Mickey Hart's Mystery Box CD
This CD has "Geoff's 'Must-buy'" attached to it! Seriously folks, this is a significant record. Beautifully supple, muscular, gorgeous music, with 10 new Hunter-lyrics songs. In my book, that is well worth the price of admission.
Info from Ryko:
Everybody loves a mystery -- the deep desire to explore the unknown has been hard-wired into the human mechanism from the beginning. Mickey Hart has long been one of our most resourceful and successful seekers of mystery in the realm of music.
As a citizen of Planet Drum, as an essential component of the engine that drove the Grateful Dead, and as an avid collector and producer of music from all over the world, Hart has been a persistent and eloquent champion of musical exploration and adventure. Now, the adventure continues with Mickey Hart's Mystery Box, a stunning work that weds irresistible rhythm to the most appealing qualities of pop music while bringing together the two most elemental instruments of human communication -- the Drum and the Voice.
Mickey's lifelong romance with the drum has been well-documented -- he has traveled the world in search of new sounds, new instruments, new beats. He is a scholar of rhythm as well as a practitioner, and has published two books on his studies in the world of ethnomusicology. In 1991 he realized his longtime dream of assembling the ultimate percussion ensemble when he recorded Planet Drum, an album which united such masters of rhythm as Babatunde Olatunji, Zakir Hussain, Giovanni Hidalgo, Airto Moreira, Flora Purim, Vikku Vinayakram and Sikiru Adepoju. The album enjoyed a long stay at the top of Billboard's World Music chart, and was awarded the Grammy as Best World Music album in 1991.
Planet Drum was a hard act to follow, but Mickey, as ever, set out to do something completely different. "I wanted to hear drums and beautiful voices - the most sacred of instruments -- together," he says, "...to create a music that was like chanting, but with that strong driving rhythm...the deep grooves...for the body." The idea, Hart says, was to allow the drums and the voices to have a musical dialogue. "If drums could speak," he explains, "this is what they'd say."
To give voice to the drum, Hart set out to craft songs from the rhythmic foundation up, and that meant not just the beat, but the melody. Countering the notion that drums are "non-melodic" instruments, Mickey says, "These are beautifully crafted, finely tuned instruments, and in the hands of master musicians, they can sing." To find the roots of these melodies, Mickey laid down the basic grooves with Planet Drum partners Hussain and Hidalgo, and began the quest for the words (and the voices) to complete the story.
When it came to the words, there was no doubt as to the right man for the job: longtime Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Although Hunter's primary collaborator for the past three decades was the late Jerry Garcia, several much-loved items in the Dead's repertoire were Hunter lyrics that grew from Hart rhythms, including "Playing In The Band," "Greatest Story Ever
Told" and "Fire On The Mountain" (the latter first materialized in a never-released Hart solo version, featuring a spoken-word rap vocal by Mickey). Hart gave Hunter the bare-bones rhythm tracks as the framework upon which to hang the lyrics. "I told him listen to the drums," Mickey recalls, "and they'll take you there." Hunter was challenged and inspired by this different approach to lyric writing. "I was very conscious that I wasn't writing for Jerry's voice," he says. "I sort of switched gears, and thought of things that would suit Mickey's personality. And my lyric writing tends to be more counter-rhythmical...the words are like punctuation, and I really liked that... I also enjoyed writing for female voices."
The female voices in question are those of the Mint Juleps, a remarkable a cappella group from Great Britain, comprised of the four Charles sisters (Debbie, Elizabeth, Marcia and Sandra) and their longtime friends Julie Isaac and Debbie Longworth. Mickey, during his quest for just the right vocal sound, was pointed in the direction of the Mint Juleps by Jerry Garcia, who had seen them in a PBS documentary by Spike Lee that spotlighted various a cappella groups. "As soon as I heard them, I knew they were it!," he recalls.
With the vocal lineup set, and Hunter at work on the lyrics, Hart called on his Grateful Dead colleague Vince Welnick and longtime Bay Area musical friend Dave Jenkins to flesh out the melodies and work on song structures. Little by little, piece by piece, the Mystery Box began to take shape. Over the next two years, in between Grateful Dead tours, Mickey continued to refine the grooves, bringing in at various times such players as Airto, former Tower Of Power drummer David Garibaldi, Sikiru, and Youssou N'Dour's bass player, Habib Faye.
As the project began to pick up steam, Hunter delivered the lyrics, which rank with some of the finest he's ever written. Hart enthuses, "Hunter is the man! He came into the studio with us, like he did on some of the best Grateful Dead albums, and he listened to the way the words fit the grooves, and edited as we went along." While Hunter's words melded perfectly with Mickey's grooves, they really took flight when given voice by the Mint Juleps on songs that run the gamut from the soulful "Where Love Goes (Sito)" to the surreal ("John Cage Is Dead"). And Hunter filled one more crucial role: "He was my vocal guru!," says Mickey, who makes his long-delayed vocal debut here, more than twenty years after that proto-rap "Fire On The
Mountain." Hart contributed the spoken vocals to several tracks, including the aptly titled "Only The Strange Remain" (a revised version of a semi-legendary Hunter/Hart tune that's been kicking around for years), "The Sandman" (an infectious piece featuring guitar work by Bob Weir), and what may be the album's emotional high point, "Down The Road," a beautiful evocation of departed heroes from Joe Hill to Jerry Garcia that also features Bruce Hornsby contributing impassioned vocals and some lilting accordion.
To help achieve the album's distinctive sound, Hart enlisted the services of co-producer Robin Millar, who has crafted worldwide hits for the likes of Sade, Fine Young Cannibals and Kate Bush. The collaboration was a fortunate one, resulting in the perfect marriage of ancient and modern, earthy and cosmopolitan - irresistible dance grooves wedded to soaring voices and profoundly affecting words.
The prevailing mood on Mystery Box is one of optimism and of looking forward. As Hunter writes in one song: "Depend on the wind of distant drums/We'll know the next step when it comes."
Mickey, for his part, can't wait for the next step, which will come when he and the Mystery Box troupe tours this summer, as part of the eagerly awaited caravan known as the Furthur Festival. After three decades of musical adventure, Mickey Hart looks down the road again, and he likes what he sees: "It's all about the horizon," he says.
Return to Music
Return to Main Menu