By: David Schultz
On their way to upstate New York to play a set at Warren Haynes' Mountain Jam, (one that would be delayed by an old style monsoon . . . well, really a torrential downpour), San Francisco's New Monsoon made a triumphant return to Manhattan's Mercury Lounge for a late-night Friday gig. From one perspective, New Monsoon appears to be in a state of flux: for starters, their two-man percussion section, once featured prominently in the band's mix, seems to be on indefinite hiatus. Rather than find substitutes for their recent East coast trip, New Monsoon shed the Indian raga and percussive hodge-podge and focused instead on the rootsy, bluesy grooves created by the group's founding member guitarists Jeff Miller and Bo Carper. A more permanent change to the rhythm section involves the addition of bassist Ron Johnson, formerly of Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. Johnson sat in with Monsoon during their last visit to the City, with the announcement of his joining the band coming a few weeks later. The absence of the percussion section worked wonders as Miller, Carper, Johnson, keyboardist Phil Ferlino and drummer Marty Ylitalo seemed to thrive with the extra musical space. If the streamlined, five-piece becomes permanent, New Monsoon will only gain speed with their sleeker, leaner configuration.
In comparison to their last metropolitan visit which featured a number of sit-ins, Friday night's show was a more insular affair, accentuated by Carper and Miller passing the guitar lead back and forth, exploring the contrasts between the electric and acoustic. Carper truly provides New Monsoon with a stylistic twist: he’s able to coax heavier and meatier riffs than you would expect from an acoustic guitar and by abandoning traditional bluegrass structure, he offers an intriguing serving of rock banjo. He's also an extremely social creature: in between sets, Carper never got more than ten feet from the stage, choosing to mingle and chat with the fans instead of retiring backstage.
The title of their upcoming album, New Monsoon V, may give a hint as to the band's future to those who like to read tea leaves. For those who prefer coffee, it might simply be a reference to the fact that it’s the bands fifth album. Prognostication aside, the selections New Monsoon previewed on Friday night proved to be pretty exciting, especially their rollicking run through "Alaska." Their current sound benefits greatly from Johnson's addition, his bass work providing a wonderfully funky, soulful dimension. Over the course of the evening, Monsoon covered Jimi Hendrix' "Freedom" and reinvigorated old favorites like "Patato's Mission." With Miller leading the way, they touched on rambling Allman Brothers style grooves, hit slinky sinuous Tom Petty vibes and even channeled the best parts of Bruce Hornsby & The Range. The one departure took place during an instrumental jam between Ylitalo on drums and Johnson playing an enormous African-style string and percussion contraption. Once the two had their beats syncopated, Ferlino, Carper and Miller jumped in and the band went into their final flurry.
As they straggled back to the stage for their encore, Ferlino acknowledged the 40th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by noodling a bit of the opening riff until the rest of the band caught up. Their bouncy run through the jazzy-funk of "Greenhouse" to close the night was a bit removed from what came before but showed another side of the band. For many bands, lineup fluctuations can spell disaster. For New Monsoon, it seems like a gigantic step towards finding the right sound.