After a little lagging and mindful inspiration, we set off for the two-hour drive to the serene rural town of Pozo, California. With a population equal to the number of weeks in a year, Pozo isn't the kind of town you would expect to find flying multi-colored lighting and decorations suitable for the discriminating tripper, funky music phreaks in their pre-festival season fashions and regalia (glitter, boas, and sequins, oh my), and, oh yeah, over six hours of incredible music. Some of the sounds featured in this offbeat locale included improvised expressions of North African rhythms, trance, jazz, Appalachian bluegrass, jam grass, power funk, rock, North Indian ragas, and other sonically fused musical offerings. About the only thing not out of place, from an aesthetic point of view, were the ancient, wooden saloon and the tender tri-tip smoking all day and night over the mesquite barbecue. However, these welcoming small town folks are no strangers to good music. The Pozo Saloon has hosted more than its share of great bands. Jefferson Starship, George Thorogood, Little Feat, Dickie Betts, Richie Havens, Leon Russell, Elvin Bishop, Country Joe McDonald, Steppenwolf and John Mayall have all played the Pozo over the years.

Like someone once said, "If you build it, they will come. Groove all night, and be happy."

The setting was perfect for Free Productions to host its first event ever--Free's 40th and 1st. Yes, Scott Free was turning 40 and enjoying life more than ever with his new production company! The lineup featured Hamsa Lila, Hot Buttered Rum String Band, Functus, and New Monsoon. Many years of good time experience were evident from the venue setting. The large 40' by 20' stage was elevated about five feet off the ground and covered in a white tent where an incredible light show would later be projected. An excellent sound system was in place with numerous engineers working hard to ensure aural pleasure for all. Other facilities included plenty of bathrooms, chill areas to sit, heaters (it did get phreaking cold), excellent micro-brew, that tasty tri-tip I mentioned earlier, and a gorgeous full moon filtering through the new spring leaves on the oaks and cottonwoods. Pretty idyllic ambiance for what was to come.

Nikila Badua by Forrest Verde
Speeding down the 101 did not make up for the Santa Barbara lag factor and we arrived about mid-way the first act of the evening, Hamsa Lila. I had yet to see this band and I was looking forward to experiencing something new. Well talk about new, these folks coalesce some very disparate musical styles to create a hypnotic soundscape of danceable grooves textured by Moroccan and West African rhythms, seductive vocals, and soaring woodwinds. The set was well played and included an incredibly sexy "Happy Birthday" to Scott led by vocalist Nikila Badua. Her vocal chants and melodies were incredibly intoxicating and stood out during this relatively mellow set. I say mellow because two nights before, Hamsa Lila played at Absinthe in Santa Barbara and had literally blown the small crowd away. Overtures of "best Absinthe show ever" and "incredibly ripping jams" were heard the next day. Unfortunately, I missed that show and did not see such antics in Pozo, but I was thoroughly impressed with the style and presentation (great costumes!) of their musical expression. I look forward to seeing Hamsa Lila in front of the raucous crowds at High Sierra this year.

Hot Buttered Rum and their Biobus
The band changeover was handled very professionally and in short order we were kicking up our heels to some good old-fashioned Appalachian bluegrass. Hot Buttered Rum String Band took the stage as the last of the twilight faded on the horizon and the stage lighting took over for our visual pleasure. I had heard a CD of this band sometime last year and thought they were a solid bluegrass outfit, but I wasn't expecting the buttery musical treat I eagerly gobbled down this night. Like hot buttered rum, this band is smooth on the palate, goes down easy, and if you keep at it, will really kick you in the ass by the end of the evening! What they bring is shot after shot of incredibly tight, yet soft harmonies combined with good old rippin' pickin'. Great bluegrass was flowing sweetly, but eddies of blues, swing, and jazz were evident. The boys served up a few traditional covers, including a Bill Monroe tune I wish I remembered, but the whole set was a virtual collage of fast picking, ridiculously complex changes, and sweet boyish vocals. They threw in a wonderful version of "Sugaree" and even inserted a bluegrass tease of Hendrix's "Third Stone from the Sun" during one number. On the original side of things, the band tore up "Less Guns, More Butter," a song born of bluegrass and swing, with great lyrics and a boot stomping rhythm that just didn't quit. To close the set, mandolinist Zac Matthews sang a fun little ditty about Mount Darwin and getting high in the Sierra Nevada's Evolution Valley. I highly recommend that any lovers of bluegrass check these boys out--I think we're going to see them around for many years to come.

Although the music was hot, the weather was phreaking cold! We sun worshipers in SoCal have to go into overdrive in order to stay warm when the weather dips below 50 and this night saw the mercury wallowing in the 30s. Beanies, gloves, and scarves covered up some of the phreaky flair, but the grooving was still going hard as Functus, a power funk trio from California's south-central coast, drank some offered whiskey and took the stage. I have lived on the south-central coast of California for over 13 years and somehow, some way, I had never seen Functus perform. Well that run of missed shows ended on this night, never to happen again. These guys rock! Cliché yes, but true to the syllable. Think Soulive meets Oysterhead or South Park's Chef meets The Muppets' Animal. Scott was hyping these guys pretty hard before the show and I was skeptical despite Scott's extensive live music experience. However, about three seconds into the set I was a true believer. Like Thor raining down thunderbolts, Functus rained down incredibly powerful funk! A dusty whirlwind rose in front of the stage as the crowd released its pent up collective of funky moves. I honestly cannot say whether they played covers or originals as I was completely in awe and dancing like I was part of the cast of Footloose. This is one set that I look forward to listening to on headphones while in a relaxed state of openness. Tight, complex changes interspersed with colorful jamming were held together with a thick glue of funky bass lines and bluesy rhythms. The band gave us a treat midway through their set when they invited some additional guests to play the shekere and djun-djun. The song and jam that followed was some of the best music of the night: heavy funk layered with primal African beats and soulful guitar riffs. Functus was an awesome act and one I hope continues to play and play more often. When the pandemonium ended and the dancing stopped, everyone took a big breath and then realized how cold it was.

I definitely would not want to follow such an act. The crowd was just blown away, we had been dancing for over four hours, everyone had been drinking and partying at least as long, and the time change meant it was an hour later than anyone wanted to admit. Did I say it was phreaking cold? Not the best situation to take the stage, but New Monsoon was up and if anyone knew how to raise the energy and kick the groove into high gear, well, you know the rest...

Rajiv Parikh by Susan J Weiand
I had not seen New Monsoon since High Sierra 2003 and I heard they have a new bassist in the lineup. Not sure what happened to the old bassist, but all curiosity was rendered moot by the end of the first song. This new guy--wish I knew his name--was amazing! With great stage presence and obviously skilled on his instrument, he treated us to multiple bass styles on three different bases, including a sweet-sounding acoustic during the encore. Once on stage, New Monsoon struck hard and fast. Lead guitarist Jeff Miller was en fuego this night and my head became dizzy trying to keep up with his fretwork during solos. At points he can be very reminiscent of a certain guitarist from Vermont, taking over jams with flurries of notes and sustains punctuating the complex rhythms laid down by Marty Ylitalo on the drum kit, Brian Carey on congas, and Rajiv Parikh on tablas. I have one complaint guys. If you are going to have a shredding tabla player, one who studies with the best in the world--Zakir Hussein--then turn him up! It seems that at each New Monsoon show I have seen (close to a dozen), I am continually struggling to hear Rajiv's genius. I think it is an essential part of the New Monsoon sound and it needs to come forward a bit more.

Of course, no New Monsoon show would be complete with out the wonderful acoustic guitar and banjo work from Bo Carper and "Pianimal" Phil Ferlino's soaring flourishes on keyboards. Bo's incredibly deft finger picking provide the perfect musical counterpoint to Jeff's straight-ahead shredding and the resulting sound is an underlying tension that is the heart of New Monsoon music--rootsy folk versus rocking jazz. The long set was extremely tight and the sound very full. The excellent sound system was put through its paces and the result was a great New Monsoon show, especially when one considers that it was only about 32 degrees on stage. My hats off to these guys for closing the event in style and with high energy! After a smoking solo from Brian on congas--while the rest of the band had a little on stage encore pow wow (was that steam or smoke emanating from that meeting of the minds?), the band came together for an inspirational version of Pink Floyd's "Fearless." Perfect call guys, thanks for thinking of us fans. Arms were waving in the air, smiles all around, and warm hugs between cold bodies were my last images of the evening. What a show! Free Productions really put on an incredible event--I can't wait to see what they have in store for us in the future. Thanks also to Grateful Family Productions and the Pozo Saloon for helping to make this event happen--wouldn't have been the same without you!

Mike Summers
JamBase | California
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[Published on: 4/19/04]

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