Ah, the trio. The most unique of musical ensembles where every member is required to provide as much music as the next. When it is done well, there is no greater a sight than three musicians locked in tight, creating more sound than just three men could seemingly ever make. Such is the case with Soulive. Except after last night I have begun less to think less of them as a trio of people (very well-dressed people) and more as a machine comprised of each individual limb.

First off, there are the two hands of Eric Krasno. The man in the middle on the guitar, wailing away with hints of Grant Green and Leo Nocentelli in his ultra-groovy licks. To the left is Alan Evans, the man, the drummer, but more importantly 4 limbs of rhythmic power. Providing both fills and backbone simultaneously; cymbals constantly rocking with percussive splashing. And rounding out the last four appendages of the Soulive production line are the hands of Neal Evans to the right. With his split Hammond organ his one hand works the bass lines, creating a heavy low end of skilful runs and unbelievable interplay. His other hand, seemingly independent from the other in a Dr. Jeckyl/Mr Hyde relationship, spins the organ with high energy and brilliance - allowing the unknowing passerby to naively call Soulive - just another organ trio.

Friday night Irving Plaza was filled up to four walls, squeezed in with one of the more diverse concert audiences I've ever been a part of - ethnicity, age, style were all well represented. And each of these points in the spectrum of the Soulive audience were well addressed throughout the show. Because this band, in reality, is much more than just another organ trio, it has created something special, and the audience packed it in for the second night of Soulive at home in New York City.

From the get go the band was on fire, each man, each limb, locked into heavy groove. On the face of it, these guys are playing some nasty, tasty grooves. There was plenty of the stuff to go around last night - fuelled by Evans #1's funky, powerful beats and Evans #2's chunky bass lines - you could almost swear that it HAD to be fingers-hitting-strings to get the Fender Bass sounds that he gets. This dance music was prevalent at the beginning of the show. Playing songs off their two major releases - Turn It Out and the recent Doin' Something, Soulive had little trouble working the crowd into a dancing frenzy.

In some ways, the music is formulaic. The beat and melody line of the song was established, Krasno would solo to brimming climax, the band would regroup and then Evans would solo to churning explosion. But underneath this simplicity, there was extremely subtle and ingenious activity afoot. The cross talk between the three men is astoundingly tight. During Krasno's sizzling solos, Evans low end hand bounced lines off him like a bassist would, reacting and prodding the solo with bass fills. Meanwhile his other hand would chop rhythm in accordance with his brother's crashing and flailing on the kit. All the while, the drumming is holding steady with Krasno's changes. It is an Escher-esque conundrum for the audience - an ant crawling on the twisted, musical Mobius strip.

As the set progressed, Soulive showed why "organ trio" is just the surface of their entity. The band has taken the egg of that format and cracked it open, letting the gooey insides drip on the hot stove of today's urban and live music - funk, hip hop, soul, techno, jam. "Steppin" is one example. Beginning with an evil, organ-heavy riff, the song betrays the groove-jazz formula with it's hip hop rhythms and engulfing bass envelope.

Eric Krasno took his turn in this one brilliantly - providing concurrent rhythm and lead licks; fingers and face contorted but the music clean and sharp, focussed and deliberate. Here he takes the staccato groove guitar ancestry and gives it a wailing, jamming mentality until scintillating climax. As he seemed to do all night, Neal Evans one-upped his guitar counterpart with pure energy. Where Kras' resultant music was clean and "nice," Neal's whirling organ solo was dirty swabs of broad chords of sound. He bounced in his chair as if, had he more limbs to play with, he wanted to provide the pounding drum work on his own. And as he built his solo up it seemed that not only would he pop right out of his seat, but the bopping crowd would pop right out of their skulls - yelping with delight. Krasno warmed them up and Evans put them over the edge.

The first set ended with the "Soulive horns" - Jacquez Schwarz- Bart (tenor sax), Sam Kininger (alto sax) and a guy on trombone (sorry - no name) - coming out on stage as well as Stephanie McKay. Here the band let it's R&B side shine through as McKay lead them through "Romantic" as the same enlargened ensemble does on the new album. Soulive showed itself to be quite adept as a backing band, as McKay's gorgeously powerful vocals rode smoothly on the magic carpet of soul provided by the trio. The horns seemed completely superfluous on stage, playing possibly 5 notes maximum as the song ended. But, not to fret, the horn section would return for the entire second set.

With the horns on stage, the second set took on a larger, more powerful feel to it. There were solos all around and well-placed horn arrangements to augment the already rock-solid triad. "Cannonball" had to be the highlight of the set, and possibly the night. Now a full sextet, the band lost none of the tightness attained during the first set. What was already an all out funk-filled assault became twice as deadly with brilliant horn work. "Cannonball" combined the Soulive sound with a funky, James Brown-style horn section. The cover of "It's Your Thing" was another opportunity for the band and horn section to combine forces in a groovalicious union.

But, once again, the band did not allow itself to get stagnant in the formulaic. Talib Kweli came out and as it had done for Stephanie McKay, the band transformed into a back-up band. Now, instead of the soul/R&B, it was the hip hip/rap realm that Soulive would take on. Heavy in the drums and bass with Krasno almost scratching with his guitar the band showed that is could be the star pitcher, the clean-up batter as well as the utility infielder if necessary. Kweli laid down some great rapping on top of the band, somehow lifting the energy of the room even higher. He got the audience involved with your typical rapper call-and-response, but in a wonderfully inviting manner. In some ways, the shift in the flow of the set was abrupt, but it was just the kind of divergence the show seemed to need at that point.

Soul, rap, groove, funk, hip hop... the diverse crowd was getting treated to a diverse repertoire. Although, unlike many of the other "jam bands" who seem to be all over the place in genre and style, Soulive managed to keep it all within the context of the sound they are and have been creating. At first I had doubts about their quantum leaps in venue size - the last three times I have seen them they have gone from the embryonic stage of the Wetlands, to the early childhood of the Bowery Ballroom, to the teenager realm of Irving Plaza, all in a little over a year and a half. But each of these times the band has rose to the challenge and left me and the rest of the audience giddy with possibilities. I anxiously await reports from their performances in stadiums and arenas opening for Dave Matthews.

As the set wound down, the band continued to surprise with their versatility. "One In Seven" was another stand-out showing yet another facet to this band. While holding their feet firmly in the grooving they know best, the band extended itself into a realm of house music. The song is not necessarily techno, but there is an unmistakable trance vibe that works really well in this context. The organ and guitar lay ambient layers on top of each other, augmenting the rhythm more than anything. All the while, remaining at high enough energy to not disrupt the flow of the set.

After what seemed like too short of a set and show, the band returned on stage for the encore of "So Live" and said goodbye to their New York faithful with some of the quintessential, raging, grooving Soulive they have come to love. With each limb holding the beat and the melody simultaneously - who knows where they'll take them.

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture" - FZ

Aaron Stein
JamBase NYC Correspondent
Go See Live Music!

[Published on: 4/23/01]

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