Photo by Bruce Shaffer
For so many Deadheads, the band wasn’t a group of musicians so much as the bearers of an alternative spirituality. It’s that same mystic energy that’s historically appealed to so many religious Jews, piecing through bootleg tapes with as much vigor as Torah commentary. So for the audience members wearing both tie-dye and tzit-tzit (prayer shawl) at the Mickey Hart Band show in Jerusalem, the performance carried significant weight. As the first member of the Dead to ever play in Israel — and the only member with a Jewish background — Hart was received in Jerusalem like a musical messiah. After many decades the wait was finally over.
The scene was perfect: Hart played as part of the city’s Sacred Music Festival, taking the stage at the Mount Scopus Amphitheatre, a panorama of Jerusalem’s hilly landscape behind, the moon above nearly full. The venue was only 70% filled, but represented a serious mixed bag, varying from 20-somethings studying abroad to hipsters and hippies alike, plus bearded, observant Jews, long-time expats whose memories of the Dead must’ve seemed like a lifetime ago.
Hart and his superb band opened with “Ghost Rider,” from his new album Superorganism, warming up a raring crowd. But the “China Cat Sunflower” into “I Know You Rider” package provided just the release the crowd had been waiting so long to feel.
Of all the Dead deviations on the road right now, Hart strays the farthest from that original sound. His take is more lustrous than his ex-bandmates, with an added ethnic twist. His drum rig was an acoustic and electric percussion laboratory, with Hart gleefully tinkering in the middle. The rhythmic experimentation pushed the tunes towards the cosmos while vocalist Crystal Monee Hall brought a fresh grit and gospel feel that kept feet stomping. Guitarist Gawain Matthews also added some new ingredients to the Dead mix, with a fluid, melodic style, less solo-based than most.
The band’s second set packed in four all-out Dead classics —“Playin’ in the Band,” “Franklin’s Tower” and “Scarlet Begonias” into “Fire on the Mountain” — the latter two creating an ecstatic release with the arms of devout Dead fans shooting towards heaven.
The slow, undulating “Stella Blue” encore put Hall front and center, and she bathed the ballad in her mesmerizing, soulful vocals. It was a soothing cap to a night of built-up expectations in a city so accustomed to tension.
“I will tell my people; I will tell my tribe. I would like you to take this wonderful feeling that we have here tonight and take it home and do some good with it,” said Hart before walking offstage. “The world’s on fire, and you’re in the middle of one of the hot spots right here. But this collective energy is one beautiful thing that music does. Now you have that feeling, that energy; go and be kind.”
Maybe the Middle East peace process has found its new spiritual leader.