James Mastro with Ian Hunter (Photo: Jini Sachse)
Hoboken guitartist James Mastro, a member of Hoboken’s own 1980s power pop sensation The Bongos who’s gone on to play with legions and legends including the recently retired Garland Jeffreys, Patti Smith, John Cale, The Jayhawks, Robert Plant and Ian Hunter, has taken on a new musical role, thanks to Hunter’s current version of his classic late 1960s/early ‘70s rock band Mott the Hoople.
Vocalist/guitarist Hunter last year reunited with fellow ‘70s bandmates Ariel Bender (guitar) and Morgan Fisher (keyboards), and brought along his regular Rant band members Steve Holley (drums), Mark Bosch (guitar), Paul Page (bass), Dennis Dibrizzi (keyboards), and Mastro—except Mastro, while playing some guitar and mandolin, mostly plays saxophone, which he virtually learned overnight.
“Yes, I learned sax for the Mott gig!” says Mastro. “It seemed crazy to me that there were going to be four guitar players up there, so I lied to Ian and told him I played sax. When he said, ‘Great!,’ my goose was cooked!”
Mastro recalls that when talk of Mott the Hoople shows began last year (after several European dates last summer, they played U.S. and U.K. dates last April), “to Ian’s credit, he wanted to use the Rant band—all guys who have been with him a while. But the period we were focusing on was the last two Mott the Hoople records, which had a lot of sax. I don’t know why I said I’d play sax, but when he said, ‘Great,’ I figured I’d better learn!”
So he bought a sax and took lessons from an instructor at Guitar Bar, the Hoboken music store/instruction center that he’s owned and operated since 1996 and calls “the ‘Floyd’s Barber Shop’ for guitar stores” after the Andy Griffith Show’s barber shop/community center.
“It was helpful, and I just kind of took it from there: I knew what I had to focus on soundwise in the couple months before our first rehearsal, and practiced an hour or two a day. No one knew what to expect, and everyone looked at me sideways and made wisecracks at the first rehearsal. I didn’t know what to expect, either, but I made it through, and it sounded pretty good.”
A little bit of confidence goes a long way, continues Mastro, and two months later he was ready for the new Mott the Hoople’s first show—at Spain’s Azkena Rock Festival in June of last year, in front of 30,000 people.
Mastro had started playing with Hunter back in 2000, “and that was a con, too!” he says. “I got hired under the guise that I could play mandolin, and stayed up all night and learned the song I needed for the gig. The rest is minor history.”
On the Mott the Hoople tour now, he’s playing sax on as many as 10 songs.
“It’s a good physical workout,” he says. “I don’t exercise, but this is good exercise!”
Mastro did in fact bring a guitar, which he also plays during the Mott the Hoople set. But his focus in this band is saxophone.
“It’s one more thing to carry, but it’s got me really excited about music again,” he says. “It’s made me feel like a little kid going back to taking music lessons, and suddenly I’m in a humble role of wanting to please my teacher and classmates--and not screw up.”
He’s also “listening to records in a different way.”
“I’m discovering things I wouldn’t normally find, and they’re influencing how I approach guitar,” explains Mastro.
“There are a lot of sax parts on Mott records that are based on early ‘50s rock’n’ roll sax parts, so it’s kind of been like how I first started listening to records--like hearing the Rolling Stones on ‘King Bee’ and discovering who did it originally [Slim Harpo] and working my way backwards. So from listening to Mott stuff and realizing it sounds like Little Richard, I discovered Lee Allen, who played on the Little Richard records I’d been listening to all my life. And it really got me excited, in the same way as Tom Verlaine’s guitar tone, or Eric Clapton’s: It was coming from his gut, and I recognized that guitarists have been stealing his horn licks off Little Richard and Fats Domino records!”
Mastro is now awaiting the Oct. 21 kick-off of the next round of Mott the Hoople U.S. dates.
“It’s a riot! So much fun,” he says of the tour. “I think everyone thought it might be like an oldies act, but once we got in the room and felt the energy, it seemed so vital and valid, and I think it surprised all of us--especially Ian. After the first few shows, that was supposed to be it—but when we came off of them, he said it was too good, that we had to keep it going. So we’re doing Mott shows, at least for now.”
Hunter, Mastro adds, just turned 80.
“We’re doing a two-hour show, and he’s rocking and not breaking a sweat! He’s a freak of nature. I don’t know how he does it, and I sure can’t complain about having a bad back when I’m out with these guys!”
And when he’s not out with Hunter/Mott, Mastro stays busy with other projects.
“I’d probably go nuts if there were any holes,” he says, noting a heavy recording session schedule, and participation backing acclaimed Hoboken singer-songwriter Karyn Kuhl (formerly of Gut Bank and Sexpod) when he’s available.
Mastro’s also looking to relive “the joy of shopping” a new solo album, having just completed his first in 20 years.