From the city to the lake, bands bring new studio sounds to shows
A pair of San Francisco bands known for live performances have new studio albums upon which they can proudly hang their rock ‘n’ roll hats.
Released this week, New Monsoon’s “V” has a double meaning. Not only is it the band’s fifth album, the band recorded it for the first time as a quintet.
Jeffrey Halford and the Healers’ “Broken Chord,” released July 1, is moving up the Americana charts and is off to the fastest selling start of any of the band’s six CDs.
Both bands play on the North Shore this week.
Halford said he kept things simple in the studio, which was a contrast to his previous album.
“I started to get into overdub land,” he said. “I don’t like the recording process. It’s tough. It’s kind of a hair puller. Some songs work really well live but in the studio the life just gets sucked out of them.”
New Monsoon guitarist Jeff Miller agreed.
“If you do too many things to a song it can suck the life our of it so there’s a fine line there,” he said.
New Monsoon has been touring for five years and is emerging as one of the country’s hottest jam bands. Miller’s guitar often sounds similar to early Allman Brothers’ licks.
“V” is comfortable and danceable and there are several places where the band and engineer John Cutler (of Grateful Dead fame) had some fun with the studio effects. The nearly 10-minute track “Rattlesnake Ride,” framed upon Miller’s stomping cowboy riff, is an example of appropriate studio additions.
“We had some fun with that one,” Miller said. “At one point I was sitting back listening to the mix and we were trying to get this one thing and John said, ‘Well, I’m glad we don’t have anything else to put on this song because I don’t have any more tracks.’ We filled the whole console.”
Halford’s California rock
Halford, a former street musician rooted in country blues, is more reticent about dubbing and spending costly studio time.
“Something I think might be so good might just suck in the studio and not work at all,” he said.
Such was the case with Halford’s previous album, “Railbirds,” he said.
“It was too studioed out,” he said. “I spent too much time with overdubs. Sometimes the overdubs suck out the emotional content. So I just do it live and try to be real honest about it. Luckily, now at age 45, I’m good enough to do that. I listened (to “Broken Chord”) said thought, ‘Jesus, it sounds good.’ “
Halford spent his youth zigzagging up and down the state living in San Francisco and Los Angeles. His country blues and rockabilly style is in the same vein as California bands Los Lobos, the Beat Farmers and especially Dave Alvin, the co-founder of the 1980s’ band The Blasters.
“We both do blues and rock ‘n’ roll but I think I’m quite a bit different,” Halford said. “I’m more rooted in country blues, Alvin’s more country. I’m more R.J., Robert Johnson, and Oakland blues. Maybe someday I’ll be able to play that killer country that Alvin does but it’s not in my blood yet.”
“Broken Chord” has a political bent which was not presented in any of Halford’s previous albums.
“I choose to write about women and the great things about America,” he said. “Now we’re all in this Iraq and Louisiana and all these things that have been happening. So those songs just came flying out. I didn’t even have to try to write those.
“They were just real easy songs to write. I don’t even write politically. But that was enough to make the whole country sick.”
Halford’s “Louisiana Man” addresses the strife of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The song moved harmonica player Jelly Roll Johnson when he heard it at an Americana conference in Nashville.
“Jelly Roll played on “Louisiana Man” and I swear the hair raised up on my arms,” Halford said. “He grew up in New Orleans and his mom was displaced to the Superdome. He came up to me and it was just heartfelt. He shook my hand and said. ‘Thank you so much for writing that song. It really needed to be written.”
Halford, who had already recorded the song, overdubbed Jelly Roll’s harp on the album’s track.
But the most influential guest on the album is Auggie Miller, the founder of the Texas Tornadoes and former keyboardist for Bob Dylan. He is on most of the songs on the album produced by Bruce Kaphan.
The latest Monsoon
When it came time to record its new album, New Monsoon’s two percussionists stayed home for the birth of their children, leaving five members to record it’s fifth CD, “V.”
“We thought it was a good coincidence to call it five,” Miller said.
The band tried to take it’s on-stage mind-set into the studio,” he said.
“You’re in a laboratory not in front of a crowd feeding off the energy,” Miller said. “Your on headphones listening to what’s happening plus your layering figuring out if the drums are where they need to be and then you build from there. But we definitely play the songs together in the studio as if we were playing live so its little bit of a balance.”
“V” covers a wide range of musical style, but New Monsoon’s live show puts it in the jam band genre.
“The songs are the framework and then from night to night the fun part is your playing what your feeling at that moment,” Miller said. “The Grateful Dead was the quote unquote king of all jam bands but their songwriting was really good and a lot of their albums had three or four minute songs that ended up being big radio hits.”
The audience also helps determine how a band might be described.
“The jam scene is very close-knit tight scene of people who like to have the same sort of experiences,” he said. “They like to have a good time and see musicians really let loose and play — and that’s where the jamming part come in. People want to see you really stretch out and play.”
Miller founded the band with his former Penn State buddy Bo Carper.
Carper was living in Bolinas in 1997, a stormy El Niño year. He would team up with Miller to play in an acoustic duo in San Francisco. Carper would often describe the coastal weather as a “new monsoon,” and a band name was born.
New Monsoon steadily added musicians and started to gain national recognition in 2003 and 2004. The band members have been full-time musicians ever since.
“Your perspective on making it is always changing because you can always see the next horizon but certainly filling up the Filmore (Auditorium) was a massive feather in our cap.”
At one of New Monsoon’s sell-out shows at the Filmore, the opening band was South Lake Tahoe’s Blue Turtle Seduction.
“We’ve had a lot of shows with them and they’re good friends of ours,” Miller said. “Their music is really entertaining and they really get the crowd going and they put them in a really good headspace.”