September 14, 2008
It’s a shame when people miss good music. When New Monsoon came to Newby’s on September 14 and literally twelve people were there, most of Memphis missed out. It may have been a Sunday night show, a day of the week notoriously tough to sell tickets. But, that’s no excuse. It was just another example of why Memphis, a city rich in music history, generally sucks as an audience.
It’s borderline mystifying. Without Memphis, most of the music today wouldn’t exist. Jerry Lee Lewis. Stax, where everyone from Otis Redding to Booker T. Jones to The Staples Singers recorded. Al Green. These two other guys – BB King and Elvis Presley. All Memphis music products. Yet today, the city seemingly can’t get itself up to support many touring bands, who often find themselves playing to sparse crowds. Hell, even Widespread Panic only sold 70% of the tickets last time they came to town, and they have a huge following in the Mid-South.
New Monsoon, though, has had trouble catching on in Memphis. They’ve been to town a few times the past few years. In 2005 they played to a similarly small crowd, and stayed away for a few years until March 2008, when they returned and played to a decent-enough crowd of about 120.
This time though, when the band took the stage to blow the minds of the three people in the room, it was a sizable step backwards. Lucky for them they had a guaranteed check, because they certainly wouldn’t have made money at the door. The crowd did quadruple to twelve by the end of the show, but the draw at the door wouldn’t have paid for the gas in their van.
Regardless, the band was professional, and didn’t mail it in. They opened with a strong version of "Sweet Brandywine," and followed with a rocking "Cross" and a sizzling "Mountain Air" that had a great piano solo from Phil Ferlino, slowed down with some banjo work from Bo Carper, and sped back up as guitarist Jeff Miller blazed some new trails on his Gibson SG, a huge grin on his face like he knew something no one else did.
Despite the fact that the empty room made every beer bottle dropped in the trash sound like a window breaking, the band gave it their all. The one benefit (if you can call it that) of playing to a smaller crowd is that those limbs that bands venture out on seem to be just a little bit stronger. If you fuck up, there just aren’t as many people there to notice. Maybe that’s what the band had in mind when they busted out a cover for the first time, Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s "Wooden Ships," and they nailed it.
While the band’s gone through a healthy dose of line-up changes over the past couple of years, they’re really coming into their own. Drummer Sean Hutcinson has really come into his own with the band, and bassist Marshall Harrell lays down a steady bottom end.
The band reached back through their catalog and touched on all eras, from newer tracks like "Copper Mine" and "Song For Marie," to old-school Monsoon nuggets like "Double Clutch" and "Painted Moon."
The song of the night, though, was "Bridge of the Gods," which even without the three-man rhythm section, still typifies what New Monsoon was built on – an amalgam of influences that one wouldn’t think to mix together, yet somehow make something beautiful. There are subtle hints of bluegrass, east Indian music, and good ol’ rock and roll that congeal into a musical journey. Only a band from San Francisco would have the balls to mesh such varying influences.
"Bridge of the Gods" gained a head of steam behind the blended sound of Carper’s staccato banjo licks and Ferlino’s piano, and then Miller tore it down with a blistering guitar solo. It was a sight to see, and it’s a shame more weren’t there to take in the masterpiece.
New Monsoon gracefully exited the Newby’s stage behind a cover song that seems to be a favorite for bands to play when they come to town – maybe it’s written somewhere on the highway that bands should play "Stagger Lee" when they come to Memphis. However, this was a different take on the Mississippi John Hurt tune altogether, a more leisurely take with great vocal harmonies rather than the raunchy versions bands tend to play.
Just after midnight the band called it a night. They were troopers, for sure, because the vacant room was sure to be discouraging for a band who’s had a hard time breaking into the Memphis market.