The Rhythm Devils: License To Fly

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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…

Bill Kreutzmann & Mickey Hart by Chad Smith

Lessons In The Dead

The palpable in-the-moment quality of the Grateful Dead was often most visible in the interplay of Kreutzmann and Hart, whose faces and bodies often conveyed a joyful daring-do that infected others, tapping into the primal, childlike need to bang on things until cool noises leap out. Their relationship often feels like we’re getting to eavesdrop on a very long, involved exchange that’s still a blast for both parties.

“We practiced a lot in the early days – thousands of hours personally, alone – to be able to throw it away and be fluid onstage. It’s not something that just happens. We worked at it,” says Hart. “We think of it more as a conversation. So, this conversation has lasted 40-odd years now, and it’s still interesting because we’ve never really totally codified things. We never talk about what we’re going to talk about. We never say, ‘You play that and I’ll play this.’ We never do that. We just search around until we find a combination that works and then settle into it. When we listen back to tapes on the bus we might say, ‘See, that thing you did there was really cool.’ And if the other person thinks it was cool, too, they’ll do it again. There’s still a learning curve on what works. We don’t do things different every night just to be different. It’s a constant state of morph and fluxing that’s about change in the right direction, not just change for change sake.”

Mickey Hart by Suzy Perler
“I like a lot of processing and space and delays and reverb and all kinds of instruments unborn. I like to find new sounds and new spaces every night that just amaze me. I’m certainly a hunter. I stalk the groove. I’m a stalker [laughs]. I work really hard to be able to do that,” continues Hart. “I warm up every night and rehearse the band to be able to relax enough to be able to go after the good, the rare, the thing that shines and makes you want to go back again the next night. Being a musician is not easy. You go from city to city, you set up, you play a few hours and you tear down. Unless you really want to do it don’t bother because it’s not really that comfortable mentally, physically and so on.”

The mythology of the Grateful Dead has long acknowledged that the audience is part of the music, inexorably threaded into what the musicians do, for good or bad.

“At its best moments, you get a full circle, a round trip, if you will, where the audience is feeding the band, the band is feeding the audience and neither can do it without the other,” says Hart. “It truly becomes a musical moment that’s shared as opposed to someone’s listening and someone’s giving. There’s a blurring of the lines between the stage and the audience. The better it is, the more cathartic it is, with many crashing, enlightening and uplifting moments throughout the evening.”

However, Grateful Dead Music requires both this audience-band synergy and a high level of musicianship to pull off. Within these powerful unfolding moments, there are still the practical issues of following the music in tandem, hitting the right keys and segues and so on.

Bill Kreutzmann by Suzy Perler
“You have to have trust,” says Hart. “It’s a little heroic, and sometimes you have to go into a place you’ve never been. It feels very euphoric when you find it but you have to let go, and letting go in front of thousands of people isn’t easy…at first. Then, it becomes easier. It becomes your style, and the expectations people bring with them to a show are realized and courted. When that happens it’s a successful night, a successful moment, but you have to believe you’re going to find your way out of this dark alley you find yourself in. It’s a seemingly dead-end street and you find yourself at the end of it. So, how are you going to get out of this dark alleyway or super light alleyway or whatever it might be? How are you going to travel? It’s the way of going that’s important.”

“When you have group-mind, then you depend on that. Everyone just listens intently and is really sprightly in their work – moving quickly or slowly as the case may be – but listening and reacting and updating based on miniscule times. The time frames are tiny when you’re improvising and you have to make your decisions in a split second or else you’re behind. It becomes more intuitive instead of thinking,” continues Hart. “Once it becomes a body, the music takes on a whole other aspect. Once you develop that group-mind you move differently. Instead of moving a sea tanker where you have to go real slow, you can cut and run on a dime. It’s kind of a license to fly once everybody understands how high and fast they can fly individually and as a group. Then you become a group, and the rush of group melody, rhythm and harmony becomes intuitive rather than thinking, ‘Where do I go now?’ And obviously, the better in tune you are with yourself and the group, the more successful you are at jamming.”

Cracking The Songbook

Andy Hess & Bill Kreutzmann by Suzy Perler
The organic malleability of the Dead catalog is perhaps the heart of its enduring viability and the reason so many hands and voices can handle it while still creating something of their own.

“There’s certain signature things you have to have to make it the song, but we couldn’t remember what we did the night before, so a method was born [laughs]. We didn’t do this on purpose,” says Hart. “I remember one day there was an incident where Bob was supposed to do something and he didn’t do it and we came down on him. And it was so sad and we thought, ‘We can’t do this forever. If we’re gonna play this music forever we can’t go into the blame game.’ So, we dropped that and let it happen and it worked out. It wasn’t that kind of child; it didn’t have discipline in that respect. You could whip it into shape and discipline it and make it do what you wanted it to do OR you could let it go and just see it grow.”

“No one really tried to commit most things to memory. Some things we had to so people would recognize the songs,” continues Hart. “Things were going from one thing to another, just morphing and morphing, and there weren’t really any songs, there was just music. Then we tried to make songs out of it, and the songs grew. Robert Hunter started writing words to our music as we were playing it. He’d sit there and just write words. ‘Uncle John’s Band’ came out of a jam, most of ‘Dark Star’ and ‘The Other One’ were just moments we went through and Hunter just heard the words. And we never really codified or crystallized a lot of this. We never said this is the way it has to be. It was made to be explored, so everybody had some kind of personal freedom to explore on a daily or nightly basis. And it was okay to change things, and even when things became signatures we could still play with that signature riff because we birthed them. So, that’s the way it is in the Grateful Dead musical lexicon.”

“It’s fun and it’s getting better,” says Hess. “This music is all a great melting pot. It’s also really loose. I’ve also played in a lot of bands where it’s about being tighter, and this floats here and then floats into the next song. It’s a different approach that they’ve mastered over the years. That’s been challenging to me to let go of a stricter time thing. Mule was loose in a lot of ways and improvisational, but I come from groove music where there’s a lot of repetition. I’m trying to bring myself into this music and make the songs work.”

Davy Knowles by Suzy Perler
“My ultimate favorite is ‘So Many Roads.’ I think it’s absolutely perfect. If you can find a better definition of music, I’d like to hear it. It’s achingly beautiful. The lyrics are beautiful and the melody is incredible. It’s a road song without being cheesy. It’s just correct and so stunning,” says Knowles, who’s also enjoying the Dead’s old blues chestnuts. “I’m really digging the Pigpen-era stuff. And ‘Easy Wind’ is such a great blues track. It’s a different kind of blues. I’m very happy it’s not a 12-bar. It’s something else entirely. I figure if you to hear a 12-bar blues why not put on a Freddie King or Albert King record because they can do it a lot better than I ever will. The idea is to take those influences and make something of your own out of them. I’m 23-years-old and I don’t want to play 12- bar blues the rest of my life. I want to pay tribute to it, but there’s a lot of people that came before me that do a much better job at it. If you want to hear that, then go put it on. It’s important to try something which is why I like songs like ‘Easy Wind.'”

“The blues crowd is incredibly faithful but sometimes it feels like you can’t do anything outside the blues or they’ll lynch you. And the craziest thing is the blues came from black people being oppressed in these just evil times, and suddenly the blues market is all white, middle-aged guys with long hair trying to wear zoot suits. You think, ‘Wow, the white guys have kind of taken over again,'” says Knowles. “It’s very strange how upside down it is. If you’re a white kid who plays the blues but doesn’t play them like Freddie King or Albert King or one of the legendary black blues guys, then they say you’re not playing blues no more.”

“Probably [the most difficult song to learn has been] ‘Uncle John’s Band.’ There’s bars of three and suddenly it goes from 4/4 to 3/7. And my timing is pretty rubbish. I’ve played with 4/4, maybe 6/8 or 3/4 now and again, for so long and that’s about it. So, my timing needs a lot of work and suddenly it’s, ‘Oh crap!’ and I need to come in at precisely the right place,” says Knowles. “And these guys [Mickey and Billy] don’t know all the timing. They’ve played them for so long that they just know them. I’d ask if there was a bar of three and they’d say, ‘I don’t know. That’s just how it goes.’ Arrgh! What do I do? Help! Help!”

Tim Bluhm & Andy Hess by Suzy Perler
“I think the things that are working the best for me so far are the Dead ballads like ‘Brokedown Palace,’ which are right in my comfort zone,” says Bluhm. “Davy does a great ‘So Many Roads’ and I get to sing harmonies on that. He kills – he just rules it. I’m enjoying playing with him, but he’s definitely pushing me. I’m playing more guitar solos in this band than with the Hips. I saw the same thing happen with Jackie [Greene], where he learned more about big guitar playing when he was out with Phil. You learn what equipment works and what will cut through. I can’t really see it from inside but I know I’m growing when I think about it.”

Making music, on some level, is an act of regurgitation – what comes out after one has digested tradition. But it’s often a snake eating its tail, where music often sounds like mere variations on a theme instead of moving into fresh territory. This is one of the crucial differences in Grateful Dead music, which formed its own language since nothing previous quite got the message across in the right way for them. Make no mistake what Hart, Kreutzmann and their compatriots forged is a true American original distinct from anything before its arrival.

“That’s why I thought I could do this the rest of my life, this kind of music, and I was right,” says Hart. “It allows for growth. When you have this kind of architecture it’s not inhibiting to your creativity, as opposed to playing the song the exact same way every night, which is really the death knell for creativity. Playing songs really well is a wonderful art, but it’s not ours. Not to put that down at all, to play a song with all its nuances intact, but for us it would be creative suicide.”

“You gotta be like a warrior in a way, a road dog, and desperate in a way to bring your music to the people or else you shouldn’t do it, you shouldn’t take up the wand. I wouldn’t recommend it for most people,” says Hart. “It’s a very intense kind of life, and you have to balance it with family and a home life. People pay good money to see us and I try to reward that with an effort, to go to that place that will make them charmed. That’s my responsibility to them. If you go out and don’t deliver what you’re capable of then you’re ripping them off, and I don’t like that, brother. It’s a rip off if you don’t put in everything you have into it that night. Even if you fail it’s okay as long as you try real hard.”


The Rhythm Devils will perform next on Jam Cruise on January 7-8, and then a post-cruise show at Revolution Live in Fort Lauderdale, FL on January 9. Check out setlists from this past year along with a list of new tunes being performed here.


The Rhythm Devils Tour Dates :: The Rhythm Devils News :: The Rhythm Devils Concert Reviews

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