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From Britain with funk
How the New Mastersounds brought American music back across the pond
The New Mastersounds return to Loco's in Savannah Nov. 10

American funk music has a deep-rooted appeal that goes far beyond the borders of this country.

In Japan, for example, funk is as prized as the finest cuts of sushi.

"There's an amazing band there called Osaka Monorail," says Eddie Roberts, guitarist for the British band the New Mastersounds. "The front guy has completely modeled himself on James Brown - he dances like him, he does the splits, the whole thing.

"And he runs his band like James Brown - they're really strict, and they rehearse five times a week. They all wear the same suits, the same shoes ... it's a 12-piece band. They're absolutely incredible."

There is, Roberts says modestly, a New Mastersounds cover band in Japan as well.

That's because this four-piece outfit - returning to Loco's in Savannah Nov. 10 - is one of the tightest, most musicianly purveyors of pure funk in the known universe.

Just as American blues and R&B had a profound influence on the early rock bands in Great Britain, classic ‘60s and ‘70s funk did a huge number on Eddie Roberts and his pals.

"I think World War II had a lot to do with the blues and R&B music that got into the U.K.," says Roberts. "DJs finding this music, and crate-digging for it. They ended playing clubs and parties; that's how I got into funk, through the DJs that were picking it up. Through my late teens and early 20s, we were pretty much dancing to funk and soul every weekend."

The New Mastersounds were helped enormously by their association with the legendary Scottish DJ Keb Darge, who is considered the grandfather of England's "Deep Funk" scene.

"What the phrase really meant was digging deep in the crates, finding rare funk tunes," Roberts explains. "We were then putting bands together to kind of emulate the sounds that we were hearing on records. Before we came to America, pretty much all our tunes were like three minutes long. We were emulating like a funk 45."

Ironically, the band had to pack up and leave their native Leeds to find a fully receptive audience. Coming to the States, where acts like the Meters and Parliament/Funkadelic were becoming big draws at jam band festivals, their eyes were opened.

"When we realized there were no DJs playing before and after us," Roberts explains, "and we had to play for two or three hours, then we realized that we probably had to stretch the tunes out a little bit. Otherwise we'd be dead in 45 minutes."

The New Mastersounds made their American debut in 2004, at the House of Blues in Chicago. The shows sold out.

"Our jaws dropped. People coming to listen to instrumental soul/jazz music! We were like, holy shit this is where we need to be playing - rather than playing back home in Leeds, to 50 people. And 45 of those not even that interested.

"Especially being a mainly instrumental band, we'd always struggled against that a bit in Europe, where they tend to want a black singer. They want the kind of real deal. If the singer is white, they're not all that interested."

After they became used to the American way of doing things - drawing the tunes out - the real test was still to come.

"We wondered whether the European audiences would like it, or whether they would still be wanting the short, sharp, quick 45s," says Roberts. "We brought it to the U.S., then back over here, and they seem to be responding to it as well. So it bounces back and forth."

The New Mastersounds hardly play in England any more - Roberts, in fact, has relocated to San Francisco - but in the Land of the Rising Sun, they're treated like kings.

"Really, the only people in Europe who were interested in us were the DJs," Roberts says. "And there's only a handful of DJs. And the people know the names of the DJs - they don't know the names of the bands."

The New Mastersounds

Where: Loco's Grill & Pub. 301 W. Broughtn St.

When: At 9 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10

Tickets: $10