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Published: 2005/02/04
by Jeremy Sanchez

Telluride Bluegrass Festival – New Monsoon


There really isn't a lot to New Monsoon's sound that hits on true-bred bluegrass (no high, lonesome singing). The San Francisco band plays more in the arena of String Cheese Incident and moe. than the Del McCoury Band, mixing styles rather than spouting museum-quality preservation. Newest member Ben Bernstein's basslines jazz and funk over an active percussion trio (Marty Ylitalo's tastefully unobstructive kit (necessary in a band of seven) and various hand devices vibrated by Brian Carey and Rajiv Parikh)....Screeech…Stop!!

Percussion? Usually the only thumping you'll hear at a bluegrass festival is the aggressive slap of a bassist to his upright's neck. Some old codger in the crowd probably yelled something like, "What the hell is goin' on up there? I ain't here for no damned bucket tappin'!" But, I hope not. Bluegrass's traditional string-only concept makes keyboardist Phil Ferlino an anomaly as well. I'm a sucker for Indian music and bluegrass is in my blood, so they got me from the start, crafting a sound more appropriate for the hodge-podge setting of Bonnaroo, which they exited just before this crisp-sounding Telluride recording.

During "Mountain Air," Rajiv Parikh ripples his tabla with the familiar sound of unlimited falling pebbles. Many Smoky Mountain residents might not find the infusion palatable, and Bo Carper's banjo picks turn to a tinny raga. Guitarist Jeff Miller steers towards his own electric-fueled rock tangent supported by the pillar of able musicians that shifts gears and combines sound textures as well as anybody does. Carey's speedy congo solo on "Calypso" deviates into afro-Caribbean-heavy percussion that'd make the staunchest statue dance. So, is there any bluegrass (reminder: recorded at Telluride Bluegrass Festival) at all?

"Blue Queen" is close, but still the percussion is throwing for the genre and the song becomes decidedly something other than my grandpa's grass. I could be wrong, but if World Music 102 serves me well here, the lead-in of "Daddy Long Legs" is a snippet from American composer Aaron Copland's "Hoe-Down" — and you can imagine where the down-home inspiration might lead: still not into bluegrass exactly, but closer. The back porch natural idea that everyone deserves a turn to solo holds strong, although the same idea is also a constant for jazz groups and jambands.

Parikh is quite active in the group. He gifts the audience with a form of chant/scat termed "tabla talk" as an introduction to "Velvet Pouch." The chant is a series of vocalized "diggi-diggi-das"s arranged in combinations that mimic a galloping tabla. "Tabla Solo" is exactly that, and my favorite track; 'cause I'm a sucker. On "Bridge of the Gods," Carper's banjo and Miller's electric play off of one another elegantly before Carper reverts back to raga form. Hopefully by this point, the old codger in the crowd found acceptance, because if not, well, what a loss for him.

It's only a mark of advancement when a culture welcomes integration into its most hallowed rituals, and bluegrass is certainly ritual for many Smoky Mountain dwellers, as are ragas for Hindus (and more so). The purists out there who don't appreciate the effort towards hybridization should realize that this is probably the only way to keep bluegrass strong.

In stagnant times, there has to be a catalyst for advancement and, with most country music fans drooling over the poppiest shit around, the jamband scene may be all bluegrass has. And some day in some place, a prodigious child will focus on the banjo skipping around some melody in some hybridized tune that was inspired by the blends we are hearing now, decide to spend his life savings on a banjo of his own, lock himself away to play and become a purist too. We can only hope. For now, enjoy evolution.

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