A year ago, I got the opportunity to watch The Mutaytor record its latest album, "Unconditional Love: The Westerfeld Sessions," in the William Westerfeld House, a mansion on Alamo Square with a rich history. Instruments filled the beautifully restored home, and the music seemed to resonate with the 120-year-old walls – as well as with the book that I was completing at the time: The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture.
As I wrote for the Guardian at the time and in my book, The Mutaytor is Burning Man's most iconic musical spawn, a band that started on the playa as a pickup group of musicians, dancers, acrobats, and dusty freaks, developing into an enduring of collection musical ambassadors for this burgeoning counterculture. Mutaytor and its music has a special place in the hearts of most burners.
Now that the album has been released and logged several plays through my speakers, I have to say that it's more than just a sentimental favorite. This is just a great fucking album! Most of the songs draw from the group's extensive existing playlist, and tunes like “Give a Little Mo'” and “The Family Business” will be as familiar to veteran burners as the well-worn early tracks from Burning Man's other big iconic act, the Berkeley-based beatfreak Bassnectar.
But Mutaytor is a band of serious-minded musicians and sound engineers, so this album still feels fresh and big. With a full horn section and multiple drummers banging away on sprawling drum kits, the sound just explodes at times, driven steadily along by former Oingo Boingo bassist John Avila. And the album is filled with fun little surprises, like when “Give a Little Mo'” veers off into a rift from Ozzy Osbourne's “Crazy Train.”
Although the band is based in Southern California, it has a special connection to San Francisco and the Westerfeld House, a sprawling mansion owned by longtime burner Jim Siegel, where the band's members – which can number as many as two dozen for its spectacular shows – stay when they're here performing. It's like sacred ground to them, which is why they recorded here and miked the whole house up for sound.
“We're getting the best tones,” singer/guitarist/arranger Buck Down told me at the time. And maybe I'm projecting, but I can almost feel that rich setting as I listen to this album, in which big rocking moments give way to haunting melodies, like the strings in “Tung Jen III” that seem to carry with them ancient memories from this storied mansion.
So, on a personal note, I'm excited to return to the Westerfeld House for a book reading and discussion next Friday the 11th starting at 7 pm, where I half-expect the walls to still carry a faint vibration from this epic recording session. Come on by and tell me if you can hear it too.
Or as The Mutaytor says in “How to Convert Civilians into Rock Stars”: “We are nymphs, we are figments of your imagination, and then we are gone, gone, gone, gone...”