Mickey Hart Band – Mr. Smalls Theater – Pittsburgh, PA
words and photos by Ryan Neeley
It isn’t every day that you get a chance to see a member of the Grateful Dead in a gorgeous theater that holds less than 700 people, so when Mickey Hart Band rolled into Millvale, PA’s quaint Mr. Smalls Theater, a converted 18th century Catholic church, last Thursday on their SuperOrganism tour, I jumped at the chance to go. With Mickey’s 70th birthday just around the corner in September and due to the fact that the last time I saw him was at Dark Star Jubilee, I was excited to see the band stretch out in an intimate indoor setting and a bit curious to see how much energy the percussionist and musicologist possessed after all these years on the road. And after dancing the night away to the band’s rhythmic beats, cross-cultural style and genre-defying sound, I can confidently report that Mickey Hart has not lost a step. From his interaction with the audience and other band members to his stunning array of instruments, Mickey thrilled the crowd in attendance with a fiery set of Grateful Dead songs mixed with Mickey Hart originals and standards that would please any musical taste.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that there were times in the past at MHB shows when I felt as though it was getting “too cosmic”, and I was tolerating some arrangements to get to something I could work with. But this show was stellar, with just the right amount of exploration mixed with standard Dead songs that were performed amazingly. Effective bass guru Reed Mathis of Tea Leaf Green joined Hart on stage, bringing his versatile musicianship to the mix of MHB. Tony Award winning vocalist Crystal Monee Hall’s soulful vocals enveloped the theater, Joe Bagale’s work on various instruments and vocals thrilled the crowd, and Sikiru Adepoju. “the Mozart of the talking drum”, as Mickey once put it, added some amazing beats to the talented group of musicians Hart has assembled.
After Tea Leaf Trio’s infectious set, Hart came out to the stage dressed comfortably in a greyish blue Skeleton t-shirt and strapped on his famous leather white work gloves. Standing behind a striking array of percussive tools, including djembe drums, congos, bongos, a Theremin and multitude of other instruments. To the right of Mickey was sound design engineer Jonah Sharpe on a MAC, joining Adepoju on talking drum, vocalist Crystal Monee Hall, Mathis on bass, Bagales on keys, Greg Schutte on traps and guitarist Gawain Matthews on Hart’s left. The first set included some Grateful Dead favorites, such as the opener “Samson and Delilah”, where Monee Hall introduced her powerful voice to the crowd, followed by “Someone to Love”. Hart showed off a variety of instruments during a trance inducing Drums segment. Other highlights of the first set included a wonderfully done “Iko”.
Set two was even better, with “Spanish Lady” and “Bird Song” satisfying the thirsts of Dead fans, with some beautiful originals from the Superorganism release like “The Sermon” and “Bully Boy”. But the highlight of set two was a “Fire on the Mountain” with the “Mickey rap”, where Mickey shows off his more urban side. Prior to the end of the show, Hart explained that it was a collaborative process with the band and audience, and everyone had a part in making the music of the evening, and acknowledged music therapists in attendance, explaining the importance of their work. All in all, the show was better than I expected, with great energy from the band and Hart. According to the press release for the tour, Hart was to wear a brain cap and his brainwaves were supposed to be shown on a screen behind him; however, the cap was never brought out. (most likely due to lack of space) But the beauty of live music is that none of us in attendance needed a screen or brain cap to show us what was transpiring – we were all set on the same frequencies sharing the same magical experience.