At a Rex Foundation benefit concert at the Warfield Theatre in SF 12/1/06, Rhythm Devils Mickey Hart, Steve Kimock and Sikuru jam out.
Photo: David W. Clark
One of the most exciting Grateful Dead offshoots to rear its noisy head the past couple of years has been the Rhythm Devils, which of course is the proud progeny of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. The group, which also features ex-Phish bass monster Mike Gordon, ace jamband guitarist Steve Kimock (a veteran of the 1998 edition of The Other Ones and early incarnations of Phil Lesh & Friends), Nigerian percussion beast Sikuru Adepoju, and singer Jen Durkin (who replaced the group’s previous chanteuses, Bobi Cespedes and Goapele), toured the east and Midwest in the summer and fall of 2006 and played a handful of very well-received dates in 2007. If you weren’t one of the fortunate ones who got to see this band onstage, fear not: A DVD, culled from three different shows the Rhythm Devils played on their most recent tour, should be out in the not too distant future.
In mid-April we caught up with Mickey and Billy to find out a little more about the group and the forthcoming DVD. “This new Rhythm Devils group pretty much got its start at the Jammy Awards last year,” Mickey says from his Sonoma County studio. “They asked Billy and me to be the emcees, and we figured since we were going to be there we might as well play. Who else was going to be there? Well, Steve Kimock was going to be there. [Blues harmonica titan] Charlie Musselwhite was going to be there. So were [African singers] Angelique Kidjo and Babba Maal. Mike Gordon was going to be there. So we quickly put something together and then we had a warm-up show at the Canal Room [in NYC’s Tribeca area] that went really well. And from there we went and played the Jammys and that went well, too, so we decided it might be fun to take it out on the road a little bit. We’ve taken it out on a couple of little runs to see if it can fly — it can fly!”
Adds Billy, speaking by phone from his second home on the lovely Garden Isle of Kauai, “I wasn’t playing at the time and I was looking for something fun to do, so when Mickey said ‘Let’s play,’ I couldn’t resist. Anytime you get a chance to play with people like Mike Gordon and Kimock, well, you do it,” he laughs.
“I played with Trey [Anastasio] and Mike a couple of years back [December 2005] at Warren Haynes’ Christmas Jam in Asheville [NC] and I loved Mike’s bass playing so much I said to Mickey, “If we can get Mike to play, let’s form Rhythm Devils with him.’ Mikes got great time and he plays really nice ideas; he doesn’t get boring. The other thing about Mike is he’s a good music leader. He has great ideas of how to go to changes and how to make the music different.”
As for Master Kimock (as our old buddy Vince Welnick used to call him in their Missing Man Formation days), “I just love playing with that guy; he’s such a wonderful cat,” Bill enthuses. “And he plays his heart out. What I like about his stuff is that he has really long ideas. He’ll take the time to build his ideas and make sure they’re actually going somewhere. That’s really a gift; a lot of musicians have trouble with that. He seems to never run out of ideas, which is also really rare.”
Since arriving in the U.S. more than two decades ago, Sikuru has played on a number of Mickey’s percussion recordings and has even made his way onto the Dead’s stage a handful times through the years. He’s definitely part of the sprawling rhythm brotherhood that seems to have Mickey Hart as its locus point. Sikuru is perhaps best known as an unparalleled expert at the talking drum, but basically if you can beat it or shake it, he can make magic come out of it. Billy, for one, was excited to play regularly with Sikuru. “Even though I’ve known him a long time, he and I had never really gotten a chance to work together much, so that was a real trip for me,” he says. Billy has been known to play the talking drum onstage from time to time, so I ask him if they played any talking drum duets in this band. “No, I would never touch a talking drum with him,” he says with a chuckle. “I just play regular drum stuff on the talking drum; he has a whole language he can speak on the drum. If I went to Africa and played talking drum, they’d probably throw me out. Don’t get me wrong — I love playing it, but when you’re around a master, you let the master play. Just playing my drum set with him was wonderful. We went to some really great places together.”
With her powerful yet elastic voice, singer Jen Durkin probably surprised many Dead Heads on the last tour, but East Coast jam band aficionados have known about her talent for years: She was a member of such groups as Deep Banana Blackout, Bernie Worrell & the Woo Warriors and Bomb Squad, and has appeared with everyone from Govt. Mule to John Scofield to the P-Funk All-Stars. “I’d heard about her and I’d heard a really good recording of her,” Mickey says. “It seemed like she’d be a good fit for this kind of band, and she was. She’s really a sweetie and she has iron pipes.” Adds Billy, “She has lots of great energy on stage. The Dead Heads really seemed to like her.”
When the group got together for the first tour in 2006, their initial rehearsals were at Trey Anastasio’s barn recording studio/rehearsal space in rural Vermont,” and right away everything clicked,” Mickey offers. “The chemistry was there and it was obvious we were going to go places with the material.”
The repertoire was drawn from a number of fine new original tunes written by Mickey in collaboration with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, and a selection of Dead favorites, including “The Other One” (perfect for this groove-oriented band), “Fire on the Mountain,” “Lovelight,” “Sugaree” and “Comes A Time.” To hear live versions of three of the Hunter-Hart tunes — “Fountains of Wood,” “The Center” and “Who Do You Think You Are” (as well as “The Other One”) — go to rhythmdevils.net and click on “rhythm.” Fascinating stuff.
As we prepared this news item, it was still unclear of when the DVD will be released. It’s currently being mixed to 5.1 surround at Star City Recording in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, by noted engineer Jeff Glixman. “He’s got a great ear and he’s doing a really good job with it, “ Mickey says. “It’s beautiful. It captures what this band does really well.”
Of course we’ll have more on this project as news becomes available.