New Monsoon + End of Time Observatory

by Greg M. Schwartz

21 February 2008

While New Monsoon's sound has a foundation in classic rock, the addition of Eastern, Latin, and world-music elements has given the band a unique flavor -- it’s that mix, perhaps, that has attracted a cult of followers known as “Storm Chasers.”

The Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner once knocked his band’s well-received appearance at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, saying “any night at the Fillmore is better.” A band only gets so many nights at the legendary San Francisco venue, and that’s why a band like hometown heroes New Monsoon need to make each occasion memorable. With unprecedented collaborative jams, they did just that this Saturday.

End of Time Observatory (EOTO), a new electronic-music project from String Cheese Incident percussionists Michael Travis and Jason Hann, opened the evening’s show with a strong set that hinted at the collaborations to come. (SCI and New Monsoon have been chums at least since the Big Summer Classic tour of 2005, so EOTO’s presence on the bill was a sure sign of extra fireworks.) Notably, this was a special version of EOTO, featuring SCI mandolin/fiddle player Michael Kang as a guest.

New Monsoon + End of Time Observatory

9 Feb 2008: The Fillmore — San Francisco, CA

Interestingly, Travis hardly played any percussion at all, instead rotating between bass, guitar, keys, and samplers while Hann played the trap kit. The combination of sampled loops, programmed beats, and live instrumentation provided a groovy and spacey sound, with the live instrumentation enabling EOTO to avoid repetitiveness. For the group’s set-ending number, Kang stepped out on electric mandolin, leading a huge psychedelic jam that recalled peak SCI moments of yesteryear.

New Monsoon hit the ground running with the instrumental “Seven Rivers” and never let up. Lead guitarist Jeff Miller, banjo/acoustic guitarist Bo Carper, and keyboardist Phil Ferlino form the front line of the band, displaying a chemistry cemented by years on the road. All three share vocal duties, offering rich harmonies throughout the night. And while drummer/tabla/djembe player Sean Hutchinson and bassist Marshall Harrell are more recent additions, one would be hard-pressed to guess it.

Having undergone some line-up changes, New Monsoon’s sound is evolving, meaning that some moments hit the mark more than others. But throughout the evening, one senses a band ascending with a the-sky-is-the-limit trajectory. While their sound has a foundation in classic rock, the addition of Eastern, Latin, and world-music elements has given the band an increasingly unique flavor—it’s that mix, perhaps, that has attracted a cult of followers known as “Storm Chasers.”

The band is soon joined by Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone on fiddle; he helps kick up a few musical storms of his own. “Southern Dew” features a sizzling jam with Carbone and Miller riffing off each other for some dynamic interplay before a tight breakdown groove that pushes the dance party into full effect. Later, “The Other Side” switches gears, starting off slow and bluesy before picking up steam behind a smoking solo from Miller and a psychedelic funk jam led by Ferlino’s organ.

“Song for Marie” recalls the Allman Brothers Band’s classic “Jessica”, as Miller and Carper duel around a series of sweet melodies. Carbone returns for a bust-out of “I Am the Walrus”, during which Ferlino seemingly transforms into John Lennon, donning the iconic granny shades to deliver some spot-on vocals.

The second set opens with just Carbone and EOTO’s Hann onstage improvising. One by one, they are joined in what becomes a 10-man jam—featuring EOTO’s Kang and Travis, the rest of New Monsoon, and former Monsoon tabla player Rajiv Parikh— that exemplifies the best of the Fillmore experience: multiple talents coming together for singular and unprecedented collaborations.

When members of Railroad Earth and Hot Buttered Rum joined String Cheese Incident for a jam in Berkeley last summer, SCI’s Bill Nershi referred to the combo as a “Hot Buttered Railroad Incident.” The ensemble onstage here has turned into a “New Railroad Incident Monsoon,” with Kang once again taking the music to a higher level, nearly blowing the roof off with his incendiary electric-mandolin work.

Kang and Parikh exit after this show-stopping jam, but the others stick around to lay into Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s “Dark Star”, which benefits nicely from the polyrhythmic percussion and multi-part harmonies. “Seeing Alaska” features another melodious jam, with Carbone exploding on fiddle. Later, “Modus Operandi” sees some ace drumming from Hutchinson around a melody recalling Jimi Hendrix’ classic “Third Stone from the Sun.”

At set’s end, Parikh returns for “Lotus Dreams”, an epic tune featuring an Eastern melody that leads into a global-beat jam, with Carper rocking the banjo and Carbone slaying yet again. The tempo picks up as the groove turns into what could almost be described as heavy metal. Carbone’s fiddle continues to emit smoke, while Carper and Miller jam gleefully. The heavy minor-key jam turns sweet at the end, bringing a catharsis that leads listeners back safely from the storm.

Guitarist Mark Karan of Ratdog (fresh off his performance earlier in the week at the Deadheads for Obama show) joins the band for an encore of another Beatles treat, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. The ever-fresh jam builds compellingly until Karan and Miller are exchanging hot licks that conjure Eric Clapton and George Harrison at their best. It’s then that Karan exits and Carbone returns for the final number, “Bridge of the Gods”, a tight prog-rock instrumental that expertly blends Eastern banjo riffs with the guitar and fiddle to manifest one final peak jam.

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