Mickey Hart's Global Drum Project is one of the reasons this weekend's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival calls itself "hardly strictly."
The former Grateful Dead drummer's world groove percussion quartet, featuring Marin rhythm master Zakir Hussain, plays Saturday at the festival in Golden Gate Park, even though its sound is hardly bluegrass. But then it isn't strictly anything else, either.
As Hart himself says about his eclectic international aggregation, "There ain't nothin' like Global Drum."
That used to be what bumperstickers said about the Grateful Dead: "There ain't nothin' like a Grateful Dead concert."
But since Jerry Garcia's death in 1995, there haven't been many reunions of the four surviving members, who have feuded over business issues and musical direction. Their relationship was so poisonous at times that their iconic skeleton and roses could very well have been a skull and crossbones.
But now, as Hart puts it, "Love is in the air."
All four of the remaining bandmates - Hart, fellow drummer Bill Kreutzmann, singer/guitarist Bob Weir and bassist/vocalist Phil Lesh - have agreed to regroup as the Dead for an Oct. 13 benefit concert for Barack Obama at Penn State University's Bryce Jordan Center. They share the bill with the Allman Brothers.
"We found something really important to bring us together," Hart tells me. "It's funny that an Obama event would do that, but that's how important and critical this election is. The Dead are going to playin the swing state of Pennsylvania. It's our call to arms, or call to music, which is the way we arm ourselves.
Minus Kreutzmann, Hart and Weir joined Lesh at a Phil & Friends benefit show for Obama in February.
For this month's concert, Kreutzmann jumped on the bandwagon, making it an official Dead reunion.
"We rehearsed for three days at Bobby's studio in San Rafael, and we got along," Mickey reports. "It was great finding each other's rhythm again and it was very relaxed. We left the managers behind. Maybe that's one of the reasons we could all be in the room together. There was less baggage."
But they were so rusty that the old bandmates, famed for their one-mind improvisation, had to actually relearn some of their own songs.
"Sometimes we had to listen to the recordings to find out what the chord changes are," Hart reports. "But we were never over prepared, and that was part of the fun of Grateful Dead music. There are some chords and vocals that we've never agreed on. Phil has his own way of playing them. Bob has his own way. Then we as the Dead have our way. It was, 'Hey, which way do you want to do this, or is there a way?'"
As for rumors that this is a precursor to a full-blown Dead tour next year, Hart says: "We're all smiling and playing good and that's the first thing. It's like getting back together in a romantic relationship. And this one's really complex over many years. Everyone's got to find their own rhythm again. You've just got to take this kind of stuff step by step."
IF YOU HAVE RHYTHM
Mickey Hart's Global Drum Project, featuring Marin's Zakir Hussain, plays at 5:40 p.m. Saturday on the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Star Stage. The three-day festival, beginning Friday and ending Sunday, is a free event in Golden Gate Park's Speedway Meadow. Check www.hardlystrictlybluegrass.com for the complete lineup.