Mass Mental. I’ve been aware of the existence of this enigmatic funk-metal supergroup since the tail end of the nineties, but they have remained maddeningly elusive for me; not just in the live environment, but even on record. In all honesty, and especially in light of the progression of the careers of certain key members, I had pretty much given up all hope of this changing – but not for the first or last time, I was wrong. Saints be praised.
Barely a month ago, a post appeared under my Facebook-scrolling thumb that stopped me dead in my tracks: Mass Mental would soon be playing a special one-off show at The Underworld in Camden. Without stopping to think, I clicked the link and secured a ticket. I was not alone – the whole venue sold out in barely a day, prompting a swift upgrade to the rather more spacious Electric Ballroom just around the corner.
At the time of booking I didn’t really know what to expect, but I did know I wanted to see it, just because of the people involved. First and foremost, the main driving force behind Mass Mental is bassist extraordinare Rob Trujillo. Now playing for some plucky young hopefuls called Metallica, Rob’s violently funky past with Suicidal Tendencies and Infectious Grooves is second only to Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ Flea in influencing my own decision to pick up the bass, getting on for twenty-five years ago now – and for many unfortunate reasons, I’d never actually seen him play, so I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity, even if my hair was on fire.
Tonight’s proceedings were apparently opened by a solo acoustic performance by Tim McMillan, but a chance encounter and an engaging conversation in the smoking area means that I miss his set entirely. Whoops; sorry Tim. That was careless of me. Eager not to repeat the mistake, I secure myself a good vantage point for the main event just before its scheduled 9pm start time and wait for the magic to begin.
This proves to be a rather longer wait than expected, with Rob finally loping onto the stage about twenty minutes late – but what’s twenty minutes when you’ve been waiting twenty years?
The Mass Mental experience is basically a continual drip-feed of guest musicians, but the show begins with the core trio that remain onstage throughout the set. Rob is joined by Kyuss‘ Brant Bjork on drums and fellow bassist Armand Sabal-Lecco, whose impressive resume includes providing the low end for Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon. Wow.
The trio slip into a couple of low, loose and lithe instrumental jams, with Rob locking in with Brant and Armand taking a kind of ‘lead bass’ role. I am completely enthralled, especially when the pair of them start slapping and popping simultaneously. Just the first few minutes of the set making the whole trip worthwhile, but there’s still plenty more to come.
They are first joined by Skindred‘s Benji Webbe, easily one of the best showmen on the circuit at the moment. In between cuts from the album How To Write Love Songs, he tells the story of the formation of the band, along with hilarious impressions of his bandmates. He also lets us know that the album, long unavailable, has been given a limited repressing for tonight, so I hurry over to the merch stand to snaffle one. Achievement unlocked.
Benji’s larger-than-life stage persona contributes to the party vibe, and his presence this evening helps paper over the cracks in the hurriedly-constructed show. People expecting a polished and practiced set might have been disappointed, but for me the rather ramshackle nature only adds to the night’s charms. Indeed, Benji himself needs a crib sheet to help him with the lyrics to an Earth, Wind and Fire cover, “Can’t Hide Love“, which was obviously a late addition to the running order.
During one song Armand snaps a string, and there is a valiant and hilarious attempt by the stage crew to replace it whilst Armand continues to play. It’s ultimately doomed to fail, but they almost pull it off. Points for even trying, though.
More musicians join the party onstage, guitarists Sagat Guirey and Stevie Salas (who has a similarly eye-popping CV as Armand) pop up at various points, and Ugly Kid Joe‘s Whitfield Crane takes over from Benji about halfway through the set.
A cover of Black Sabbath‘s “War Pigs” is probably the shakiest moment in the set, with the crowd incapable of clapping in time and some improvising that doesn’t quite gel. It’s immediately followed by “Symptom of the Universe“, which fares much better. The already funky outro also segues into a cheeky snippet of The Meters‘ funk-jam classic “Cissy Strut“.
As if there wasn’t already enough talent and experience gracing the stage tonight, the big guns get broken out towards the end of the set. Motorhead guitarist Phil Campbell is given a heroes welcome, and he leads the band through spirited, and somewhat emotional, runs through “We Are The Road Crew” and “Ace of Spades“.
Finally, Rob introduces Level 42‘s Mark King to the stage for some three-way bass action on the last song of the night “Come On, Come Over“, with almost everyone else getting involved too. The song culminates in a frankly inhuman slap-bass solo from Mark, showing precisely why Rob introduced him as one of his all-time heroes.
As the collected musicians take their bows and the house lights are brought up, we are left to consider what we have witnessed. For me, its been the long-overdue fulfillment of a dream to see one of my all-time heroes play in a far more intimate environment than I ever thought I would once he joined Metallica. Tonight’s show was very much a one-off: it might have been a little rough around the edges, but that only added to its charms. There was an unmistakable sense of occasion that permeated throughout the night, and those that were present will undoubtedly be rolling out anecdotes from it for years to come. A most uncommon and unexpected delight.