New Monsoon Live Review by Rob Johnson from Hittin’ the Note
After a transitional period marked by lineup changes, the band emphasizes the “New” in New Monsoon on this effort, eschewing a retread of their “greatest hits” in favor of a record that points to the future more than it dwells on the past. Their last studio release, New Monsoon V, is well-represented with five songs, but their previous albums aren’t dipped into heavily. Since this is the band’s first official recording with new drummer Sean Hutchinson and bassist Marshall Harrell, it seems that this is where they choose to mark the beginning of New Monsoon 3.0.
The “new guys” in the band acquit themselves well here, with Harrell and Hutchinson forming an airtight rhythm section that is constantly moving the music forward. They are unfazed by the complex rhythms and fast tempos and sound as if they have been playing this music all their lives, and they contribute heavily to the sound and style of the newer material. Hutchinson is a very crisp, tight drummer and keeps the grooves focused, while Harrell has a massive bottom end and holds down the low spectrum like a champ. It’s worth mentioning that this record is mixed well and sounds fantastic.
After years of being played on the road, the material from V has blossomed in the live setting, as songs often do. “The Other Side” and “Rattlesnake Ride” have both grown and matured into blockbuster jams that overshadow the studio versions like redwoods dwarfing the underbrush. Guitarist Jeff Miller’s solo on “Other Side” will melt your brain, exploding with energy, chops and passion, and keyboardist Phil Ferlino gets to explore some interesting textures in “Rattlesnake.”
Of the new songs, “Cross” and “Naked Truth” are two standouts, featuring thoughtful lyrics, strong vocals and interesting musical structure. There is a refreshing completeness to New Monsoon’s songwriting, a sense that these songs have had a lot of time and thought put into them. Other bands in the jam scene would do well to emulate the thoughtful sense of arrangement that New Monsoon brings to their material.
Another of the band’s strengths has always been their ability to write great instrumentals, and “Modus Operandi” is yet another example. This tune has it all—a churning groove that reminds you of the rhythm of the road, sweet guitar harmony lines between Miller and Bo Carper, and a breathtaking organ-driven chord progression in the bridge that climbs to the sky. “En Fuego” is another instrumental that makes its first official appearance here, although it has been in New Monsoon’s live rotation for years. Check out Carper’s light-fingered banjo picking on this number, and stand in awe as Miller vaporizes his strings during his final solo.
Of course, if you want to hear red-hot versions of New Monsoon classics, this expansive double-disc set has got that too. Particularly impressive is powerful version of “Country Interlude” on Disc 2. One of the best songs in their deep catalog, it flows organically as if created by some force of nature, and taps into something greater than just five guys on stage. The lush beauty of this song reveals just how tuneless a lot of contemporary music is these days. Carper’s acoustic picking on “Interlude” is one of his finest moments, and Miller is hittin’ the note during the ferocious climax.
To the extent that this well-balanced ensemble has a frontman, it would be Jeff Miller, and he rises to the occasion over and over again on this record. You can hear lots of influences in his music, a Jerry Garcia lick here, a Santana nod there, and there is no mistaking the Dickey Betts flavor on some songs. (check out the clever “Jessica” tease that Miller weaves into the appropriately Allman-ish “Southern Dew”) However, he never sounds like a derivative copycat, just somebody who has done his homework and studied his craft. His singing tone and lickety-split chops put him at the very top of electric guitarists working today.
In the end, New Monsoon Live is defined by its powerful melodic sense and commitment to the spirit of the songs. The jam or solo always serves the song, not the other way around. There is no aimless noodling to be found here, no wasted notes. A friend described the band’s sound as “a tighter Grateful Dead,” and that is a good thing to sound like.
This music is healing medicine for the soul. Take by ear at least once a day, and repeat as necessary.