By Caleb Calhoun
“I think many times people misunderstand or mistake music for being music. Music isn’t music. Music is entertainment.” -Keith Allen, guitarist for The Mantras
If that statement catches you a little off-guard, understand that The Mantras, and guitarist Keith Allen, are cool with that.
“If people are paying attention,” Allen continues, “then it’s entertainment. The drama is as important as the notes.”
While this may seem a touch sacrilegious to some heads, for someone like Allen, who counts musicals amongst some of his favorite tunes, it all makes sense.
“Some of my favorite stuff growing up were Disney Movies. I think it is the dramatic aspect that moved me. We were actually just listening to a bunch of Disney stuff down in Wilmington,” he confides.
Drawing on everything from show tunes to world beat to 1970’s psych-rock, The Mantras are not short on drama or musical depth. The band, which aims to tell a different story with every show they play, will have ample opportunity to showcase their musical acuity and professional showmanship over their two-night run, dubbed Hemispheres, this Friday and Saturday at New Mountain AVL.
“You can read into the name and the artwork a lot if you want to,” is what Allen tells me. “And we love to utilize the two-nights to make the set lists and the music special. You can really get things dialed in and music wise we can just stretch out a little bit more.”
While some bands may use a performance heavy approach to distract from a lack of musical or philosophical depth, this is not the case with The Mantras. The name is not a coincidence. These are thoughtful men making intricate music that reflects their own struggles and victories.
For Allen, art in general, and later on in life music specifically, has always been a way to escape his struggles.
“My mom and dad talked me into going to a performing arts high school in Charlotte. I was a pretty bad kid then and that kind of took me out of the group of kids that I was running with,” Allen explains. “I actually started with the visual arts which eventually gave way to music.”
Drawn to the open-ended art form of the improvisational side of music, after graduating high school and spending a little time at community college, Allen applied to the music school at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Diagnosed with ADD as a child Allen had been part of a government study growing up. When it became time for him to take the next step in his education he was able to use that experience to earn a full-ride, vocational rehab scholarship to UNCG where he studied jazz and classical guitar.
“I would not have been able to afford a school like that otherwise,” he muses. “I taught myself classical guitar for the audition and they accepted me. It completely changed my life.”
It was there that he met the other founding members of the band as well as learning the skills and habits that would prepare him, and The Mantras for a long, successful career.
While as a band they love to schedule trade shows (when bands with followings in specific markets trade out opening in each other’s market to gain exposure) for this show, here in their home state of North Carolina, they wanted to do something a little more local.
“We really like to use bands from out of town but, this weekend in particular, we wanted it to be more like a family reunion,” Allen informs me.
Friday night the show will be opened by Sanctum Sully, a rock/newgrass five piece that has commanded respect in Asheville for half a decade. To add to the family vibe, Sanctum Sully’s keyboardist, Justin Powell, was a member of The Mantras before having to take time off when his child was born.
The Digs, another local band that has really been coming into their own over the past year, will kick things off Saturday night. Their jazzy funk is a soothing sound on any occasion and should have everyone’s hips nice and loose by the time The Mantras take the stage.
The Mantras also tour with their visual arts director, Dustin Klein. Known and respected throughout the industry for more than lighting, Klein is a successful artist, set-designer, and projectionist. Running the entire show through a modified Wii there is not a box out there big enough to constrict his creativity.
With local world-class talent opening, one of the best visual experiences on the circuit, and a well-planned theme that should keep everything fresh for both nights, the sound advice is to buy yourself a two-night ticket, and to do it in advance.
The Mantras play Friday, Feb 10 and Saturday, Feb 11. A limited number of two-night passes are available for $20 in advance. One-night passes are $12 in advance and $15 D.O.S.
Caleb Calhoun studied writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and music at a plethora of clubs and bars across the southeast. He is the author and publisher of Rosman City Blues and currently resides outside of Asheville with his dog and best friend, Dr. Gonzo.