New Monsoon Last Concert Cafe May 10, 2014
Take them or leave them, jam bands have been a steady force on the touring circuit since the touring circuit has been the touring circuit. Thanks to the grandfathers of the genre, the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band, plus arena-filling predecessors like Phish, Widespread Panic and Dave Matthews Band, the scene has continued to thrive thanks to rigorous touring schedules and rabidly loyal fan bases that continue to buy up tickets to every show they can.
And while these bands will never share the commercial successes of more radio-friendly rock bands like Coldplay and the Black Keys, their fans don't need that. They crave the live experience that has kept jam bands alive and kicking for so long.
Because jam bands are the best players around. They care more about what they're doing onstage with their instrument than any other type of genre. They don't need to look cool, they just want to be happy playing the music they love with as many talented improvisational musicians as they can.
And this was all evident at Last Concert Café this weekend where San Francisco noodlers New Monsoon took residency for their second annual GaryFest. In honor of their former manager and operator of Houston-based Tapir Productions Gary Hartman, who lost his life in 2012, New Monsoon took the stage at LCC for several sets of music over the course of both Friday and Saturday evenings. With a slew of guests slated to join the band for a promised weekend of unique collaboration, LCC was the place to be whenever you were finished with any Art Car festivities you might have found yourself a part of earlier in the day.
The rain and a busy Friday kept me away from LCC for the first night, but I couldn't go without seeing New Monsoon at least once when they were in town. Regularly coming to Houston for more than ten years, NM have steadily developed a nice little home-away-from-home fan base in town and always do well when they play here. Walking into LCC's packed backyard, and even despite the threat of rain, it seemed as if nothing had changed.
"Countless" is the only term to describe the amount of shows NM has played here, so it almost feels as if you're seeing a local band. The group members are friends with just about everyone who comes to see them, which helps with the local-yet-not-local feel even more. You can tell the band also gives a little more than usual when they're in Houston as well, making it that much more special. The anything-goes vibe at LCC doesn't hurt either.
And then there's the music. New Monsoon is the definition of a jam band, building songs on the spot while adding solos and extended grooves to fill them out. For this performance, they re-imagined their classic live album, 2005's Live at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, with the help of a few friends. Although going through a few personnel changes over the years, specifically in their rhythm section, for this performance they reunited with original percussion duo Brian Carey and Marty Ylitalo. Also, just for the festival, they were joined by guitarist Dan "Lebo" Lebowitz from Bay Area bretheren ALO (Animal Liberation Orchestra) and fiddle player Tim Carbone from bluegrass jammers Railroad Earth.
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All the guests helped fill out the band's sound, and gave life to songs like "Blue Queen," "Painted Moon" and "Daddy Long Legs." Guitarist Jeff Miller traded licks with his partner in crime, Bo Carper (the duo started making music together in college in the late '90s), while longtime keyboardist Phil Ferlino slapped away at his Roland/Nord stack.
They take different influences from jazz to reggae, funk to Latin, rock to Indian, blues, bluegrass and even country, and mix them into their own blend of deliciously satisfying jams. And from 10:30 p.m. until right before 2 in the morning, they gave us a couple solid sets of music that touched on mostly their own music, but added a host of covers including a spot-on version of Little Feat's "Spanish Moon" and a take on War's "The Cisco Kid" that was even funkier than the original.
While not much had changed since my last New Monsoon experience, that was the great part about it. Something about seeing that band at Last Concert Café surrounded by several faces who have been at their shows since the beginning brought me back to a younger, more spry time in my life when it was much easier to take in three night runs by a band.
For just a few hours during a muggy Saturday night in the middle of spring, it was nice to feel young again, to have a few beers late into the evening listening to one of my favorite bands with the sand between my toes and surrounded by a ton of smiles. It was like a little oasis in the middle of the big city, a temporary vacation from the monotony (and a welcome one at that). That's what New Monsoon at Last Concert Café can and will do to you.
Personal Bias: When I moved here nearly a decade ago, I was all by myself for the first time in a big city. I was finally given the opportunity to see not just a random show now and again, but one every single night if I wanted. But the first band I really started to get into was New Monsoon because of how regularly they'd perform at the Café. Now, my music-listening and showgoing has come a long way, but it's really nice to step back to my old love of jam bands and catch them as much as possible. They don't come to Houston as much but whenever they do, I'll be there. And you should too.
The Crowd: The happiest people in Houston. Maybe it's all the weed.
Overheard In the Crowd: "It's not five hour energy, it's whisky."
Random Notebook Dump: If there was a "Houston 100 things to do before you die" list, which there might be, it should most definitely include taking in a show at Last Concert Café. You can't get much better than that place, even if you don't like the smell of patchouli.
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