Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann have re-formed the Rhythm Devils. Starting on July 16th, the band played eleven shows in the Mountain region and on the West Coast, closing out the tour at the Gathering of the Vibes on the 31st. Venues were varied, from a drive-in theater in Idaho to the venerable Orpheum Theater in Flagstaff, with capacities from 700 to 6,000 (not including the Vibes), in the same circuit as Michael Franti, J.J. Grey or Yonder Mountain. They started a North East leg on August 21st; they will play Chicago’s House of Blues, the Sherman Theater and the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, venues frequented by RatDog and Furthur (the northeast has always been Deadhead territory).
The lineup has changed considerably since the Rhythm Devils’ last incarnation a few years ago, which had included Mike Gordon, Jen Durkin and Steve Kimock. The new personnel has jam-scene favorite Keller Williams on guitar and lead vocals, advantageous because he knows the words to a broad section of the Grateful Dead’s catalogue. The other guitar slot has been filled by 22-year-old Brit Davy Knowles, a founding member of Back Door Slam, who has shared bills with The Who, Government Mule and George Thorogood. The bass slot is held by Government Mule member Andy Hess (whose credits also include Tina Turner, David Byrne, the Black Crowes and John Scofield), and who filled in for Kreutzmann’s Seven Walkers band in June. Rounding out the lineup is talking drum master Sikiru Adepoju, a musical cohort of Mickey Hart’s since the mid eighties who recorded with Stevie Wonder and Santana and has played with Babatunde Olatunji for 17 years.
This tour’s rotation counted 45 songs, with a dozen originals forming the backbone of the setlists; the vast majority of the other songs are from the Grateful Dead catalogue. Aside from that, Davy Knowles contributed Sultans of Swing (the first song he ever learned on guitar, he says), they played David Crosby’s Almost Cut My Hair, Hey Bo Diddley (6 performances), and Neil Young’s Cortez The Killer. Unfortunately, very few shows trickled down through the usual channels: I only managed to get a hold of the Tucson show on the 28th and the Vibes show from the 31st.
The addition of Keller Williams gave the band the freedom to pick liberally from the GD catalogue, so that a lot of those tunes were only performed once or twice. This is nice for the band, and makes for a fair amount of diversity in the shows, but by the same token they did not have time to really work up the Dead stuff: there is nothing new or special about that material. On the other hand, their original material is pretty good. Without the thick sonic atmosphere boasted by previous incarnations, these Rhythm Devils have worked up some new arrangements for Fountains of Wood and Fire on the Mountain (mainly coming from Mickey, it sounds like), and the jam section of Strange World was great both times I heard it.
Overall, this is a young band in the sense that they have yet to really jell around a particular sound. For the moment, the Dead material sounds like it’s being played by a cover band, albeit a perfectly competent one. Davy Knowles has garnered a fair amount of praise for his talents, and knows his way around rock and blues. Andy Hess has all the experience you could ask for but comes off a bit stiff in some of the longer jam segments. Keller Williams plays great and sings well, though he doesn’t have the power and authority of Jen Durkin. It took me a little while to get used to it.
The 17 shows of the current tour, which runs though September 11th (Mickey’s 67th birthday) should give them time to work out an angle, and there are two more shows scheduled for early January 2011. I’m curious to see what happens to this band. There has already been a lineup change, with The Mother Hips’ Tim Bluhm replacing Keller, which begs the question as to what kind of commitment they’re asking of the individual members, and what kind of time-frame they have in mind for the life of the band. I’d venture that it’s not a long-term project, since it never has been in the past, and I don’t expect that they will work too hard at a seriously original sound; I think the drummers have too many other projects on the burner to commit to the Rhythm Devils.
Up Next: at the moment, I'm working through a dozen or so Miles Davis shows. I'm not very knowledgeable on that subject, so I won't post on it, but I think the next thing you'll see here is a review of the Grateful Dead's September-October 1981 European tour.