Ex-Dead Spreads Himself Thin at Finney
By Cat Richert

From age 13 to 15, my only real aspiration was to follow the Grateful Dead around for the rest of my life. I grew out of that phase many years ago, but I was still thrilled to hear that ex-Grateful Dead drummer, Mickey Hart, would be rocking out in Finney Chapel this past Sunday. There, playing with his latest nine-piece ensemble, Bembe Orisha or “Party of the Saints,” Hart introduced his self-described “not Eastern” but “not Western” world music to Oberlin.
Or at least that’s what he calls it. Truly, the idea is admirable, but Hart missed the beat entirely as the Bembe Orisha world sound proved to be an over-wrought disaster. The stage was filled with numerous glowing instruments hailing from Africa, Cuba, Iran, India and the Americas, indicating the band’s attempt to fuse traditional and modern sounds. Rather than defy time and genre, the outrageous number of instruments simply over-shadowed one another musically and left the audience wanting something more defined.
“I thought that the individual musicians — especially the conga /timbale player, the talking drummer, and the dumbek player – were all phenomenal,” Senior Patia Maule said. “But the overall combination of a lot of heavily miked percussion, plus bass and guitar was overwhelming and didn’t allow each instrument the attention that it deserved.”
A particularly good example of this difficulty was in the ensemble’s third song. One of the two lead female vocalists, Azam Ali, began the piece by playing a dulcimer. It sounded beautiful, echoing elegantly through Finney, but once the rest of the 29 hand drums, 17 bells and many other percussive instruments joined, the piece fell apart entirely; it sounded misled and cacophonic. The product was neither danceable nor spiritual.
The next song was even more of a disaster. During his career with the Grateful Dead, Hart rarely sang, devoting most of his onstage energy to the traditional mid-concert Jam session with fellow “rhythm devil,” Bill Kreutzmann. However, now that his career is in his own hands, Hart displayed his terrible singing voice in this rock-influenced piece. The lyrics had something to do with no one understanding him, and his not being able to fit in…very appropriate for such misplaced music.
I was surprised by how disappointing the entire show was. Not only did Hart and the band’s performance lack the energy I so enjoyed at the Grateful Dead shows of my youth, but I can’t help but wonder how such a well-trained group of musicians, Hart in particular, could be led so musically astray. Hart’s career did not start and end with the Grateful Dead. Although lead-singer Jerry Garcia’s death allowed all other members of the Dead to thoroughly cultivate their own careers, Hart was constantly working on other projects during his time with the band. Hart’s solo albums such as Planet Drum, and work with other musicians, including drumming guru Babtunde Olatunji and the Tibetan Gyuto Monks, was reflected in the Dead’s ever-evolving sound, allowing Hart and the band to constantly push the limits of their music.

Furthermore, Hart has recently become a musician-activist, presenting to the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging on the healing powers of rhythm as well as serving on the board of the Institute for Music and Neurological Function. Hart also spends much of his time working with Smithsonian Folkways to preserve indigenous and endangered music.

That said, perhaps Hart is merely experiencing a case of over stimulation. Too many years of musical exploration may simply be giving him too much to work with and too little left to explore.


September 27
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