New Monsoon | 02.20.04 | 12 Galaxies | San Francisco, CA

Lot of water under the bridge, Lot of other stuff too
Don't get up gentlemen, I'm only passing through

Imagine losing a limb, suddenly, without warning. You look down one day and your right arm is gone. The departure of lead singer/bassist Heath Carlisle last December was no less dramatic or unexpected. Being the class act that they are New Monsoon has said only that he's gone and wished him well. A lesser group might conjecture aloud about the reasons but these guys are pure class, six men driven to make music as a vocation, a calling higher than most. Rather than mire themselves in drama they've poured their hearts into the music with renewed vigor. On their recent return home to San Francisco, they put to rest any doubts one might have had with a blistering performance full of every good thing that's made folks chatter about them in the past year.

I hurt easy, I just don't show it
You can hurt someone and not even know it
The next sixty seconds could be like an eternity
Gonna get low down, gonna fly high

Bo Carper & Arne Livingston
By Susan J. Weiand
I walk into this swanky new venue and my nostrils curl emphatically as the libidinous bump coming from the speakers hits me. The DJ is slammin', all live cuts, a relentless push push push, sweatier than Herbie Mann on Fire Island, hands in the air, rump rising right. When I see Motion Potion behind his array of beat technology it all makes sense. Like the title of one of his mixes, he is an instant party and just the catalyst to christen this new space proper. Introducing the band he tells us, "There's no place in the world I'd rather be." His is a philosophy of unrepressed joy, life lived in the minute, elevates the here and now.

Mardi Gras beads drop from the upper level and the room hums loudly with a rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb mumble, glasses tinkling below the colored tinsel overhang. The asses of the masses shift shapely as the gut thumpin' pulse filters into their bones. People have either thrown their clothes on with a comfort-minded abandon or worked way too hard on their outfit. It is a par-tay and the perspiration soaked revelers woo hoo'd their enthusiasm before the band even sets foot on stage. If one is to be welcomed home after travels amongst Carthaginians and Hinter Landers then this is the audience you want to see beaming back at you.

A slow build in the opener feels epic, makes one feel like they are present at something real after the fluff and radio wallpaper that background our days. In minutes they cross into a lot of places. Can see where New Monsoon might appeal to fans of Santana, world beaters Oregon, prog goliaths like ELP and the jazzed southern rawk of the Allman Brothers. A diverse lot but then again so's this band. Their intensity and feverish musicianship carry none of the taint of instrumental technicians like Billy Sheehan, the loathsome Steve Vai, and other Guitar Center poster boys. They are practitioners of passionate virtuosity and I have yet to cease to marvel at what they are capable of, especially right out of the gate.

Sink into the guitar conversation between 'lectric sun god Jeff Miller and acoustic mother plucker Bo Carper. This is the stuff that makes dudes (and dudettes) strum the air, eyes shut, head back. Open 'em and you're likely to find Jeff making the same moves as long sonic tracers pour from his hands. He's got that good '70s vibe going on, a mastering of the instrument purely to be able to express every thought his musical mind might have. It's tone over technique and all the cries of "man alive that guy's a badass" that ring out through the night show he's doing a lot right. Carper ain't no slouch either. His upfront-ness and assured picking plant him somewhere between British Isle virtuosos Bert Jansch (Pentangle) and Simon Nicol (Fairport Convention) and blue country greats like Jerry Douglas and Del McCoury with a bit of Indian accent around the edges. Compelling to say the least. And like Miller he's a blast to watch as he works his craft. He's all in and his face, body, aura hum with plugged in intensity.

Jeff Miller by Susan J. Weiand
A few tunes along and I realize I've been leaning against the wall, eyes closed, transported away from the hub and bub outside the club doors. My head is bobbing as they pick up escape velocity and I lift my lids to find Miller working his dome in time with my own. This sense of connectivity, belonging to the experience, can occur with other bands but rarely does it happen so quickly or so deeply as with New Monsoon. Even the casuals leave pool games and vintage video game machines to come closer. Something is happening, maybe something beyond regular understanding, and that's got gravity.

Their solos feel less like jazz all the time now. There's the fluidity of good rock emerging but grafted to a fragrant mélange of styles, shapes, and sizes. With Carlisle gone whole new vistas have opened up in their compositions, places hitherto unknown. There's no other way to say it except there's a tangible sense of commitment to every note. No one on stage is holding back, albeit possibly unconsciously. Hard to know when Heath decided to distance himself from his partners but the seed of that idea alone held back a key element, the Chemical-X that transforms all the sugar and spice into everything nice. That ingredient is present now and the difference can be heard.

Phil Ferlino's rippling wave intro to the second song has an Ahmad Jamal flavor to it. There's a reason they call him the Pianimal; a creature of sinew with a black and white pelt, sporting ivory and moving amongst the leaves. He's loose, unpredictable in a way that invigorates even familiar terrain. That he's also taking on singing duties with Jeff (and both are doing a bang-up job at it I might add) is further evidence that we haven't seen the depths that lay within him yet. His knack for enlivening what the other guys are doing brings to mind an old dear love of mine, Brent Mydland. Few understood the simple power of his singing at first but given time it became a highlight of shows for many. Phil's also a better keyboard player so that doesn't hurt. Throw your stones if you must but I only tell it like it was AND I know how it was.

I take turns tuning into the specific frequency of each member. The whole is definitely larger than the sum of its parts but there's insights and pleasures in giving one's attention to the details. More so than usual I'm touched, moved, by Rajiv Parikh. His tabla work is amongst the best I've ever heard, mixing the classical training one associates with the instrument with a Western instinct for improvisation. Combined with the organic, particulate slap of guest bassist Arne Livingston (Living Daylights) it feels like riding a flying carpet, drum and bass blown by warm winds over vast spaces. During a particularly out moment where Bo's Deliverance-on-Jupiter banjo drags the band up, up, up, Livingston and Parikh hang in zero gravity, holding a silence long enough to make you hold your breath in the airless air and then a slice of tabla finds the outer atmosphere and the whole shebang picks up speed, feeling gravity's pull, Livingston whipping their hides as they drop towards land. That they pull up before crashing and float into a silver morning raga is all the more amazing. Their trajectory, the arc of their diver, lacks predictability, keeps the audience on their toes.

Marty Ylitalo by Susan J. Weiand
Cooling off outside during the set break, trap drummer Marty Ylitalo wipes down his smooth Tony Levin-esque dome and asks how it was so far. I can only grin and hug him. The words take a bit longer to come to me with this band. I need to digest the experience, give it some part of the passion that they themselves offer so readily. Despite being on the road steadily since Heath's leaving they still seem unnerved by his decision. Marty says they feel (and play) a little hyper right now. Understandable when a seismic-shift like this occurs. Hyper suits them, anyway, removing any of the aimless lethargy of many of their peers working the same circuit. That they've chosen to endure, grow, blossom from this makes me admire them all the more.

Just for a second there I thought I saw something move
Gonna take dancing lessons do the jitterbug rag
Ain't no shortcuts, gonna dress in drag
Only a fool in here would think he's got anything to prove

Let's start at the end and work our way backwards to the beginning of the second round. The linear isn't always the right way to get where you need to be going.

Did I mention how brave I think this band is? Maybe not here but I tell everyone I know. There's so much uncertainty in what they're trying to do and yet they do it. Chokes a guy up. So, when they close the night with Pink Floyd's "Fearless" I cried a bit. That good kind of crying, not the soap opera crocodile kind or the shattered end of love kind, but the kind of tears that cleanse us as nothing else can. Listening to them play this one does remove the fear lines in our frown and make one feel that everyday might be the right day.

Jump back. About mid-set during the oh-so-hippie "Velvet Pouch" I spot a used-to-be-a-sorority-girl drunk dancing on the floor, pelvis motorized by Bo's steel string ringing solo. Her hapless boyfriend tried to concentrate on the band and avoid her clumsy pawing as she attempted to "out-sexy" the boa-wearing earth mamas and plush city girls. For all the high minded, music literate things one can say about New Monsoon they still got what it takes to play honky tonks. There's enough lighter liftin' classic rock to them to spill plenty of Pabst on the sawdust floor.

Rajiv Parikh by Susan J. Weiand
A primeval jam with Motion Potion takes on a Pharoah Sanders meets Osibisa's Woyaya modality, a funked-up stab at Archie Shepp's Black Gypsy, so much larger, stickier than you first imagined when it puts the touch on you. Arne Livingston swims in these free form waters like a dolphin, flipping with grace and inspiring a sputtering "ahh-jeez" from the crowd. As it builds, one feels like the Drummers of Burundi have marched in some back door. Yet it's only Brian Carey leading the percussion assault, drum slung around his neck, moving to the edge and getting right up in your consciousness. Whereas most drum solos feel forced, labored, to me that's never the case with Carey or any of the other skin men here. The difference is musicality wins over showmanship every time.

As the jam tapers off, Marty moves them towards a Jamaican heaviness, Sly and Robbie terrain, a hot box of island tightness. When Brian begins to sing about the king of the bongo, I, and many others, pound on the wooden balcony railing. I try not to do this after the excruciatingly tuneless drum circles I've witnessed over the years but Carey prompts a need to be in contact, to communicate with the drum, answer back.

If the bible is right, the world will explode
I've been trying to get as far away from myself as I can
Some things are too hot to touch
The human mind can only stand so much

And there's the matter of the opening number, bubbles and feathers on an up draft as you feel a cat purr under your fingertips. It is splitting, leaving us wide for joy and transcendence, a reprieve from the fire and blood, the tanks and weeping mothers that sweep this poor planet today. They are an alternate course, a daily special off the menu from the misery diet being crammed down our gullets by presidents and newscasters and pulpit pounders. This is my gospel music and though they have lyrics aplenty they really need no words for me to know that God is present in the room when I hear the sound they make.

(Thanks and deep respect to Bob Dylan who's lyrics to "Things Have Changed" were pilfered for poetic effect in this piece.)

Dennis Cook
JamBase | California
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[Published on: 3/10/04]

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