Coals to Newcastle: The New Mastersounds, from Leeds to New Orleans (Documentary)

In “Coals to Newcastle,” UK funk band, The New Mastersounds,

bring the funk back to a post-Katrina New Orleans during Jazzfest 2007. 

In 2005, Marca Hagenstad and Aaron Dunsay became some of the first American fans of UK funk band the New Mastersounds. When the New Mastersounds announced their acceptance of an invitation to play in New Orleans during the 2007 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, they knew this was a journey for the band worth documenting.

The band’s video project was initially conceived as a tastefully shot concert video with a limited amount of documentary material to support it. As soon as Aaron arrived in Leeds to meet and film the band however, he sensed that there was more to the story. It had never really occurred to him before that funk music was an indigenous American art form, and therefore a foreign cultural artifact to Britons. He assumed that a shared language implied a shared culture. It soon became apparent that the musicians in Leeds took American music seriously, studied it rigorously, and added a fresh take on it that was somewhat lacking in the American funk music scene. Of course the band’s charisma and musical ability also proved that they would be terrific subjects for a film.

“Coals to Newcastle” was completely independently produced by Marca and Aaron. Aaron likes to say that they were thankfully both just experienced enough to pull it off, and just naïve enough not to know any better. Several production issues affected the shoot including malfunctioning equipment and uncooperative promoters. The project took much longer and ended up costing more – in blood, sweat and tears, as well as dollars and pounds – than the filmmakers had expected.

Marca also had to calm police, neighbors and landlords for the now legendary “Front Porch Gig” – a free concert that was held in front of the house that the filmmakers had rented for the band and crew. The house was situated near the Jazz Fest exit, and many festival-goers got their first taste of The New Mastersounds by unexpectedly stumbling upon this show. The permit-less show was pulled off in true New Orleans style.

A tough crew was assembled for the production. Challenging work environments are the norm in New Orleans, especially with shooting live performances. One of the shows continued on well after the sunrise, and was followed by an impromptu photo shoot in one of New Orleans’ classic above ground cemeteries. Crew members had to put up with these demands on little sleep.

At the end of Jazzfest, the filmmakers walked away with plenty of great material, but due to technical issues they didn’t have enough to create a straight live concert video. They decided to switch focus and develop the deeper story of the band. Over the next year and half of principal photography, they took every possible opportunity to gather material with the band – both state-side and abroad – and they enlisted the help of several more established musicians who could tell the band’s story on camera. Having already spent the film’s budget and then some, Aaron often found himself hopping from town to town – and country to country – accompanying the band as a one-person crew. He’d sleep in the homes of virtual strangers he met on couchsurfing.org, and relied on the good graces of promoters and sound engineers to provide audio of the shows.

Although the shoot had been difficult, post-production brought the real challenges. Jon Henderson, the championing driving force through many post-production obstacles passed away only months after assuming the role of Post Production Supervisor – losing a long battle with colorectal cancer. “We cannot overstate Jon’s importance to the completion of this film,” says Marca, “We all committed to emulate his spirit and determination throughout the rest of the process.”

When the film was half completed, Marca caught an image of the TV news and saw a live video feed of an aerial shot of the post-production studio in Boulder, Colorado. The entire area was engulfed in flames. Wildfires were blazing through the foothills of Boulder and the studio was at ground zero. Corey Drayton, the film’s editor, salvaged the hard drives and managed to emerge with all of the material intact.

“Every step of the way I followed my instincts and had the perseverance to jump through whatever hoops needed jumping through at the time,” says Marca. When things looked lost, the decision to continue was validated by the filmmakers’ understanding of the high level of the band’s musicianship and the faith that it would translate to film. The product is a colorful merging of British and New Orleans cultures, with a positive and strong burst of energy given to viewers through the band’s music and journey. As Peter Shand, the New Mastersounds’ bassist, stated, “I think the world does need a bit of soul right now.”

…… Funk Music News will release its review of the documentary this week! Check back soon …..

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