoping for a killer encore, which we all got with "Aiko Aiko." Before going into the song or band introductions, Mickey enthusiastically proclaimed that they got a great band and "together we made some magic tonight, and I love the magic." Lucky for those on the other side of the stage there was still more magic to come and it was in the form of a few "Hey Nows," a funky 5 beat rhythm belted out on the drum and a squealing trombone blasting out some New Orleans flare. A true party song to cap one hell of party and as the night rolled into Monday it suddenly became one of the best ways to start the week off.
Keeping the music, and the experience overall, fresh is something that seems innate to Mickey Hart and for that he will continue to attract the fans that literally grew up with him, their children and so many others as he continues to push boundaries of what we think is possible and what some would even consider music.
By - Steve Brienza
Photo by Vernon Webb