Photo by Larry Hulst

The Mickey Hart Band not only blew the roof off Denver’s Oriental Theatre on March 1, they achieved the kind of liftoff that would make astronaut Neil Armstrong proud..

Mickey Hart is an aural alchemist, and his near-conjugal bond with his massive percussion kit was more than obvious as he slathered punchy polyrhythms and deep space sound samples atop his band’s juicy interplay.

“We’re back, so thank you for that,” Hart said, before launching into the 80-minute first set with a high energy “Shakedown Street” that veered into the trance-driven “Starlight,” written by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, and featured on Hart’s latest release Mysterium Tremendum.

The highlights of the first set were “Bird Song,” which soared on the wings of singer Crystal Monee Hall’s exquisite vocals, and the set-closer “Fire on the Mountain,” with Hart sharing vocals with Hall and guitarist/keyboard player Joe Bagale.

Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools may have stood at the back of the stage, but his presence was fully out front as he held down a meaty low end throughout the evening with the help of drummer Greg Shutte, and dropped bone-rattling bombs during “Fire on the Mountain” and in the spirited jam linking “China Cat Sunflower” to “I Know You Rider.”

Schools’ octave-skipping fretwork and sense of timing meshes perfectly with Hart’s inner-rhythms and the pair seemed to have formed a mind-meld as they locked horns to propel the band through several lengthy jams.

Guitarist Gawain Matthews stood nearly immobile at stage right, just in front of talking drum wizard Sikiru Adepoju, but his rich leads – particularly during the second set’s “Samson and Delilah” and “Playing in the Band,” were more than enough to make the audience aware of his presence and talent.

Since 2000, Hart has been on the board of directors for the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, an organization that studies the healing power of music. If the audience’ blissful reaction to the Mickey Hart Band’s Denver performance was any indication, Hart knows exactly what he’s talking about.

The African Showboyz, a quintet from Ghana, West Africa, opened the evening with a hypnotic 40-minute set that combined African tribal drumming with dance. By all accounts, the only person not getting their groove on when these young men hit the stage was the ticket counter. They only disappointment of the evening was that the Showboyz were not invited to share the stage with Hart. That would have been a sight to behold.