If you enjoyed “Grateful Dawg,” filmmaker’s Gillian Grisman’s take on the relationship between the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and her father, bluegrass stylist David Grisman, you are in for a treat. This week, two offerings allow area music lovers to juxtapose the Dead’s transcendent musical sensibilities with sound bluegrass instincts.
On Wednesday, former Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart brings his new ensemble, Bembe Orisha, to George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. That same evening, bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley brings his longtime band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, to the Barns at Wolf Trap, with a repeat performance next Thursday.
Traditional bluegrass and the kind of New Age world music usually associated with Mickey Hart are two strongly disparate musical genres, to be sure, but at the same time, strangely affinitive. Indeed, both seem to fall under the umbrella of “roots music,” a kind of stripped-down, user-friendly sound that tries to avoid the kind of pop aesthetic associated with heavy production standards.
That is not to say, of course, that roots music eschews a cultural mix. Mr. Hart’s current ensemble, Bembe Orisha, includes a Persian vocalist, a British guitarist, and a Cuban percussion player.
The music of Bembe Orisha is billed as a new kind of sound, neither western nor eastern, a combination of forms from Africa, Cuba, Persia, India, and America that builds unity while it breaks down barriers. For Mr. Hart, that kind of transcendence is the ultimate expression of roots music, a form that cuts across genres along with space and time.
It’s not the first time that such a musical mind meld has been attempted. The success of the Afro-Celt Sound System, as well as related hybrids found on various world music labels, has ushered in a new age of fusion and experimentation. The association with an established musician like Mr. Hart, however, lends a certain cachet to a music that can be hard to categorize.
Such musical freedom is nothing new for the former Grateful Dead percussionist. As one half of the Dead’s percussion tandem known as the Rhythm Devils, Mr. Hart pushed the limits of rock drumming both by the types of the instruments they used and by the nature of the drumming itself polyphonic, unexpected, and primal.
Later, Mr. Hart formed “Planet Drum,” a collaboration with musicians from around the world that further explored the connection between cultures through the world of drumming. He has testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging about the healing value of drumming and rhythm, and he serves as a board member at the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function at Beth Abraham Hospital in New York City. Meanwhile, his WORLD series on Rykodisc records has nearly 30 recordings of hard-to-find, world roots music.
In the studio, Mr. Hart plays an active role as a producer, remixing the Grateful Dead’s “American Beauty” and “Workingman’s Dead” albums for DVD audio, scheduled to be released this fall along with his own Bembe Orisha CD.
Appalachian Mountain musician extraordinaire Ralph Stanley is a master of harmony who began performing with his brother Carter in the 1940s, and continued after Carter Stanley’s untimely death in 1966. Since then, Mr. Stanley has toured regularly with the Clinch Mountain Boys, the band he and his brother formed back in 1947 when they signed with the Rich-R-Tone label. For a time, Mr. Stanley sang lead for mandolinist Bill Monroe, whose fresh takes on bluegrass standards brought Jerry Garcia and Dave Grisman together in the first place.
Over the years, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain boys have become the musical incubators for a new generation of musicians, including Charlie Sizemore, Ricky Skaggs, and Ron Thomason. Mr. Stanley has released over 150 albums, and still plays 150 to 170 dates a year. In the process, many of his interpretations have become central to an understanding of bluegrass music and mountain melodies.
Mr. Stanley’s influence extends far beyond the traditional bounds of bluegrass. Beginning in the 1990s, he started collaborating with a wide array of musicians from a variety of musical genres including Bob Dylan and Dwight Yoakam. In 2000, he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. Meanwhile, the soundtrack recording of the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” in which he participated, went double platinum.
A new album, “Clinch Mountain Sweethearts,” features collaborations with performers old and new, including Joan Baez, Dolly Parton, Iris DeMent, and Lucinda Williams.
To hear Mr. Stanley’s high lonesome tenor plow its way through the traditional lament, “Oh, Death,” as he did on the “Brother” soundtrack, is to understand the poignancy that underscores much of true mountain music. It is the kind of pathos that, unlike some of the more contemporary country interpretations of old tunes, manages never to slip across sentiment into banality.
And that’s roots music at its best.