Live at La Cova – The New Mastersounds
3 on the B Records 004
It's your fault, Galactic, or should I be looking at you, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe? Perhaps I should be casting the blame in your direction, Garaj Mahal? I don't know which one of you did it, but I think somebody at the 2005 High Sierra Music Festival turned off the New Mastersounds to the art of the jam.
Of course, maybe their British nationality is the real culprit. After all, Brit bands play shorter sets and their audiences are known to vocally demand the hit songs. And let's not forget that the Brits are responsible for contributing the word "wanker" into our vocabulary, so it's natural to assume that Brits lack a fondness for what can often be masturbatory, long-winded, and aimless jamming. But somebody needs to remind this band that jamming doesn’t merely equal 45 interminable minutes of “Drums > Space” from the Grateful Dead, circa 1995. Jamming is also Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Jimmy Smith.
Whatever The New Mastersounds' reasons are for avoiding the jam, it's a bit of a disappointment because their new live album, Live at La Cova, could use a dose of improvisation. That’s not to say this album is bad — quite the contrary. The songs are performed with flair and grit, and with its retro sound, Live at La Cova plays like a soul jazz and funk lover’s wet dream. The Meters’ classic "Funky Miracle" is covered in a fine layer of filth, while the standard “Spooky” drifts in a soothing, mellow haze. Rusty Bryant’s classic “Fire Eater” could use a bit more dirt, but guitarist Eddie Roberts finds that dirt in a ripping cut of Robert Mose Davis’ staple “Jan Jan.”
The New Mastersounds’ originals are performed with a massive injection of energy and intensity. Roberts’ “Miracles” is a nasty opening to the album, and “The Minx” is a struttin’ anthem with a wicked mean-streak. “The Tin Drum” is ramped up to a new and exciting level, thanks to Sam Bell’s spirited work on the timbales. By way of a wild conga solo, Bell also gives an invigorating boost to “You Got It All,” but the track commits one of the greatest sins of any live album: the dreaded fade-out. Just as the band finishes the song, they move right into an infectious groove and the sound inexplicably dissolves into nothing. The same maddening tact has been applied to the aforementioned “Jan Jan,” which fades out in the middle of a great percussion break. Perhaps these fades have been applied to cover up technical or artistic mistakes, but the procedure is more frustrating than pleasing. It seems as though there has been a deliberate attempt to hide any possible improvisational exploits from the listener. Why keep us from hearing what happens when the band loosens up and lets it all hang out? But maybe the band never does loosen up and let it all hang out
I will be honest. In my world, a band's live performance needs to do at least one of three things:
1) Improvise inside and outside of the structures of some of their songs
2) Re-invent the structures of their songs
3) Shoot lasers across the stadium, project psychedelic petri dish images and movies on a large screen, and inflate giant pigs
If I wanted to hear the songs played perfectly note-for-note, I would stay at home and listen to the studio album because at home, the beer is cheaper, the line for the bathroom is shorter, and no one will puke on my shoe. I have never seen The New Mastersounds live, but this album shows me that they're not re-inventing their song structures, and with the exception of the space-age sounds of "The Land of Nod," they're not doing much jamming. Perhaps they are inflating giant pigs, and if that's the case, I'll be pleased as punch. But I want this band to undo that top button and bring something more to the table. I know they can play The Meters better than the present-day Meters can play The Meters, but I’m not satisfied with that. It’s great that they’re super tight like prom night, but I want more. The New Mastersounds may have mastered the sounds, but it’s not enough to stop there. It’s time to do something original with this music. I want to hear them put their stamp on these songs and take this music to the next level.
Despite my desire for some jamming, will I still listen to Live at La Cova? You bet your ass I will. Only a handful of these tunes are available on previous albums, and this particular live album is chock full of ass-shakin’ grooves. Besides, it’s been said that you should “always leave them wanting more,” and if I come away from Live at La Cova wanting to hear more of The New Mastersounds, that’s not such a bad thing.