The closest Mickey Hart ever got to Israel was a 1978 visit to Egypt. The week he spent there with his cohorts from The Grateful Dead, including three performances at the Great Pyramids, went down in Dead lore as one of most boundary- expanding “trips” of the legendary San Francisco band’s very long, and definitely very strange, career.
The band, which emerged out of the 1960s Acid Tests of Ken Kesey and the Pranksters, based its pastiche of Americana music on a promise of nightly improvisation. And according to the 69-year-old Hart – who, along with Bill Kreutzmann, made up the Rhythm Devil drum team behind the Dead’s sound – performing in Egypt provided a unique opportunity for the band to see if a historic location like the pyramids could affect the music.
“In some way, it did work, but it’s not automatic,” said Hart earlier this week, minutes after the expansive eight-member Mickey Hart Band had descended from the stage in Hamilton, Ontario, after a nearly two-hour performance combining electric world music, eerie space excursions and Grateful Dead classics.
“We had always dreamt about playing at the pyramids, but there ended up being lots of technical problems and this and that, but it worked out in its own way and was very beautiful. The Egyptian people parked their camels up on the ridge, and we could see them dancing. And on the last night, they all came down to the stage.”
Thirty-five years later, and 18 years after the Dead disbanded following the death of guitarist Jerry Garcia, Hart is hoping that similar magic will be conjured up when the Hart Band arrives in Jerusalem next week. They were beginning the second week of a two-month tour to promote their new album Superorganism that will see them perform on August 22 at the Mount Scopus Amphitheater in Jerusalem as part of the city’s Sacred Music Festival taking place August 20-23.
“Absolutely, you’d better believe it. That’s one of the reasons we’re so looking forward to coming to Jerusalem,” said Hart, the only Jewish member of The Dead. “It’s one of those hot spots, a cradle of civilization, and we’ll be rocking the cradle. I’m really looking forward to tapping in to the spiritual aspect of performing in such a holy location.
It’s not exactly part of our normal touring circuit, and that in itself will take the show to a whole new place.
We’re trying out new kinds of technology on this tour, and it will be the first time we’ll be doing it across the great waters.”
Hart was referring to the tour’s marriage of music and science via an electroencephalography (EEG) cap he wears during the shows that reads his brain’s electrical voltage.
The neural oscillations that are created by his movements and resultant percussion are transmitted to a projector screen behind the band, in essence creating a light show that’s brain-powered.
“On Superorganism, I explore the micro – the human brain, what the brain waves look like on the screen and what it sounds like, all in real-time,” said Hart. “What it becomes is a real- time performance of the brain.”
Exploration of the unknown is nothing new for Hart. Beginning with his vast array of percussion instruments from around the world he used with the Dead, he has became one of the world’s foremost rhythm musicologists, with four books on the subject to his credit. In 1999, Hart was appointed to the Board of Trustees of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where he helped to establish the Save Our Sounds project, a collaboration between the AFC and the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, where he serves as a member of the board of directors. In 2011, the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings released the Mickey Hart Collection, 25 albums focusing on his efforts to cross musical borders, some of them recordings from musical traditions at risk.
While incorporating historic and electronic elements into his current music, Hart stressed that his band – featuring Grammy-winning percussionist and longtime band mate Sikiru Adepoju; Tony Award-winning vocalist Crystal Monee Hall; singer and multi-instrumentalist Joe Bagale; drummer Greg Schutte; guitarist Gawain Matthews; bassist Adam Theis; and keyboardist/sound engineer Jonah Sharp – plays rock ‘n’ roll. And best of all, for Dead fans, the lyrics to many of Hart’s new songs were written by the Dead’s gifted lyricist Robert Hunter.
“We have some great new songs from Hunter, who I think is writing his best lyrics. And the band is really on fire,” said Hart, adding that he’s worked a number of Dead classics into the repertoire, including “I Know You Rider” and “The Other One.”
“We never know what we’ll include; it’s like a journey. The band is playing off each other, it’s beautiful, and I’m glad to be part of it,” he said.
For the first appearance by a member of The Dead in the country, Hart expressed optimism that Israeli Deadheads, as the band’s legions of loyal fans were called, will be out in full force.
“I think I must have a lot of fans over there. I remember that the Jewish population loved The Grateful Dead. It was pretty apparent whenever we would perform on the East Coast at least,” he said.
Despite a lapse in practicing Judaism after his bar mitzva, Hart recalled celebrating Passover a number of times while on the road with the band.
“That’s right, it was at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island and at Madison Square Garden. We had communal Seders, with everybody joining in. We even had a rabbi there.”
Whatever religious persuasion shows up, the Mickey Hart Band show next week in Jerusalem is bound to be a multi-denominational, free-flowing party that will meet at the point where the past, present and future intersect.