Soulive must be one of the most appropriately named bands of all time. This young, outrageously talented NYC trio explodes with saucy chops that sound as if they've been marinating for decades in a greasy gumbo of bluesy jazz and funky old soul. Their roots are deep, but their sound blossoms with a feeling entirely their own. Tangible, well-studied influences--the buoyant groove of Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery, the jaw-dropping virtuosity of MMW, the smoky blues of Stevie Ray Vaughn, the sunshine soul of the Meters, the unforgettable song craft of Duke Ellington--all converge effortlessly as Soulive gives a nod to the originators while blazing a path into undiscovered originality and innovation.

Photo by Ted Silverman
Last Thursday at the Great American Music Hall, in their first headlining spot in San Francisco, Soulive added a concentrated dose of raw soul into a jam scene often characterized more by wits than emotion. Whereas so much exploratory, elaborate guitar work tickles the booty by way of the brain, Eric Krasno's buttery, hollow-bodied sound massages the soul and warms up the butt in the process. Watching him sing every note he strummed, his gaze fixed on the apparent emptiness just above the crowd, made sense the instant he plugged into a Vocoder and scat-sang through his guitar. Neal Evans' Hammond B-3 exuded all the righteous glory of a Sunday morning service. Bouncing and ducking on his stool as if he was actually pumping out soul from his feet, Neal added soaring, sustained wails above his brother's rhythms and blended rich harmonized solos to match Krasno's voluptuous tone. Swinging like a heavyweight fighting for the title, Alan Evans punched and jabbed behind his drum kit, knocking out locomotive beats while holding down the precision timing of a Swiss clock. At full force, these three players forge one solid, spirited sound that moves like the open highway beneath a cross-country convertible Cadillac.

The band got things started with "Steppin'", which proved right away that the band knows exactly when to keep it cool and when to turn up the heat. Allowing the groove to simmer, slowly building up pressure, one notch at a time, the boys eventually boiled over and scalded the helpless audience with white-hot soul. This was my first-ever impression of live Soulive, and already my expectations were shattered. A warm sunshine groove, heavy on the bliss, yet dark velvety smooth, with some hip hop soul funk jazz un-fusion... After one ten-minute jam, the room was already oozing with groovy juices and the crowd was ignited, poised to blast off.

"Y'all ready for some soul tonight?" Alan asked the crowd, and we were more than ready, we were already swimming it. "Shaheed" was the next highlight of the first set, a syncopated funk run named after one of hip hop's most musical beatsmiths, Ali Shaheed Mohammed of A Tribe Called Quest. Combining a neck-snapping hip-hop beat with an infectious lyrical melody, this tune has all the makings of a classic-to-be, perhaps one of the first new jazz standards for our time.

Photo by Ted Silverman
During the fourth song the band brought out tenorman Sam Kinninger, a regular guest on the east coast who's also featured on the band's studio albums. Sam on sax added relaxed, colorful undertones and breathy ambiance to Neal and Eric's melodic harmonies. One of the advantages of the threepiece is the ease of adding a fourth element into the mix, creating a sound never too far from the original, but always a little more dense. Kinninger's subtle harmonies added a fourth layer to a major groove only three deep, yet the crowd was up over its ears in soul. This was a diverse, rock 'n' roll crowd going buck-wild for a jazz band, pumping fists, twirling around, and shouting call and response chants to the music.

The first set closed with a major opus that started as one of the band's signature pieces, "Doin' Somethin'," a sweaty, gritty groove that blended into Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon" on a jazzy tangent before heading back to the fireworks finish of "Doin' Somethin'." I caught the distinct Herbie vibe, and was reminded also of Sly Stone and James Brown, refined and concentrated, a concoction made more powerful by youthful energy.

The crowd was shaking with anticipation as the second set began with the slow opening groove of the Stevie Wonder tune "Jesus Children." It didn't take long before the song erupted into heart wrenching heights and brought the crowd to a frenzy. An acapella Vocoder solo by Krasno, Alan Evans' seismic drum solo, and Evan's raga-dub keys all carried the jam way out, but by the end they had regrouped and brought the house down with this incredibly moving piece.

Which only lead to more soulful expressions, including a funked-up cover of the Isley Brother's soul-funk anthem "It's Your Thing," with Kininger brought back to lay some wailing sax over Evan's churning Hammond. When the band closed the set and walked offstage, they were followed by one of the loudest roars of appreciation that I've ever heard at the Great American. No way were we going to let them go without a final goodbye.

After a fiery rendition of "Turn it Out," which included an understated tease of Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile," their final encore song began achingly slow and tender. This was the Stevie Ray Vaughn tune "Lenny," a very interesting choice to close such an eclectic show. It's a song that emphasizes each of the player's strong points, and, moving from a mellow, bluesy beginning to a ferocious finale, allows for a vibrant display of their range and diversity.

Soulive's sound is what jazz truly stands for--milking the pure musical essence from every moment as it happens, while simultaneously recognizing the historic importance of every moment of music that came before. Timing is everything, musically and historically, and these guys position themselves in the right place and the right time in both contexts. It's Soulive's innate understanding of the importance of timing that, on any given night, makes attainable even that Holy Grail of jazz: the perfect groove, elusive, short-lived, never caught but always chased. You know it when you hear it.

Jonathan Zwickel
JamBase San Francisco Correspondent
Go See Live Music!

Photo by Ted Silverman
[Published on: 5/22/01]

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