By Favio Snimp on July 22, 2008
Just back from cycling through the Alps, correspondent Favio Snimp went over to Driggs last week for his first taste of the Music on Main free concert series, and promptly had his mind blown. Here’s his account of a two-night bender with the best band to come out of Britain lately.
Photographs by David Swift © 2008. Click to enlarge.
I’m not sure why they blew me away — why, that’s the very definition of art! — but there I was, dragging myself to the Moose well after bedtime Friday to catch their second local show after NMS had rocked Driggs Thursday night. Because there is plenty of room on the Internets, allow me to dwell on what makes The New Mastersounds one of the best live bands I’ve ever heard.
1. They’re better than tight. Well-rehearsed bands are nice. Everyone knows his part; competence prevails at every gig. Once tight, better bands proceed to loosen. It’s like what Picasso said of himself: Once he had learned to draw like a master he spent the rest of his life trying to draw like a child.
NMS is über-tight and as loose as good luck. Their phenomenal rhythm section (drummer Simon Allen, bassist Pete Shand) parks itself in the pocket with enormous spaces between notes into which the better dancers groove-lock. NMS arrangements are more like conspiracies, with lots of wiggle room and numerous well-timed back-to-the-Ones — that moment of familiar return designed to produce squeals of delight. (There is much to be said for spending two evenings indulging in whatever causes squeals of delight.)
2. NMS connects. If you happened to be tourist who wandered into Driggs, Idaho, last Thursday night, whatever preconceptions you showed up with were exploded into many tiny bits. Live concert on Main Street? How quaint! Gotta check out some of that Prairie Home fiddle’n'banjo crap.
Instead, while you were chowing down on the finest $7 meal ever but on a stick, Bill Boney’s Mongolian Kebab, your body started automatically moving out from underneath you before your brain caught up with the body’s will to dance. That’s the New Mastersounds funk talking, and there’s far more than mere funk. We’re not in Idaho anymore.
Good dance band. Check. However, NMS has a secret weapon: showmanship. Not tired flying-hair wheedley-wheedle-rowwwr-sponk! guitar-solo showmanship. I mean the kind where the guys with the mics say funny, intelligent things to the audience, set up a one-on-one feeling of mutual appreciation. Once, Simon the drummer stopped the proceedings to ask the hundreds of Driggsians to pose for a photograph. Simple, sweet, potent stagecraft.
3. Their style of music is, you know, New Mastersounds-ish. You can call NMS a funk band although rock, fusion, soul and other genres work equally well — in that no genre sums up what these guys are up to. Like Beck, Gnarls Barkley, and for that matter another Driggs act that night, Moses Guest, NMS came of age in the CD and mix tape world. Willing listeners could absorb into their DNA every musical style from any era. A generation ago it was, “Wow, they blended bluegrass and jazz? I am totally blown away by such liberal application of modernity!” Today, the Becks of the world readily cleave four decades of pop to pan-global obscurities in a single cut — without being obvious or even cute.
In fact, in two NMS shows I identified 238 distinct strains of popular music spanning a century. Eddie Roberts, the guitarist, is comfy whanging out punk power chords and cozy jazz arpeggios that Django, from his cloud perch, is thrilled to hear again. Chicken-plucking? You know it. While their shows had the shape of a rock gig, much of the NMS set is structurally based on what the heppest jazz combos of 50 years ago perfected: what’s known is the beginning, the end, and where the choice hooks happen. The rest, well, listen closely because it’ll come out this way exactly once.
4. Eddie Roberts is bit of a genius. We’re a few thousand guitarists down the road yet here is an original, one of those rare cats whose every follicle and limb exudes as much music as his instrument. Roberts is capable of wailing, high-fret solos but I get the sense he’s happiest hanging back on crisp wah-chukka-wah rhythm bits while the keyboardist, Joe Tatton, goes long.
The man beams constantly as if a philosophical ideal has been attained. At Driggs, he (and everyone else) was tickled by the family vibe, especially the dancin’ gymnastics by throngs of little girls in feral face paint. At the Moose, the girls were older and genuinely feral. Like a good-bad magician, Roberts explained to the crowd that he was about to perform the trick of “tension, release . . . tension, release.” A jam ensues, masterfully spiced with tantric interludes. Eddie Roberts throws his head back and laughs, and he wasn’t the only one laughing.
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