Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link (Long Branch, NJ), May 23, 2019. Photos by Bob Schultz, Heather Morgan
As music fans, we kind of like to think of our favorite groups as band-mates in the most genuine sense; a bunch of longtime friends, or literal family members, who share a bond (and a crowded van) that no outsider could ever truly comprehend — even when that high-mileage van is traded in for a luxury tour bus, or custom-painted Gulfstream.
If you grew up watching The Beatles in Help! or The Monkees on their old TV show, you might have gotten the mistaken impression that, when the show is over, the band members come home to their own shared quarters; a zany clubhouse situation where pretty much any wacky thing can happen. But no one who’s at all serious about the music business actually lives like that — do they?
Meet Waiting For Mongo, a combo that you’ve likely encountered if you spent any time around the bars, bistros, boardwalks, big-room auditoriums and beachtop stages of our Shore. As purveyors of precision-drillteam funk and jamband jazzoid excursions, the seven-piece lineup boasts not only some lifetime friendships, but two sets of siblings. Citing Asbury Park as a home base — and staking out pockets of fandom from Louisiana to Vermont, via that trusty van (well okay, two vans; “one for the people and one for the gear”), the band has put their own stamp on the scene within a relatively brief bunch of years, although as T,J. McCarthy observes, “it feels like we started this a long time ago…we have a lot of emotion invested in this band…and for the past 2 or 3 years, we’ve all lived in the same house in Farmingdale.”
Speaking on behalf of the his fellow musicians — while being quick to point out that “there’s no main leader here…everybody has their own significant role to play in the band” — the bassist and vocalist explains that “if anything, the house has made us closer…we’re more aware of the personal chemistry, and how it affects the music…we always play our best when we get along great.”
“Then there are times when we were angry with each other, when the dishes weren’t done…typical roommate stuff…and the music came out sour,” he continues. “You don’t want that sort of thing to ruin the music and the fun…but at the end of the day, we are all about each other’s best interest.”
Both the band and the bond can trace its origins back to the Norwood Inn in Avon, where self-described “local kid” McCarthy worked with “guy who lived across the bridge” Mike Iatesta, a keyboard player who picked up the nickname “Mongo” — a reference not to the home planet of Flash Gordon’s foe Ming the Merciless, but to the Blazing Saddles character played by ex-NFL’er Alex Karras — when it was bestowed upon him by his co-workers.
The keyboard man had a drum-playing brother in Matt Iatesta, and together with their mutual friend Mike Susino on guitar and vocals, the band that was to become Waiting On Mongo coalesced around the core quartet; transitioning from bedroom jams to gigging as a four-piece with a specialty in Grateful Dead/ Phish style grooves. As for that chosen name, McCarthy explains that “when we started the band, it seemed like we were always waiting on Mike, or Mongo, to show up and set up…but now, I have to tell you he’s the fastest one of us to get his act together!”
It was at one of those early gigs that T.J. and company met saxophonist Anders Carlson — and it was through the connection with “Ders” that the group took it to the next level; bringing aboard the sax man as well as his trombone and bass playing brother Johnny Carlson, and their friend, trumpeter Bruce Krywinski.
Along with allowing the bandmates to explore their shared affinity for classic funk, the addition of the horn section served to place Waiting On Mongo within a S.O.A.P./ Jersey Shore tradition that manifested itself most memorably in the original Asbury Jukes, The Shots, and various lineups led by the Boss, Little Steven, and La Bamba.
“We’re definitely influenced by that Jersey sound,” says McCarthy, citing the “amazing classic sounds” he experienced when he took in the recent concert by Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul at Asbury Park’s Paramount Theatre. “I hope we come off as a Jersey-sounding band.”
That same landmark building of the Asbury waterfront was the setting for one of the band’s most unusual and memorable gigs, when they took part in a Halloween-season “Convention Hell” program that found them paying homage to one of their greatest mutual influences, James Brown and his Famous Flames.
“We were nervous as hell before that show, especially since some people were saying we had no right to be playing James Brown’s music,” the bassist says of the set that can be streamed in its audio-file entirety on the band’s website, http://www.mongo.band. “We were just trying to have some fun, play some funky music…and after rehearsing four or five times before the show, I think we did a great job.”
Along with a well-earned reputation as an ace showband came appearances on the stages of many of the city’s premier clubs, from scene staples like The Stone Pony, The Saint, and the Wonder Bar (where they’ve racked up three sellout shows), to new/ renewed venues like House of Independents and Asbury Lanes. There have been open-air concerts at parks and plazas and portable stages (“we roasted in the sun for hours in Spring Lake, but it was worth it”), and even the odd gig in NYC and Philly.
As occasional roving ambassadors of that celebrated Jersey sound, the men from Mongo have taken their show on the road from the Phish-y stronghold of Burlington, VT (where they’ll be doing an entire week at the end of August), to the New Orleans Jazz Festival, from which they worked their way back home with gigs in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
Mentioning that “we’ve played in some weird, tiny places,” T.J. cites one of those New Orleans shows, in which the bigger-than-average band found themselves “jammed up against a wall, with no room to move around…Mongo had to play on his knees, but we made it happen, all in pursuit of the dream.”
An increasingly crucial component of that dream is the band’s own original material, some of which can be heard on the appropriately named EP release Just a Taste — while other newer songs have been workshopped and fine-tuned in the live-show laboratory over the course of the past few years. Noting that “our guitarist has been bringing us a lot of new songs,” McCarthy reveals that a full length album of originals, the band’s first, is currently being recorded for release in 2020, although “we might release some live stuff first.”
The coming of Memorial Day Weekend offers up a “No Waiting” triple opportunity to catch the Mongo machine in action, beginning Friday night with their first of several appearances this season at the Avon mainstay The Columns. Taking it up to Asbury town, Saturday sees them returning to Langosta Lounge for a set that floats its first note at 9:30 pm — while the noon hour of Memorial Day Monday finds the band entertaining poolside, at The Asbury Hotel. Check the band’s website for more upcoming schedulings, including a June 19 debut with the Sandy Hook Beach Concerts series, and a Fourth of July fracas as featured attraction for that evening’s Jams on the Sand After-Party at the Wonder Bar.
“Asbury is just this great little hub for musicians…it feels really good to be a part of this growing community,” says McCarthy. “It’s special to us that we’re local kids…and our friends, our families, and our fans make it into a reunion each time we play.”