San Francisco’s New Monsoon hit the spot on a frigid night at the Crown Room on Saturday in the Crystal Bay Casino with hearty jams that warmed mind, body and soul.
For a person who writes concert reviews as a hobby and for some extra cash on adventures, I hadn’t seen a concert since early November. Other passions and responsibilities had put concerts on the afterburner. It had been so long since I had seen a show I had to kind of remember why live music was so fun and vital in my life. I couldn’t have picked a better band than New Monsoon to serve as my reminder.
Together, Bo Carper (acoustic guitar, banjo), Jeff Miller (electric guitar), Phil Ferlino (keyboards), Marshall Harrell (bass) and Michael Pinkham (drums) play dynamic and vivacious music that finds harmony in a myriad of musical tones. The sound hints of blues and jazz with flashes of rock and Grateful Dead-styled jams and tiny accents of folk and Eastern-influences for good measure. With so many varied styles you would expect seams and rough edges as they rubbed against one another, but the band’s astonishing technical skills and finely aged chemistry (the band formed in 1998) create a seamless and smooth sound.
The bar was more crowded than the dance floor as New Monsoon took the stage and I took a seat with my beer on a barstool along the right side of the dance floor. I didn’t have it in me to be one of the handful of people standing at the front, but I knew I wanted to be up close. It was the perfect situation to really soak up the band’s rich flavor and appreciate the music happening just a few feet away.
What New Monsoon does better than most bands I know is create music that you can’t quite put your finger on. The band has an ability to find the common thread between all these types of music that a lot of musicians can’t make. “Next Best Thing” had deep hues of blues and rock that absorbed nicely into Harrell, Miller and Carper’s swingin’ groove. That was paired with the wonderfully unique “Romp” which has been a mainstay in the band’s repertoire for years and represents the best of what New Monsoon can do.
Miller and Carper’s spirited banjo-guitar interplay immediately kicked the song off into breezy territory. The song flowed like gentle rolling hills over the duo’s melody and the rest of the band added bright inflections along the way. Pinkham then shifted the jam into reggae-dub territory that Carper took the liberty to play a determined banjo solo over. It was a delightful little nugget of music that is something you’re just not going to hear from other bands with less skill, nuance and musical curiosity than New Monsoon.
Because of its unique sound, I found myself having a deeper connection with the music Saturday night than a lot of the bands I go see. You’ll see a lot of artists that fall generally in some kind of genre or familiar sound, which can dull some of the magic of the music cause you kind of know where they are coming from and where they are headed. But New Monsoon has the ability to surprise you and this sense of the unknown keeps you invested in the music. I was blown away by the riffage of “Traveling Gypsies.” Carper donned his banjo and instead of taking us to rural Kentucky with it, led us somewhere closer to a bedouin camp in Syria. The brazen groove eventually gave way to a more ethereal section that billowed like a cloud of incense before returning to the hook, people’s hips in full accordance.
While it certainly was a small show by Crystal Bay Casino standards, it had just as much of an impact as its bigger shows. Concerts sometimes end up being more about the event than the music, with things like a crowded room, fancy light shows and too-drunk friends infringing on the experience. But sitting on my bar stool with a beer I had nothing to distract me from what New Monsoon was creating. I could just get lost in their melodic excursions and simply be with the music, which is ultimately what both band and fan are seeking, I think. Driving home along the lake, I felt a small fire of excitement burning inside for the upcoming months of music that were ahead of me and New Monsoon was that crucial spark to start it.