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The Live Music Experience:

The Mantras
The Whiskey • 1 S Front St
Feb. 25th • 9 p.m.
Admission: $5

REPEAT AFTER ME: The Mantras won’t let music fans easily forget the magic in ad-libbing music and performing with gusto. Courtesy photo.

If string cheese incident and Umphrey’s McGee were morphed into one band that occasionally took funky cues from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, it would sound like The Mantras. Bands formed in recent times with improvisational music aren’t common, as it is not an easy style to master. It would be near impossible for any Phish, Grateful Dead or jam band fan not to enjoy the groove and peaceful messages of The Mantras’ energetic anthems. A talented six-piece band from Greensboro, they will be performing at The Whiskey on February 25th, reminding fans what a live music experience is really about.

The band’s ability to combine jam rock with funk, jazz and blues, paired with their improvisational onstage style, sets them apart from other NC outfits. Their talent is easily showcased though their concerts and recordings. On “Magillacuddy” from their 2010 album “Dharma,” pulsating bass guitar riffs are matched with steady drumbeats while the main strums impressively speed up before softly slowing down the animated pace. It keeps listeners wondering what they might hear next.

From the same album, “Five Roads” is a catchy foot-tapper that starts out slow with light guitar strumming and drums before dipping into a rockin’ guitar solo. The vocals are right on key, and paired with the music, it maintains a Zappa-ish effect.

Like “Dharma,” The Mantras’ other two albums (with a live album compilation possibly in the works soon) manage to balance a smooth, coordinated and professional sound with sporadic instrumentations. The effect is laid-back, and the band never lets their music or live shows stagnate or dull.

“We like to experiment and keep things fresh, and play all different kinds of styles,” frontman, guitarist and vocalist Keith Allen says. “If we were playing the same thing all the time, I think we all would have gotten bored with it a long time ago. We rarely ever play a song the same way twice. Stylistically, it will be the same, but where we go with it and what we do with it differs. We always want to try to keep people excited when they come to our shows.”

While comparisons to bands such as the Allman Brothers Band run deep, the driving force behind the Mantras is their upbeat sound and personal influences. Specifically, certain genres have been an integral part of Allen’s contributions to the band.

“I think that what connects us all is that the fact that we have such a broad range of influences. So, when all that comes together, it kind of has a similar type of sound,” he explains. “My influences change—like right now I’m listening to a lot of electronic music. But the first things that drew me to improvisational music were jazz recordings and the Grateful Dead. I like rock ‘n’ roll, but I never grasped the concept of improvising until I heard jazz, like Miles Davis. Then I heard the Grateful Dead, and they combined rock music with improvisation, which was mind-blowing.”

The band also tries to stay open minded when listening to unfamiliar music. Allen acknowledges that musical tastes evolve, so it wouldn’t make sense for them to confine themselves. “There really isn’t anything that any of us won’t listen to, even if it’s something we think is really horrible,” he says with a laugh.

A lot has changed since the band’s inception nearly eight years ago. Most of the current members met while studying at UNC-Greensboro. When Allen was introduced to bass player Brian Tyndall and guitar player Marcus Horth, they had already formed a band called Marcus and the Mantras. After Allen began playing music with his new friends, they permanently established the trio that cemented their core sound.

In about 2005, after going through several drummers, Justin Loew became the perfect fit. Around that time, they shortened their name to the Mantras. “I started writing more and [our music] really became a bigger group effort, so we changed the name to reflect the unification of the band,” Allen says. The then-quartet wanted to add more instruments. In 2006, Brent Vaughn became the group’s percussionist. As of late, they have added keyboardist Justin Powell.

Together, the now-sextuplet have created a legendary style of fusions, and by blurring the genres of funk, blues, jazz and rock, their eclectic charm draws in a loyal fan base no matter where they tour. With over 2,870 fans on Facebook alone, Allen notes that the Mantras’ devotees live up to the notorious jam-band custom of following the band to each performance.

“Usually when we have a Facebook event in North Carolina, we get anywhere from 40 to 100 of the same people who R.S.V.P,” Allen says. “We work really hard, so it’s great to see fans return that energy because if they didn’t do that, we wouldn’t continue to play. The people who come to see our shows it what keeps inspiring us. People spend a lot of money and take a lot of time out of their day to come see us.”

Some of the band’s most memorable performances been at the FloydFest music festival held annually in Floyd, Virginia, where they took home the award for the Under the Radar fan-voted contest, and performing on Halloween at Raleigh’s Pour House Music Hall, where they all dressed up as devils. To say you never know what you might get could very well be their mantra.

The Mantras’ music is available on iTunes. Check them out live this weekend at the Whiskey.

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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