So it's Saturday night September 8th, I’m tired, I really don’t want to drive the three hours plus up to L.A. but the words of my friends from back east keep ringing in my head: “You’re a complete idiot if you don’t go see these guys.” Now I know my boys don’t mess around when it comes to music, and I’ve listened to Soulive’s CDs. It’s obvious that they’re great and I’m sure it would be fun, but this is where I must back up. These guys aren’t just another talented funky jazz trio, and it’s not just “fun”, and in retrospect, they would be well worth the nine-hour drive up to San Francisco let alone the little jaunt up to Los Angeles.
I suppose I should have realized this simply by the fact that Blue Note signed them this past year. I mean Blue Note, they’re not exactly running around signing every band that can carry a groove. This is Blue Note, and if your not checking out what they have on tap, then like my friends from Boston said, “you’re an idiot.”
I arrive at the Temple Bar in Santa Monica, and instantly am aware that this is going to be a hot place to see a show. The dark lighting, deep red crushed velvet back drop, huge portrait paintings, and black and white photos of legendary artists like Jimi, Marvin Gaye, and Marley, create an old jazz club feel, something you might find in New York City perhaps. The crowd is diverse, yet almost what you’d expect on a good night in L.A.. The club fills in quickly, so that by the time the opening band, KUDU takes the stage it’s tough to walk around without grinding your way through small puddles of people.
KUDU was more or less interesting, with dueling keyboards, a drummer and a woman on vocals. The highlight of this band is undoubtedly the furiously fast, offbeat, drumming. Everything else is pretty good, nothing to get too excited about, but the drummer was slamming. The vocals, and melodic patterns became a bit repetitive, but there appears to be room to grow.
As the DJ continued to spin a great selection of rare grooves, and Hammond oriented tracks, the Temple bar continued to swell with anticipation, as the dance floor became a sardine can.
Soulive consists of 26 year old drummer Alan Evans, who helped found Moon Boot Lover, and hit the skins for both the Greyboy AllStars, and Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, with 25 year old brother Neal Evans, (also of Moon Boot Lover) on the Hammond B-3, Wurlitzer, and piano. The band is rounded off by 24 year-old guitarist, Eric Krasno.
The three men took the stage around 11:30 and wasted no time. Instantly it became apparent why Blue Note picked these guys up. They are extremely professional, from their stage presence straight through the range of music they produce. By the second song Krasno had hooked into his voice modulator and was cranking on his guitar while twisting it with his voice, and sending my mind into a whirlwind.
For a band that is so young, and has only been together for about two years, it seems impossible for them to be THIS tight. Not only are they tight, all three of them play so hard I thought they were going to literally break their instruments. The music is amazing, obviously well schooled in the jazz masters such as Jimmy Smith, George Benson, Scofield, and Grant Green, they hold onto the necessary elements of these, yet manage to break away and create an entirely unique sound. A sound with obvious hip-hop influences, thanks in great part to the slick drum work of Alan, who not only holds it all together, but helps push the limits as well. That seems to be one of the undeniable features of Soulive, the ability to move around one another, trading leads for melodies, working as if they have one brain for the three of them. For instance you might find Krasno playing lead on his guitar, while Neal has both the melody AND the bass line on his keys, but in the blink of an eye, they have traded, Krasno now has the rhythm on his hollow body, while Neal is hitting notes on the Hammond. Again, they are so tight, it blows the mind.
As they continued to throw down deep, raw-purple, grooves, meandering into some blues progressions, and off the charts into free improvisation they brought out Alto Saxophonist Sam Kininger who appears on their latest album Doin’ Something. Kininger remained for almost the whole set, blending perfectly, adding some Coltrane teases that pleased the sweaty heads for sure. When I saw the sax come on stage I have to admit I was a wee bit hesitant to embrace him. My reasons for this are solely personal. For me, I find that a horn player with a ‘jazz trio’ can often become too predictable. To be honest, that is something I find the overall ‘acid jazz’ movement, (which has obviously lost some speed in the past few years) to be guilty of. It almost always goes the way I expect it to. There is always the fill, the hook, it wraps around, and does what you think it’s going to do. The Sax player blasts out the lead notes, and continues the fairly consistent progression, never really exploring the space. But Soulive is no ordinary band, and Kininger didn’t play the melodic fill roll, he was slapping notes in the little areas that the Hammond left out. He wasn’t taking center stage; he was the icing on the cake. The sax worked, it added wonderful accents to the movement of the evenings’ music.
Throughout the night I became more and more impressed with simply how insanely talented these guys are on their instruments. They poured it on, laying it on thick, leaving heavy dance grooves in their wake. Neal Evans was banging so hard on the Hammond I was waiting for the organ to start bleeding as he bounced in time with the beat, never letting the poor B-3 rest. And Krasno was jumping all over his guitar, smooth as can be at one point, and ripping at his strings while his eyes rolled back in his head the next. The band touched on Stevie Wonder’s track "Destiny’s Child" which was out of control, and proceeded to provide me with probably the best "Chameleon" I have ever witnessed, one that Herbie would have dug himself.
Before the end of the show we were treated to two more special guests, in addition to Kininger on sax. First, one of the keyboard players from KUDU came on stage to add a little extra push on the funk, and then we got a little vocal number from an absolutely beautiful woman who I never caught the name of. She sang an old R&B song appropriately entitled "Romantic." Stephanie McKay sings the track on their latest album, but I am not sure if she’s who was in L.A or not. Regardless this woman had a great voice and gave the crowd a second to chill out and wipe some sweat off the brow.
The entire show was great; I really couldn’t have been more impressed. They played some older songs that I was vaguely familiar with, some new ones like "Liquid" that were great, and sick covers by funk kings Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder. It was so good that I’m almost embarrassed to admit that this was the first time I had seen them.
I guess Soulive’s Blue Note debut, Doin’ Something really couldn’t say it better. These guys are definitely doing something. There are bands that you see from time to time, that when you walk out of the show you can’t stop talking about them. Soulive is one of those bands. They definitely leave an impression, and have certainly earned a huge fan in me. As far as I am concerned when you get signed to Blue Note you have ‘made it.’ But this three piece managed to do that in two years, and as they continue to gather momentum I would place no limits on how far Soulive can fly.
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