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Saturday, 06 April 2013 14:33

Concert review: Monophonics and Big Brother Thunder and the MasterBlasters put the funk right in your face at the Old Rock House, Friday, April 5

Monophonics at the Old Rock House Monophonics at the Old Rock House Caroline Philippone
Written by Kevin Edwards

Since forming in 2005, Monophonics have been known as one of San Francisco's foremost funk and retro-soul groups and Big Brother Thunder and the MasterBlasters have been putting some shake and bump into their home St. Louis audiences for a while now.

I love me some horn arrangements, harking back to a third-row seat for Chicago in 1971. I always remember the year because a bumper sticker on Bobby Lamm's organ read "Lick Dick in '72."

So, I was extremely pumped to see both bands and shake what is left of what my mama gave me.

Monophonics are named from the single-note, monophonic sound that comes from a Moog synthesizer. And that has to be ironic because they are anything but single-note or monophonic.

In fact, they are a lot like their native San Francisco. It's a wonder of a place that has had a hand in nearly every movement in American music: jazz, bebop, folk, rock, jam, psychedelia, funk and, recently, retro-soul. And if you don't think retro-soul is hot, consider this: Darryl Hall has his own television show.

Like San Francisco itself, the Monophonics' recorded sound is a goulash of influences. You hear Sly and the Family Stone, Ike Turner, Tower of Power and Isaac Hayes. But you hear Wayne Shorter, Chet Baker, Miles Davis and Frank Rosolino too.

Oh yeah, and Curtis Mayfield. It's a sound that slips between the cracks of jazz and funk and soul to create something like "Shaft Is Kind of Blue Because Freddy's Dead in the Riot That's Goin' On." That's not a real album. But I kind of wish it was.

This is, to the amazement of everyone I told, my first trip to the Old Rock House, and other than the Spanish Inquisition-like unisex bathroom, it's a great place to see a show. Before 9 p.m. there weren't enough of us in the audience to put together a sandlot baseball game, and I began to fret a bit for the bands. But, shortly after Big Brother Thunder and the MasterBlasters took the stage, the makings of a party emerged.

The band will hereafter be referred to as BBT&TMB, which is still too long. It's like how "www" is more syllables than "world wide web." C'mon, guys.

And it was never clear to me, really, who was who, MasterBlaster-wise.

Never mind that. It was Friday night, the French doors were thrown open to the night air and it appeared this crowd was ready to shed the yoke of the work week and trade it for some alcohol. By the end of the night the girls dancing around my general area had ferried enough hooch over to my table to make it look like an "Exile On Main Street" still life. Debauchery, al fresco.

A couple of the regular members of BBT&TMB were unable to play due to other commitments but the balance threw down a groove that was just the tonic to loosen hips so recently lubricated by libation. The crowd filled in significantly by the time the set was finished and very few were sitting down.

The whole set was well played but standouts for me were covers of Stevie Wonder's reggae classic, "Master Blaster" and a Sergio Mendes song whose name I probably never really solidly knew. And my notes fail me, looking a bit like what a doctor might scribble in his sleep. Is there such a thing as drunken osmosis? I only had two ales, but my table looked like a party Gram Parsons would have left because it was too wild.

By the time intermission was over and Monophonics took the stage, the place was packed. And dancing, as has been suggested by Mr. Mellencamp, meant everything.

I watched from my peripheral vision as a girl moved into my little well of sanctity and invaded my space with dancing. I think, technically, by Queensbury rules, even though I was facing away, we danced. I kind of phoned my part in.

The Monophonics sound, at least on this April night, is more in keeping with their newest album, 2012's "In Your Brain" than the jazzier sounds of "Into the Infrasounds." But it could be because the horn section for Monophonics was missing a member too.

Is someone kidnapping and holding horn players for ransom in St. Louis? Probably not.

The two we had on hand were superb. The arrangements for trumpet and trombone were killer and often sounded like a much bigger unit. Ryan Scott's trumpet is usually augmented by Alex Baky's saxophone but his coupling with Darren Cardoza, sitting in on trombone, was inspired. They were a sight standing next to each other too: Scott in a dark, velvet sport coat and Cardoza looking like he was on his way to or from a Marlboro commercial shoot, with his four-inch belt buckle, rodeo jeans and a black cowboy hat.

Bass player Myles O'Mahoney was solid all night long and watching him play was kind of like watching an out-of-synch English-dubbed movie; watching his hands was a lie. You had to listen to get the whole story.

Guitarist Ian McDonald, whose licks sometimes remind me of early Chicago guitarist Terry Kath, coaxed an echoed fuzzball of a guitar sound out of his instrument. Austin Bohlman deftly moved between the breaks and his drumming really did seem to hold things together as was suggested by keyboardist and lead singer, Kelly Finnigan, whose incredible voice sounds like David Clayton Thomas doing a Wilson Pickett imitation. His keyboard skills are formidable too, sliding all over the whole of them, overall giving the impression of a sweat-soaked, Van Morrison-like Irish blues imp.

Early standout songs for me were "There's a Riot Going On," which is an original and not a cover of the Sly Stone tune and a cover of the Lost Generation's "Sure Is Funky." By 11 p.m. the dance floor was a crush of dancing, sweaty groove being whipped up by Finnigan who pointed and gestured like a southern preacher stalking the pulpit.

The cover of Sonny Bono's "Bang Bang" was way more menacing in treatment than the original. It's hard to be menacing with bangs and fuzzy vests. Monophonics' version sounds like how Bono would have done it after doing a dime in prison.

Also great was the Mad Dogs and Englishmen-like arrangement of the Mamas and Papas' "California Dreaming." The band has an EP of covers due in June or July, according to Finnigan, and I'll be waiting.

The whole night sounded like Isaac Hayes scoring a Tarantino movie taking place on an early-spring, Friday night in St. Louis. It was the perfect soundtrack for those ready to celebrate another two-day break in the grind of the 21st century.

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