Mantras provide sound for a worn and funky tribe

by Jordan Green

Thursday is the night of the easy-going groove at the Blind Tiger, the live music venue on Walker Avenue where Greensboro’s Lindley Park neighborhood spreads west of UNCG. There are the regalers at the bar, the strollers, those swaying to the music in front of the stage, and the old friends visiting. There’s guitar player Marcus Horth holding court for a rotating set of good-timers in one of the booths.

Heck, there’s even a guy with a friendly dog ‘— the squat and muscled kind on a leash ‘— sitting at the end of the bar.

Thursday is the beginning of the weekend run of workhorse local and regional acts that headline the venue. It’s not Tuesday, when the Tiger flips the script for its hip-hop showcase and draws in a younger, more multi-hued crowd. Nah, this is a regular’s night, when the music tends toward the elastic boogie. The crowd fills out with the odd dreadlocked dude in overalls and tie-dye stranded after the dissolution of the Dead tribe and legions of pretty girls with straight, long hair dressed in hippie blouses and blue jeans.

You won’t see the pretense of affluence that marks the Elm Street scene where money is spent to make first and important impressions. No, these people at the Blind Tiger have for the most part long since resigned themselves to less-than-fulfilling day jobs, and the night will stretch out in a time warp with the free flow of alcohol, past last call and into the after-parties despite the fact that Thursday is technically a weekday night. The groove is the standard, and the atmosphere is rough-edged and earthy, frankly sexual and inebriated.

The headliner tonight is the Mantras, a band that meshes rock, blues and jazz through an alchemy of psychedelic disorientation; a Charlotte outfit called the Full Grown Band, a funky Southern rock band featuring a wailing female vocalist; and the super-charged bluegrass (read: acoustic) group Swamp Boat. The eclectic mix of genres is less of a stylistic stretch than one might think.

Just now, Russ Dunn of Swamp Boat has joined the Full Grown Band onstage with his mandolin. He and the lead guitar player engage in some bird-like, Garcia-influenced lead interplay before the song accelerates into a galloping ska vamp.

In the back of the room guitar player Sam Frazier, a scene veteran who will play about a dozen nights on this stage over the next couple months in various configurations, reminisces about a time before there was a Blind Tiger.

‘“It was a bar called Logan’s,’” says Frazier, who’s nursing a plastic cup of cola on ice. ‘“They didn’t have live music until the very end. I tended bar for them. I never made a very good bartender.’”

Chronis DeVasili, the bouzouki player, walks up, enthusiasm bursting from his face.

‘“I saw Marcus playing on Tate Street Saturday,’” he says. ‘“I want to see the full spread tonight.’”

He spreads his arms in a gesture of open-hearted affirmation.

After a short second set by Swamp Boat, the Mantras take the stage. The stage set-up includes a humble white sheet as a backdrop to catch a light show of revolving configurations of red and blue bubbles. Without much fanfare the band launches into a cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘“Immigrant Song.’”

A familiar thrill rips through the crowd, with the midnight tribe succumbing to ritualistic ass-shaking.

The dreadlocked Brian Tyndall stands on stage with bare feet, harnessing the primal energy of his bass guitar as it carries the furious leitmotif of the moment. The bearded Keith Allen, whose head is covered by a knit hat, approximates Robert Plant’s famous wail by playing slide on his guitar. Marcus Horth, who like Allen plays guitar and sings, holds a look of bemused discomfort as his older brother, Justin, whacks the drums.

The second song locks into a tight groove like Grand Funk Railroad, and Allen introduces the band members in a hyped voice that carries over the frenetic energy of the opening number. Then the energy simmers down as the band segues into ‘“Jabberwocky,’” an original.

In the next song, called ‘“Ska Face,’” Marcus Horth plays chords on his Samick hollow-body guitar in an inverted ska rhythm. He draws close to microphone with a grimace on his face, and sings words of his own authorship, which feel both personal and universal: ‘“Why do I create so much chaos in my life? Clinging to the darkness when I should be in the light.’”

The audience responds intuitively to covers like the Zeppelin tune, but also willingly follows the band on its voyage through the jazzy and funky territory of its own songs. Some of the songs stretch into jams, seeming to trick the time-space continuum. The songs shimmer in dissolution and then return to form as Tyndall hammers the bass line down like a heart beat, and notes fly from Allen’s fingers like sparks or raindrops of honey.

One of the women who’s been getting down on the dance floor, a gray-haired lady wearing a long flowing skirt, smiles proudly towards her son, the bass player. Tyndall and Allen are both jazz performance majors at UNCG.

‘“Of course I love them,’” the lady says. ‘“He’s my son. They’re really talented, or I wouldn’t be paying his tuition.’”

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