Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Susan J. Weiand
EOTO/New Monsoon :: 02.09.08 :: Fillmore Auditorium :: San Francisco, CA
As the parent of a 16-month-old boy, I've become quite the student of human development. Evolution unfolds before me daily, like a time-elapsed flower in a nature documentary opening to full blossom with shaky determination. I might not always see it coming but it's unmistakable when he reaches a new plateau. Suddenly the world opens up and what was impossible for him a few days before becomes commonplace. Hitherto unknown muscles flex and fresh possibilities open up to delight him.
The same halting development takes place in bands, too. It's not always easy to pick up on the subtle, incremental steps as they're taking place but when a crucial new gestation is complete there's a similar exultant feel, naked joy unfurling with surer, swifter fingers calling the tune. Last Saturday night New Monsoon took some mighty big steps in front of a wall-to-wall hometown audience in their finest Fillmore showing yet.
First, let's spare a few thoughts for opener, EOTO, the post-SCI project of percussionists Jason Hann and Michael Travis. Focusing on instrumental improvisation and the shape-shifting opportunities of live mixing, EOTO merged synths, programmed beats and loops with live instrumentation propelled by Hann's clockwork tight trap drumming. Travis largely eschewed percussion in this setting, instead juggling electric guitar, keys, bass and whatever else the muses drove him to.
EOTO began like a heat wave on the horizon that slowly formed into a pleasant mirage. A particularly elfin Michael Kang joined them for this performance, and his silver tipped mandolin exclamations and sharp violin jaunts filled in the overall sound nicely. This is electronica in much the same way STS9 or Lotus play it. There are too many human hands on the notes to be pure machine music but it owes something significant to technology. Glitchy little clicks and blood warm wooshes pushed many sections along, and one picked up on a profound sense of freedom in their playing. By improvising every moment, every night, EOTO completely escapes the enormous expectations that surrounded String Cheese. As such, the music flowed with an exuberance I hadn't heard at SCI shows in some time. It's not a particularly groundbreaking sound - The Orb and Steve Hillage & System 7 got here in the early '90s – but for an hour and change they made the molecules dance, and you can't ask for much more than that.
|Michael Travis - EOTO :: 02.09 :: The Fillmore|
New Monsoon have always been stupid good musicians with compositions full of interesting changes and compelling musical ideas, but only a few minutes into this performance one picked up on a special kick inside the music, something with great reach and vitality being born before our eyes. New-ish instrumental "Seven Rivers" sliced away the occasional excesses of the past and provided a sprightly launching pad. When they aren't singing New Monsoon come across like worthy descendants of Return To Forever or Traffic, or perhaps the ballsy, electricity riddled children of Michael Hedges. Great skill intermingled with undisguised passion on each of the many instrumentals, but the wordless singing in their compositions sang out with more direct force than at almost any NM show I've ever seen, and I've seen plenty.
The change comes from the basement up, with drummer Sean Hutchinson and new bassist Marshall Harrell hitting a thick, smooth groove that pulled us forward with serious gravity. It was refreshing to have a pocket player on bass after Ron Johnson and Ben Bernstein, both talented guys but also both players who hankered for the spotlight in a way that Harrell doesn't. Instead, he served the songs in a way that gave them body and uplifted the frontline of Bo Carper (banjo, acoustic guitar, vocals), Phil Ferlino (keys, vocals) and Jeff Miller (electric guitar, vocals). Hutchinson has fully settled into his role now, coming off the blocks with greater restraint and confidence. That same athletic vigor fits the rest of the band, too. The hungry focus I picked up on at Las Tortugas last October has become more refined, with the whole group trimming away the fat and revealing only the best parts of what they do.
|Karan & Miller :: 02.09 :: The Fillmore|
That same insightful instinct carried over to the covers at The Fillmore. The Talking Heads' "Slippery People" found Carper singing with enormous confidence while the band bounced hard to the NYC-meets-Afrobeat pulse. They shined just as brightly on The Beatles' "I Am The Walrus," which closed the first set, and Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Dark Star" in the second set. New Monsoon, like the best bands that take on other's material, inhabited these tunes in a way that expanded the originals with nuances of their own. In a sign that music is always shifting for them, the version of Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down" late in the show contrasted wildly with the Freddie King-like drawl they brought to it in Yosemite. Played in front of a panting full house, Miller poured the nitro glee of Buddy Guy into it while also tapping into Young's delightful guitar meanness. Perhaps the highlight of the covers was the encore of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" with guest guitarist Mark Karan (RatDog) etching Harrison/McCartney worthy lines in a near perfect take on a song most just mangle. "Guitar" is melancholy gold bands usually just smudge but Karan and New Monsoon delivered a full-bodied interpretation that wasn't mimicry but retained The Beatles' spirit.
Karan wasn't the only superlative guest at these proceedings. Railroad Earth violinist Tim Carbone proved a devilish catalyst throughout his many appearances in both sets. Carbone is an elegant, entrancing player who simply makes things better on an intrinsic level. His presence, both musically and personality-wise, was a continual spark to the Monsoon boys, especially Ferlino and Miller, who share palpable chemistry with the violinist. The second set opened with all of EOTO and former New Monsoon tablist Rajiv Parikh onstage for a massive but never messy "Hanbonne Improv" that resurrected the vibe of Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi band - a trundling juggernaut that remarkably never toppled over or ran too far astray despite ten musicians cooking away with obvious abandon.
|Harrell & Carbone :: 02.09 :: The Fillmore|
It's that kind of exultant expertise that New Monsoon exhibited on every selection at The Fillmore. Passion remains strong but the confidence, candor and clarity of their playing and singing has reached a new level. More than a few longtime fans (and a number of band spouses) came to the same conclusion all on their own: this might be the best performance of this band's career. Like pro football, we'll have to go to the tape to be absolutely sure but they soared again and again like hawks catching currents in a blue sky, diving with sharp cries and rising with unspoken grace. New Monsoon redeemed the whole idea of "fusion," where jazz mastery meets the mood and fluctuations of rock, and the best parts of both birth something new and exciting. At The Fillmore this new thing took a leap into the unknown future but there's little doubt it will plant the landing with twinkle toed flair.
|02.09.08 :: The Fillmore :: San Francisco, CA|
02.09.08 :: Fillmore Auditorium :: San Francisco, CA
Set I: Seven Rivers, Slippery People, Southern Dew (1), Velvet Pouch (1), Mountain Air (1), The Other Side, Song For Marie, I Am The Walrus *(1)
Set II: Jam (1,2,3,4,5), Dark Star **(1,2,3), Daddy Longlegs (1), Alaska (1), Modus Operandi, Don't Let It Bring You Down, Lotus Dreams (1,4)
Encore: While My Guitar Gently Weeps (6), Bridge of the Gods (1)
1 with Tim Carbone (RRE), fiddle
2 with Jason Hann (EOTO), percussion
3 with Michael Travis (EOTO), percussion
4 with Rajiv Parikh, tablas
5 with Michael Kang, electric mandolin
6 with Mark Karan, electric guitar
* first time played, Beatles cover
**first time played, Crosby, Stills, and Nash cover
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