I was never much of a Grateful Dead fan and never really understood people's obsession with the band. Oh sure, I liked some of their songs and admired their skill as musicians, but there are a lot of bands I can say the same thing about and there have been plenty of others who I've liked a whole lot more. In fact I knew so little about the band, that although I recognized the name I didn't even know what instruments Mickey Hart had played for them until I first heard the Global Drum Project, the all world percussion group he founded.
All of which meant that I knew nothing of the history of The Rhythm Devils and how they evolved as a separate entity within the Grateful Dead. Hart and Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann earned the nickname The Rhythm Devils during their years with the band. During the band's live concerts, portions of the show would be given over to the duo, and any friends who were on hand to assist them, for a percussion set. Which is how they came to the attention of Francis Ford Coppola in the 1970s and were commissioned to compose music for his film Apocalypse Now. The Apocalypse Now Sessions was their first and only release as the Rhythm Devils while The Dead were still active.
In 2006 the Rhythm Devils got back together with some friends to do a series of concerts. Joining Hart and Kreutzmann were Mike Gordon on bass, Steve Kimock on guitars, Sikiru Adepoju on talking drum, and Jen Durkin handling the vocals. Former Dead lyricist Robert Hunter wrote them a handful of new songs, and the group set out on a short tour. Now, three years later, StarCity Recording Company has released a two DVD set, Rhythm Devils: Concert Experience, commemorating that tour. Packaged in a hard covered book featuring illustrations and the lyrics to the songs performed, one DVD is the concert while the second is a behind the scenes documentary with backstage and rehearsal footage.
As I said earlier I've become familiar with Mickey Hart's work with the Global Drum Project and was hoping to hear and see something of similar quality and style on this DVD. However, while there is no denying the overall skill and talent of the instrumentalists, the music was not of the quality that I have come to expect from Hart's other projects. While there were undeniably moments of musical magic during the concert, overall there wasn't much to get excited about. There was far too much of what sounded like directionless jamming where the same patterns are repeated over and over again during a song and nothing is ever developed to the extent it could be.
While they would always start out promisingly enough it often seemed like the band was content to find a groove, get comfortable, do their solos, and then repeat few times over again. Every so often the vocalist would sing a couple of verses of whatever song they were doing, and the pattern would then be repeated. Each time they went into a new instrumental break you'd hope for something new, but after a while even the solos began to sound the same and the music became even more pointless.
Perhaps it might have been better if the vocalist was able to provide some variety, but Durkin seems limited in what she is capable of doing. While she has the potential to have an interesting voice, for there a great husky quality to it, at the time of these recordings she was monotone and uninteresting. At times she wasn't even singing in the same key as the band and it just sounded unprofessional. Perhaps it's because she had to wait so long between verses during a song it made it hard for her to retain her focus. However if that's the case than perhaps she was the wrong choice for this band, but that's something you need to discover during rehearsals, not on stage.
One of the selling points of this DVD package was supposed to be the post production video added to the concert footage. This included using old cartoon footage, excerpts from what looked like early television commercials, a collection of shots of various nebulas, and other colourful pictures from space and earth. Unfortunately instead of augmenting the experience of listening to the music it was mainly a distraction. They were either used in such a cliched manner that they bordered on silly, or they would have so little to do with the song they accompanied that you wondered why they were even being shown.
Even the hardcover book that made up the package for the two discs in the set was slightly ill-conceived as it didn't contain proper sleeves for the DVDs and it would be very easy for them to fall out and be damaged. There was also very little practical information about the band or the people involved aside from telling you who was playing which instruments. It would have been nice if they could have supplied a little bit more than just the lyrics to the songs and the set list. Unless you're willing to go hunting around on the Internet, you're not going to learn anything about the band's history or about the individual band members themselves. It's almost like the producers of the package have assumed anyone buying it are going to know that information somehow.
The sound and video quality of the concert disc are good, but I was rather surprised that they only offered it in Dolby stereo and not surround sound. If it's possible to re-master CDs from the 1980s in surround sound, it should be for video recorded in 2006 as well. However, that was only a minor disappointment compared to the music itself. Maybe if you're a big fan of the old Grateful Dead you'll enjoy Rhythm Devils: Concert Experience but having seen what Mickey Hart is capable of doing these days, this was quite a let down.