New Monsoon :: Garyfest :: 10.19.12-10.21.12 :: Houston, TX
There are times in life that seem calculated to drive us to our knees, as if some grand design wants to break us down to our rawest, weariest selves. It’s a self-pitying perspective but unavoidable sometimes – being human makes one prone to such slips. However, such times can also unearth our strengths, our gifts, our blessings in ways nothing else possibly can. This is what one witnessed with S.F. Bay Area-based New Monsoon during the inaugural Garyfest, a three day tribute series of concerts to the band’s friend and manager Gary Hartman, who passed away suddenly last May. Add to this some family deaths for New Monsoon members just prior to these shows and the weekend took on unmistakable significance, a survivor’s edge that dug hard into life and transmuted that primal force into song. It was a feeling off-handedly summed up nicely by NM electric guitarist-singer-songwriter Jeff Miller, who remarked with a crooked smile just before he went onstage the first night, “We’re still here. That’s something, right?”
I’ve been chronicling the evolution of New Monsoon since 2003, when I became fast friends with the group as well as an enduring fan. Though it’s thrown around a lot (and often inappropriately), the word that fits these guys best is “genuine”. There’s no sense of subterfuge and strategy about them, their feelings and artistic intentions worn on their sleeves honestly, even brazenly, and they were very much these guys during the three nights in Houston. In essence, New Monsoon is a dead solid rock band fused with a love of instrumental diversity, folk forms and jamming in the best sense. They are one of the few “jam bands” to emerge from the early 2000s that make that descriptor a good thing, perhaps most because the songwriting core – Miller, Bo Carper (acoustic guitar, banjo, vocals) and Phil Ferlino (keyboards, vocals) – has put serious sweat and care into honing their tunesmithing and vocal chops over the past decade. It’s one thing to shred mightily – which they do at times – but better still to offer up songs that stick, conjecture, skip, and generally seem determined to wrestle with the wherewithal and whims of living in a way that’s kinda illuminating or healing. At all three chapters of this first Garyfest, the breadth and deep feeling of their catalogue was laid bare in the company of many of their dearest, most dedicated fans at two of the sweetest venues in the U.S. As combinations of elements go it was downright wonderful, a chance to see a band at their best in the best possible circumstances.
Friday and Saturday nights took place at funky (in the 60s slang sense) back street Houston hangout Last Concert Café, a Mexican restaurant and live music spot where one either knocks to get in or wanders through a gate leading into a sand pit in front of the outdoor stage. Everything about the joint says, “Slip off your shoes and get to liquor-ing up yo’ blood, kids, ‘cause we’re gonna have a good, good time.” The staff and locals are the definition of colorful and friendly, and for this longtime Bay Area NM loyalist it was a blast to meet up with one of this band’s other dedicated tribes. Houston was one of the first cities outside San Francisco that really took to New Monsoon and swiftly became a home-away-from-home for them during their heavier touring years. One feels surrounded by kind-hearted people who really care about this band, a constituency that has let this music seep into the ground water of their lives, singing along with tearful understanding and smiling pleasure. Gary Hartman was core to this scene, and from the start of his friendship with NM proved a positive instigator and undying champion for what isn’t always an easy sell in an era where specificity is rewarded far above diversity.
The current lineup – rounded out by bassist Marshall Harrell and newest member drummer Michael Pinkham – is scarily together for guys who don’t play out all that often anymore. Natural talent is a big part of it – and they’ve all got that in spades – but it’s clear these five guys are dedicated to their cause and really get off on playing music together. Right out of the gate on Friday, their shared intensity and obvious desire to knock these shows out of the park was apparent, and when added to the strong emotions zinging around the LCC, one would have to be a hard soul not to be moved by what unfolded. This is music for life’s long slog, rib sticking stuff that suits their many travelogues and philosophical musings. Further stoked by the inescapable specter of mortality in the air, the Friday show straight on through to the intimate closer on Sunday at modern day speakeasy “The Lounge” – a former woodshop over a creek behind a private home that brought the locals and distant journeyers into a linked arm huddle to wrap this weekend – one was reminded of the quality and life-affirming nature of what NM does, where the unfolding moment dances with history, the now and the then swirled into a rhythm rich force that stirs one to sway and engage.
It doesn’t hurt that New Monsoon expands on their own catalog with some of the most credible, consistently excellent covers of iconic material out there, starting Friday with spectacular readings of Pink Floyd’s “Pigs” and Led Zeppelin’s “Poor Tom.” They inhabit classic material with confidence, both evoking the originals and veering off on unique tangents that reflect their personalities while still honoring what makes this material great – i.e. respectful but not too respectful. To wit, Miller’s decidedly non-Hendrix soloing on “Manic Depression,” which consciously avoided sounding at all like Jimi, instead offering up a smooth encapsulation of Miller’s creamy essence. In fact, every man onstage this weekend showed off a range and distinct identity that’s WAY beyond what most players are capable of. In another band it might all prove too much but the sheer density of what they do melds beautifully, each aspect sparked and carved by the tunes and what the others bring to them in real time, spontaneity playing on their faces and communicated to their limbs in ways that are awfully fun to watch.
For veteran New Monsoon enthusiasts, Garyfest brought the welcome return of original percussion trio Rajiv Parikh (tabla), Marty Ylitalo (trap drums) and Brian Carey (conga, Latin percussion). For many in attendance it was the mighty 7-headed juggernaut of the early-mid 2000s that first made them fall for this band, and even a taste of that heady mélange was delicious, a warming elixir to these times that too often stumble without intrinsic rhythm. Friday night Carey jumped in and out of proceedings, injecting vigor into whatever he touched, but it was Saturday night that brought the full force of this combo to bear with ah-damn-that’s-good versions of “Mountain Air,” Little Feat’s “Spanish Moon” diving into “En Fuego,” and other treats that recalled the group’s earlier more international bent. It really seemed as if no time had passed since these guys had explored music together – a testament to their great skill and unshakeable chemistry.
Another secret ingredient to this first Garyfest was special guest Tim Carbone, violinist from primo festival/live circuit champs Railroad Earth. In my experience, Carbone is like magic dust sprinkled on ANY musical setting, a player whose listening and technical skills are at such a level that he’s a duck in whatever waters he’s tossed in. For Carbone, New Monsoon seems a super swell playground, guys who operate at his level and give him plenty to chew on. From his arrival on Saturday into Sunday’s quieter, more contemplative set at “The Lounge,” Carbone injected too many good things to list, a foil that brought out the best in New Monsoon – especially the poetic communication he shares with Miller and Ferlino, his sometimes bandmates in side project The Contribution – and a guest that felt as natural in their idiosyncratic style as a long term member. More simply, Tim Carbone makes music better – any music, any genre, anytime, anywhere – and he surely did that in his extended visit this weekend.
By Sunday evening, one was hard pressed not to be reflective, both about this band and their troubles as well as one’s own tribulations and blessings. While New Monsoon can be entertaining, it’s their capacity for something deeper that makes them stand out. Sure, they throw a good party – and all involved in crafting this first Garyfest did that very well – but they give one plenty to think about when the taps have run dry and the working week returns. These are craftsmen who have steadfastly made something of their own, borrowing from what’s come before but never yielding to imitation or lazy routine. They are part of a long line of singular, hyper-gifted bands that never hit the big lights but persevere because a core group is there to listen and support what they do with real love. It’s a noble thing to create without steady riches or fame, and there are too few genuinely noble things left in this greed-stoked, angling, politicized, self-interest driven world. At the closing Sunday performance, New Monsoon flew high AND into people’s hearts by being willing to do what they do just for the sake of doing it.
“This is like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” said Miller at “The Lounge.
I did not know Gary as well as many that attended these special shows but one thing I gleaned from my few conversations with him was the man knew a good idea when he saw one and was willing to put his back into seeing such ideas survive and blossom. He saw the good in New Monsoon from the very start, and in this way he and I share a fundamental feeling about this band. In so many ways, New Monsoon makes very little sense to an outsider perspective but slip into their world and the internal logic of what they do shines like sunrise. Garyfest was a reminder to fans what a strong, engaging band New Monsoon is, but I think it also reminded the musicians why this endeavor should continue. Love is a powerful force and there was lots of love permeating this inaugural outing for what will surely be a grand time year after year, a good idea that should be nurtured and savored for the unique celebration it is.