Most Knoxvillians recognize nearby Asheville, N.C., as something of a Bohemian oasis, but it appears the drum circle has widened its radius across the state of North Carolina right under our noses. Greensboro act The Mantras are at the forefront of North Carolina jam bands spreading the "crunchy grooves." The quintet advances its genre by hosting MantraBash, a festival that brings a number of well-known acts to its home state.
Much like barbecue, regional flavors spice this North Carolina group's interpretation of jam music. While they don't specifically claim it, Southern rock comes through heavily in the band's mix of sounds that they dub simply as "funky fusion." The latest color on The Mantras' palette is electronica, an influence that has nestled deeper into the act's repertoire throughout the past year. And to those who believe all jam bands merely make it up as they go, The Mantras explain that only a fraction of their lengthy tunes are truly improvised.
"We discuss and arrange our music very meticulously," says Justin Powell (keyboards, vocals). "We do have an element of improvisation; three of the five of us have jazz performance degrees, so the listening and responding is very high-level, but we definitely have to discuss things too. I'd say about 15 percent of the set is actually improvised, (so) we are very song-centered. We do spend a lot of time talking about improv sections and how to get what we want out of them. Recording helps tremendously with this as well, because we can instantly listen back to things and find out if it sounded good."
"Most of the electronic element has evolved over the last year and a half," adds Keith Allen (guitar, vocals) of the band's dynamic sound. "Our drummer bought a sampler pad, and our keyboard player added a lot of soundscapes that we needed to get there. We experiment with all sorts of types of music, and electronica is a new frontier we will continue to expand on. You can see some of these elements in newer songs on the archive (http://www.archive.org/details/TheMantras) such as 'Kinetic Bump' and 'Man You Rawk.' "
As much to its own benefit as that of its fans, The Mantras have taken to recording all of their live outings. In addition to allowing the band to self-analyze its delivery after the fact, these recordings offer a solution to the frequently raised issues of live-minded acts. The Mantras no longer have to worry about their in-the-moment energy coming across in recordings, and with multiple renditions of each song available, no version is beyond reach for the group's devoted followers. Despite the wealth of live takes, the band reveals that a fourth studio recording is also in the works.
"Recording is imperative," Powell acknowledges. "We travel with a mobile HQ recording unit so that we can record every show we play. Not only does this provide us with an archive of all of our performances, which will be made available for sale soon, but it provides us with a way to critique ourselves almost immediately after every show. Much like a football team reviews the plays after a game, we listen to our performances to hear where we can improve as a band. The studio process would only somewhat translate in this respect. Yes, we're recording all the time, but you only get one take, so you better get it right.
"Most of them have turned out very well, but it is still a learning process. There are about 20 of these high-quality recordings available for free download on our website, www.themantras.com, and through www.archive.org. ... We can get new music out to fans really fast since we are basically in a studio every night we are on stage. The negative aspect would be that the recordings are 'warts and all.' We don't really filter what gets put out and sometimes it will be raw."
As with most jam bands, The Mantras are well-versed in festivals. Hitting music fests around the country year-round, it didn't take long for the band to establish its own. With The MantraBash Music and Art Festival, the group will host nearly 30 acts over three nights in Ferguson, N.C., beginning June 21.
"This will actually be the third MantraBash in North Carolina," explains Allen. "The first one was in June of 2007 in Level Cross. The second one, which was named 'MantraBash: Part Deux,' was in October 2008, in Climax. After a four-year hiatus, MantraBash is back and better than ever. This time, we have joined forces with Stanlee Ventures, the same team that puts on Camp Barefoot in West Virginia, so we know we are in great company.
"Some bands on the bill include Robert Walter Trio, Particle, Yo Mama's Big Fat Booty Band, The Werks, Josh Phillips Folk Festival and Brothers Past. The (High Country Motorcycle Camp) in Ferguson is a beautiful location and was used by some friends of ours for another festival. When we were looking for land it just fell into place."
Saturday night The Mantras join Grandpa's Stash on stage at The Cider House. The show kicks off at 9:25 p.m. Tickets are $8 in advance or $10 at the door with a $3 surcharge for patrons under the age of 21.
n What's passing for music these days: Robby Bratta and the Passingtones perform at The Longbranch Saloon Saturday night. Music is scheduled for 9 p.m.
n Take the short bus: The Pilot Light hosts Shortwave Society Monday night. Cuddle Magic is also on the bill. The show is slated for 10 p.m. and costs $5.
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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