The Rhythm Devils: License To Fly

By: Dennis Cook

Check out some audience recordings of the new lineup here and here to accompany your reading.

Rhythm Devils 2010 by Suzy Perler
The new incarnation of The Rhythm Devils is like no other in this long running project for Grateful Dead percussionists Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. Where earlier lineups focused on a worldly exploration of percussion, the 2010 version is directly engaging with the Dead catalog and generating a goodly amount of new material, too. Joining the drum masters are Tim Bluhm of The Mother Hips (guitar, vocals), Davy Knowles of Back Door Slam (guitar, vocals), Sikiru Adepoju (talking drum) and Andy Hess (bass). An earlier tour this year had Keller Williams in place of Bluhm. In many ways, this more song-oriented ensemble is a chance for Kreutzmann and Hart to lay rightful claim to their share of the Grateful Dead legacy, and in the original spirit of that band, extend the range and possibilities of one of the most enduring, flexible and downright amazing catalogs ever produced. Whatever the underlying reasons, the Devils are at it again.

Mickey Hart by Suzy Perler
"Our name was bestowed upon us by Garcia. Jerry, one night in one of his funny moods, said, 'You guys are rhythm devils' [his voice taking on a deep growl]. It was said in the funniest of ways, and we were really after the rhythm that night. That's where it all started," says Mickey Hart. "Originally it was just about Bill and I doing our thing in the second set. It was a free space, rhythmically speaking, and we just went out into the zone and discovered what the rhythm of the day was."

As percussionists, Hart and Kreutzmann give off a trickster vibe with a knowing playfulness that's touched by resounding confidence and wildfire. These are not guys one is likely to see knocking out straight bebop. The way rhythm speaks to them is peculiar and touched by something organic and unique.

"We look for the moment, and when we find it we're not afraid to go after it," says Hart. "One of things about performance is fear or the lack of it and respect for failing or not failing, which is always there. But the idea of discovery is more important than the fear of failure in our world."

"Each night is valuable. Everyone has equity in the moment – we own it, you own it – and it will never be repeated again. So, it's an original. Sometimes an original is better than others but it's still an original," continues Hart. "You try to make it as special as you can, and you settle for whatever happens. Hopefully it's an uplifting moment. This is moment music, and that is the goal – to create something of value that's never to be repeated again, an original."

The New Guys

Bill Kreutzmann by Chad Smith
While all top-notch players, the Rhythm Devils 2010 lineup isn't something that most listeners, even serious Deadheads, would likely have come up with. It speaks to an out-of-the-box intention from the Devils' leaders that comes with risks but also potentially great rewards.

"We're playing the songs. It's not like free space all night. We have structure, and then you have release. You have to have some kind of physical architecture or you're just jamming all night, and that becomes rudderless and meaningless at times. Just noodling and twittering just to be in the moment is not the object," says Hart. "The object is to go somewhere together and making something of value and interest not just to you but to the people listening."

"We're making the old music our own, and Robert Hunter is composing for us, so we have a loads of new material," says Hart. "The band is just being born and starting to own the songs. Playing the songs is one thing – you can play them well, you can play them badly – but to own the song, to put your signature sound and feeling on it, is really the objective here. Grateful Dead songs were created with that in mind, which allows for exploration; circumnavigation, as it were. Every night I see new sights, hear new sounds, new ways of putting it together. So, the band is loosening up and becoming a band, not just six players. There's a difference."

Tim Bluhm by Chad Smith
"I'm just grateful to the universe for having this opportunity, but I can't say that it's easy. What's cool about Billy and Mickey is they don't do what you think they're gonna do. I think that's a great quality to have," says Tim Bluhm. "I'd heard them play but had never met them. I think Bill spent a lot of time on YouTube looking for guys. I had to learn all the music, and I'm still learning. One big challenge for me is we play at least one new song each show that I've never heard before. I'm constantly on my toes, always on the edge of learning new stuff. You're never done learning stuff with this band. As soon as you've gotten a few songs down, there's a new batch to learn. I'm having a lot of fun onstage hearing the songs get better all the time. It's a miracle to see what hard work can do. These guys work hard!"

"I was never a big Dead guy. I didn't grow up listening to them. I knew who they were peripherally but I had to learn a LOT of this music and make my own sort of Grateful Dead 101 study class," says Andy Hess. "The way I got involved was I'd met Mickey's manager many times over the year in other situations. He thought of me, and then Bill, who I'd met a bit, was sort of a champion for me when my name came up. I told them, 'If you're expecting a Phil Lesh type of bass player, that's not me.' Bill was very supportive and said, 'Play how you play. That's why I pushed for you to be here.' So, I'm trying to make it my own a bit with respect to the music. I'm such a different bassist than Phil. I really love John Paul Jones, he's one of my heroes."

Davy Knowles by Suzy Perler
"I absolutely have no idea whatsoever how I got this gig [laughs]. I got a call from my agent asking if I wanted to join this band for a bit of a tour. I said absolutely; it wasn't even a decision, it was just 'Of course.' What an honor," says Davy Knowles. "Suddenly I'm getting phone calls from Mickey Hart asking, 'Do you play lap steel? Do you own one? Well, you should probably get one.' So, I was pretty much thrown into the deep end without really knowing what was going on, which is great."

"I wouldn't say I was a [Grateful Dead] fan before. I'd heard stuff and had huge respect for them, but I hadn't delved deeper into them. Now I'm just kicking myself for not doing it sooner. It's such an amazing library of music that I'm being opened up to," says Knowles. "What I love about them is they're a true American band. They play real Americana – blues, country, pretty much every form of American music."

"Bill just wanted to do it again, so we searched around for these different players that we thought were flexible enough and high-caliber enough to play together and enjoy each other – their personalities, their singing abilities, their playing abilities [were all factors]," says Hart. "I used YouTube quite a bit to study their musical habits and listened to their recordings. I did a lot of research into who they were, and we brought them all together. There's no telling about chemistry but it worked. You just never can tell."

Rhythm Devils 2010 by Chad Smith
"We don't count it anymore, but the poor kids playing with us now have to count it. It's hard for us to explain why we added two beats before you go into this other part. It just seemed like a good idea at the time," chuckles Hart. "We just smile with it when they fumble the ball a little bit. Sooner or later, they get the pocket and hold the ball tight and they run. Bill and I don't put any real pressure on the guitarists because they had to learn 40-plus songs. They probably thought they were going to learn a set or something and here they've got 40-plus songs on their plate with lyrics and chord changes and tempo changes. They study all the time. We have long sound checks where play through the songs and have transitions and see if we can find our way from this song to that song. We let 'em know if it's going to be faster or slower, but to just keep their ears open and play through it. And all of the sudden, we'll wind up there! Just stay with it, kid! And all of a sudden, a little smile crosses their face when they can see the light at the end. You're swimming deep and all of the sudden you can see the surface for a little air, something known as opposed to the unknown, chaos to order, order to chaos and somewhere in between."

This sort of risk taking – a leap into the unknown with a grin and crossed-fingers – is indicative of how Hart and Kreutzmann have made music their whole lives. Too often, particularly in music these days, artists are unwilling to make such leaps, paralyzed by fear of failure or looking bad or some other hitch that keeps their feet planted.

"That seems like a waste of a good life," offers Hart. "You've got to have musical adventure in your life. Music is life for me, at least a big part of it. It really wouldn't be a smart idea if I played it safe at this stage in my life. So, what you do is try to find people that want to do something that's a bit out of the ordinary, out of the box. And if they agree on doing it without having to force them into it – which is not fun – then you have something."

Tim Bluhm & Davy Knowles by Suzy Perler
"It's absolutely terrifying, but a real education. I can't see any other way I'd have gotten this education. It's such a unique experience. Perhaps the most terrifying thing was Mickey wanted to hear the renditions I was doing with these songs. He asked me to record MP3s of me doing Jerry songs with Robert Hunter lyrics and send them back to him. You can imagine how terrifying it was to record these songs, send them to a Grateful Dead member and wait for a reply. I was quivering," says Knowles. "I have a whole new respect for Jerry Garcia. What an incredible musician, not just a guitar player. Just amazing."

"Garcia was such an accomplished guitarist and songwriter, but even more than that, he seems like such a benevolent spirit. I respect him and the material so much. You can't go too wrong if you approach it that way," says Bluhm. "It's like a rock band with these moments of trance. Both Davy and I have learned a lot about playing that kind of Africanized trance rock 'n' roll. It's so fun to play with [Billy and Mickey] because they have that thing that only the Dead had. In some ways, it's almost more distinctive than what Phil and Bobby brought to it. There's no mistaking them for anyone else."

Finding a bassist with the flexibility and quickness to follow two utterly idiosyncratic percussionists like Hart and Kreutzmann is no simple task. But Andy Hess, with a CV that includes Gov't Mule, The Black Crowes and John Scofield, possesses the sort of fluid open-mindedness necessary to complete the low-end in the Devils.

Andy Hess by Chad Smith
"I've sort of been a lifelong sideman who's played with a lot of people. When I played with Gov't Mule for five years that was the longest I've been in a band," says Hess. "I'm a very supportive kind of player. I've done a lot of different things, and I've always liked a lot of different kinds of music. I've been in New York City for 20 years, and there's a lot of great players there. In order to make a living sometimes I have to do different stuff. I may not always be totally into it but I try to be open to it. It's a constant work in progress. Every time I go onstage I think, 'Okay, here's an opportunity.' Some nights are good and other nights are terrible. It's so intangible, but it's humbling to get to do this for a living."

"Mickey has soooo much energy and he can really inspire you. He's always saying, 'Let's do this and let's do this,' and it keeps going. Oh my god, this guy is 25 years older than me and he's all over the place!" says Hess. "He cares and he's a lot of fun. He's got a strong personality. He's cool and respectful to us all. Even though he wants to get what he wants out of all of us, he's appreciative and he's a smart guy."

Knowles had the pleasure of playing guitar and singing with Keller Williams and Tim Bluhm, two very distinctive players and singers with almost nothing in common. How did this go over in the Devils?

"It's wonderful both ways. They're both incredible musicians and it's been an honor and a privilege to work with both of them and get to know their styles and even rob parts of their styles, too. That's what playing with other people is all about really," says Knowles. "Keller is kind of a hyper solo musician and all his tempos are really quick – he's the first to say that – and it's kind of awesome. He's so used to playing by himself, whereas Tim Bluhm is sort of the definition of laid-back California. He's just an unbelievable guitar player, but he seems a bit shy about it. The one thing I love about Tim is his tone and touch. He doesn't have to play a lot of notes. He's drenched in soul, and his playing is just fantastic."

Mickey Hart by Suzy Perler
As for bandleader Hart's assessment of this newest bunch:

"This is not telepathic yet, so you have to lead a little bit more and you have to be a bit more on top of things to give these signals to the rest of the band, who aren't intuitive yet," says Hart. "Being intuitive means being in the groove for hundreds of hours to be able to move and pulse and throb as one. The goal, eventually, is to go there together instantly. There are so many possibilities and how are they going to know where to go without some leading. They can't read each other's minds like Bill and I can with just body language, just a wink or a nod. Moving forward a quarter of an inch can mean everything. Even just in thinking I can crawl around in his mind. It's not a pretty thought [laughs]. We'd do that with Phil or Bob or Jerry, too. Our conversations were non-verbal on a musical and personal level."

"[With the current Rhythm Devils lineup], we don't know these guys. We haven't done everything in the world with them, and those life experiences carry over into the music. We haven't lived together as a band as we did with the Grateful Dead, so we have to be a bit kinder to them in how we approach the music," says Hart. "Actually, instructive is a better word. We need to give them something to grab onto, some invisible thought process as we learn to mind-meld with each other. Each night it gets to that place of mind-meld in places, and they gain more confidence and you gain more confidence in them and they gain more confidence in you and slowly you grow and become an organism."

Continue reading for much more from Mickey Hart and the other fresh Devils...

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