When reached at home in Greensboro, N.C., The Mantras guitarist and vocalist Keith Allen is deep in rehearsals for his band’s Halloween show. It’s a sacred holiday in the jam band world, when acts typically don musical costumes and cover the material of others. For The Mantras, October 31 ended up being a doozy; during the Virginia show, the band ran through a performance dubbed “The Talking Dead,” which featured mashups of Grateful Dead and Talking Heads songs. It was quite an undertaking, but as the band’s loyal fans know, the group has never shied away from a sonic challenge—often mixing muscular guitar riffs with psychedelic grooves and electronic tangents.
“We try to play everything we like,” says Allen, who says he recently wrote a country pop tune that’s become a crowd favorite. “Nothing bores me more than going to see a band that just plays reggae or funk. I’ve never been able to pay attention to one thing for more than 10 minutes; we like to switch it up a lot. I think that played against us in the beginning, but now that people know what to expect, it works in our favor.”
The band formed 11 years ago as music school students at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and has since gone through more than a handful of line-up changes. Despite the shuffles, steady presence on the local music scene, particularly through a longstanding weekly residency at Greensboro’s Blind Tiger, made the band a hometown favorite. Now settled into a solid six-piece lineup, the group has grown an impressive regional fan base through diligent touring.
“We already have a long history, but it’s filtered into the people that were meant to be here,” Allen says. “Every time someone has left, we’ve had to relearn our entire repertoire, and I think that’s made us a tighter band. We practice a lot and we put everything we have into this. That’s what it takes.”
Jam bands have also taken notice of The Mantras’ musical prowess. To make their last album, the tongue-in-cheek titled Jambands Ruined My Life, the band members traveled to Michigan to record with Umphrey’s McGee guitarist Jake Cinninger. The group has also collaborated with members of the String Cheese Incident and Tea Leaf Green.
While it certainly takes a lot of hard work to earn new fans in cities across the country, the band members are always grateful for the consistent support received back home in Carolina. Over Labor Day Weekend, the band’s faithful flocked to Fergus, N.C. for Mantrasbash, the group’s annual multi-band festival, and this New Year’s Eve, they’ll congregate once again for a blowout at the Blind Tiger.
“A lot of people around here have a deep emotional connection to our music, especially in North Carolina,” Allen adds. “They’ve convinced us to keep going, no matter what, and it gives us purpose.”