The New Mastersounds are a four-piece jazz fusion group from Leeds, England. Their High Sierra Music Festival history goes back to 2005, with over a handful of appearances.
The first year was a little turbulent. A representative of the band persuaded someone to let them play an unpaid spot.
“It was unheard of for them to book a band that not one of them had seen,”drummer Simon Allen said.
He took a short bike ride from his hotel for an interview at the fest.
Back in 2005, they were late to arrive in San Francisco. They unfortunately missed their time slot, but the fans, staff and Camp Happiness made their show happen.
“They’ve adopted us,” Allen said. “That’s the thing about High Sierra, it isn’t necessarily about which band is on when, they know that something they’re into will be on.”
Ever since, The New Mastersounds do a show at Camp Happiness in addition to their Grandstand and late night performances. This year, they dug up old tunes they haven’t played in a decade. He shared a Spotify playlist with his the other members of the band. They would’ve get time to rehearse it, but a listen was enough.
“It’s just us in the middle of a campground with a load of drunk hippies, so we can make some mistakes and laugh about it,” Allen said.
Musically, they teeter between jam band and tight jazz/funk group. When they go into the studio, it’s usually for less than a week. Their love is playing live.
“One of the reasons we make an album every 18 months is for something new and fun to play live,” Allen said.
Their new album features vocals from Lamar Williams. They tend to jam and tweak the instrumental songs that they’ve played for 15-20 years. They don’t feel the need to jam on the songs with Williams. The vocals help regain the audience’s focus.
“Sometimes people think we aren’t jamming when we are,” Allen said.
Whatever mood they’re in and the vibe they get from the crowd determines when songs diverge from the standard rails. Allen said it’s unpredictable.
“If there’s a playful atmosphere, that’s where new stuff happens,” Allen said. “And if the new stuff is good enough, it becomes part of the arrangement.
This constant whittling and reworking have made them a formed and impressive mechanism.
Allen praised the size and atmosphere of High Sierra. When he plays festivals, he doesn’t see many other bands, he tries to soak up the ambience.
“Music is what I do all the time,” Allen said. “But the fun, dressing up and other festival antics is what I like. There’s enough going on, but you don’t kill yourself getting around.”
While drumming, Allen is either smiling from ear to ear or honing in on his band mates to maintain their sync.
“I’d much rather have a sweaty situation where everyone is packed in close,” Allen said.
The Camp Happiness gig was intimate and sweaty. Sandals flopped up dust as 100 colorful hippies danced in their campsite to one of the most accomplished bands on the festival’s lineup.
— Tony Contini