[11 May 2010]
The Old Settler’s Festival out in the Texas hill country on the outskirts of Austin tends to focus on Americana, country rock and bluegrass bands from Texas. But like any good annual festival, there are always a few bands in the lineup that stretch the demographic. Enter New Monsoon, one of the nation’s most underrated rock ‘n’ roll bands. The San Francisco quintet has become a perennial favorite at Old Settler’s, once again making the trip from the Bay Area to close out this Friday evening on the festival’s second stage.
New Monsoon fits in well here since they have some bluegrass and Americana influences, but merge them with a solid classic rock foundation to make for one of the country’s most eclectic jambands. From The Allman Brothers Band to Santana, Hendrix and the Grateful Dead, lead guitarist Jeff Miller and company bring a wide bag of sonic tricks to the stage. Keyboardist Phil Ferlino is a masterful piano rocker, while acoustic guitarist/banjoist/vocalist Bo Carper brings a strong melodic presence to his vocals and songwriting prowess. Since 2008, this core trio has been rocking together for almost two decades, and are now joined by a younger and powerful rhythm section of bassist Marshall Harrell and drummer Sean Hutchinson.
The band is every bit as talented as better known acts like Widespread Panic and the String Cheese Incident, but continues to fly under the radar. This works out nicely for fans, who can see the band in beautiful intimate settings. Rain has been threatening all day and there was a question of whether the band’s fans – known as “storm chasers” – might need to brave actual monsoon conditions to catch this show. But Mother Nature cooperates nicely – by the time the band hits the stage at 10 p.m., the rain gear is off and it’s a beautiful balmy evening.
The band opens with the instrumental “Southern Dew”, a most appropriate tune considering the setting. The melodic jam kicks the set off in high energy style, getting the crowd moving right away as Carper’s acoustic chords, Miller’s hooky leads and Ferlino’s dynamic keys all blend together for a sweet sound that somewhat recalls The Allman Brothers Band’s “Jessica”. The group has been known to cover “Jessica” too, but “Southern Dew” demonstrates how New Monsoon excels at expressing their classic rock influences in fresh new ways. Ferlino throws down a huge piano solo early to show he is really on top of his game, and Miller follows with a ripping solo of his own. There’s no warming up going on here, as the band is totally on from the start.
With Earth Day approaching in the coming week, “Greenhouse” makes for a timely selection and another highlight of the set. Hutchinson and Harrell throw down a super funky groove, accented nicely by Miller’s sharp riffing. Carper then steps up with some of the band’s best lyrics for an environmentally friendly message: “We can get green / And we can get grown / Or we can reap the harvest we have sown.” Ferlino’s cosmic organ work pushes the jam deeper and deeper, with the entire quintet really synching in.
Miller rocks the mic on “Spanish Moon”, with the band continuing to flourish on what seems like a Southern rock-themed vibe. The set features one highlight after another, but one of the top peaks definitely occurs during “The Other Side”, a syncopated rocker with a funky vibe but also a bluesy dark side. Carper’s vocals reference a series of mysterious circumstances including “sitting on the ground so long in San Antone.” The song surges after the second chorus, with Miller clicking on his wah-wah pedal and tearing into some of the tastiest licks you’re going to hear anywhere. The jam then simmers down a notch as Ferlino delivers another gorgeous organ solo, before Miller starts riffing the wah-wah again. The last chorus is followed by Miller shredding yet another huge solo, and all the musical elements blend into a fantastic jam that is both tight and loose at the same time.
Carper pulls out his banjo to add a sweet enhancement to a huge instrumental tune that soars all over as he and Miller trade licks, while the rhythm section propels the song higher and higher to bring the set to a rousing conclusion. But the crowd demands more and there’s no way the band is getting away without an encore. Carper steps up once more with one of his signature tunes, the cosmic cowboy tale of “Alaska”. It’s an old-fashioned storytelling song about an outlaw musician who loses his wife in childbirth and has to raise a baby daughter alone. The song features everything that makes New Monsoon great – interesting lyrics, smooth vocal harmonies, artful layering of instruments and another big jam where the melodic elements coalesce into a gorgeous wave of groove ecstasy.
The band could easily end the show on a triumphant note right there, but Miller is feeling it and throws down “Don’t Do It”, a dirty rocker that laments getting dumped by a girl after having given a relationship one’s all. Any attendee who experienced that circumstance in the past year would swear the band was synchronistically tuning into his own personal wavelength, something top jambands are known to do with uncanny regularity. Thus ends another beautiful night at the Old Settler’s Festival.