MEN IN BLACK | SOULIVE AT THE GREAT AMERICAN

Soulive | 12.12 - 12.13.01 | The Great American Music Hall, SF

It's about three hours before showtime and Soulive is hanging out at the retro-swank Phoenix Hotel in the ungentrified, somewhat sketchy downtown neighborhood known as the TenderNob. Under a typically moist San Francisco mist, I head past the blue tiled pool and upstairs to Room 47. I'm greeted with a grin and a handshake. "Wassup, I'm Sam. Come on in," says Sam Kininger. "We missed most of Greyboy opening last night, so we wanna get over there earlier tonight." Sounds like a plan.

We're a three minute walk from the Great American, so none of us is in a serious hurry to get to the venue. This band is in the business of shaking asses and satisfying souls, and they’re consummate professionals, they know what they're doing. I'm just here to watch them work.

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Soulive makes music that's perfectly proportioned, somehow achingly familiar and fiercely inventive, classic and progressive at the same time. Speaking a musical language composed of equal parts James Brown and Sly Stone, Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery, Stevie Wonder and Stevie Ray, all grounded by hard-hitting hip hop rhythmocentrism, there’s no doubt the newly-reshaped quartet immediately connects with a crowd by quoting the music people love most. That upbeat funk-soul vibe is universal, after all. But once you’re caught up in their locomotive groove, it's the distinctive slang Soulive kick--the passionate solos and subtle fills and unexpected changes in tempo--that hits you deepest and keeps you hanging on every note.

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"It's been official since the summer, when we were opening for Dave Matthews," says Kininger of his newly appointed status as Soulive’s fulltime alto saxman. Sitting on his hotel bed in a black T-shirt and baggy jeans, Kininger unconsciously jogs his fingers over his horn like a high-strung masseuse. "We're more than an organ trio," he continues. "We're serious about creating something new."


photo by dino perrucci
Kininger has run in the same circles as Soulive vets Neal and Alan Evans and Eric Krasno for several years now. Part of a loose collective of East Coast musicians with an elevated sense of soul, he met Krasno four years ago at Boston's Berklee College of Music and began playing with him in the tweak-funk band Lettuce. To hear Sam tell it, the Boston/NYC/Philly music scene was about as incestuous as a redneck family reunion. Bands with warped names like Fatbag and The Squad and Formula and Moon Boot Lover swapped players and gained solid support across the northeast for their imaginative interpretations of funk, soul, hip hop, and everything in between. "Boston was great, lots of great players there, but not as intense as New York," says Kininger.

So he made the move to the Big Snapple. Over the course of the next three years, Krasno and the Evans brothers would crystallize into Soulive, accompanied by Kininger on all three of their albums. Now with the official addition of Kininger on alto, Soulive has advanced to a fuller, more adaptable sound that ebbs and flows like summer surf as Kininger steps in and out of songs. A self-professed "drummer trapped in a sax player’s body," his percussive playing shined brightest at the end of both nights at the Great American. As the fellas walked off stage one by one, Kininger was left standing solo, banging out an inspired, head-bobbing brass avalanche that sent the audience home with a slap on the ass.

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Those shows at The Great America Music Hall proved once again Soulive just might be the permanent bar band in Music Junky Paradise. As in: I could watch this band every night for the rest of my life and never walk away wanting. Less than 30 seconds after the band ripped into its first song, every eye and ear in the joint was fully attuned to the stage. All of us were knee-deep in the instantly profound groove elaborated by the brothers Evans and guitar maestro/soul therapist Krazzmatazz. The warm, gradual intensity of "Steppin'" initiated the righteous, riotous tone both nights. With a syncopated, catchy hook (Bom bdom bom bom [BOM!]), this is a great jazzy tune that introduces the band’s signature style perfectly and gets everyone--from the older, tucked-in jazz purists to the hoodied b-boy freestylers--wrapped up in the groove.

Just like their last show in SF, the band was clearly amped to strut their stuff in front of a West Coast crowd. On Wednesday night the band was wound up, intensified, radiating sweat and dishing out grins. "Are you ready for some FUNK?" demanded Alan from behind the drum kit, giving more of a warning than asking a question. From the JB-styled fast lane bounce of the second song "Uncle Junior" to the relaxed velvet soul of the third "Hurry Up & Wait," Soulive proved their uncanny ability to shift gears and drop from a lightning quick rock star wail to a sultry, laid-back groove. Krasno had his face up to the light all night, playing with a gorgeous lyricism that morphed beautifully in to a surreal vocoder solo during the third number. The enthusiasm the band showed was matched only by their restraint. By the third song, all four guys were up on stage and hitting on all cylinders, each player was so deep in the cut that no room was left for overblown wankery. Freeze frame: Neal's bass humming like electric thunder, Kras' hollow body buttering a satin melody over Sam's understated harmonies, Alan punching away at the kit in a neck-snapping rhythmic ballet. One stellar highlight of the two-night run was the unveiling of a new tune off the band’s upcoming album. Inspired by Alan's one-year-old son, "Kaymani" is one of those lush midtempo compositions that reflects the band's versatility and oozes with warm fuzzy vibes. Simply put, it's some of the deepest, most reassuring music you’ll ever feel good to, and the perfect way to end a set.

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photo by dino perrucci
"You wanna meet the other guys? I gotta get dressed," says Sam. Soulive always looks absolutely GQ-sharp on stage, so it's got to take a little while to dapper up. Sam walks me a few rooms down and introduces me to the posse. Instead of the relaxed give-and-take of my one-on-one convo with Sam, I can tell I'm about to walk into a mildly hectic rock-band hotel room scene. Inside Eric Krasno is sitting on the bed behind a laptop, already decked out in the black-on-black Soulive uni. A couple buddies are kicking back drinking beers and joking around. After a couple minutes Neal Evans makes his entrance, and the banter heats up. I imagined these guys to be--how to say this?--of a more serious nature, more technically and historically minded, kind of like straight-A students at a jazz band camp. Of course they're much more hip, stylish, and down to earth than that. Kraz is busy making beats on his laptop and burning discs for his friends. "It’s a traveling studio, you know," he says. "I've been making lots of beats when we go on the road, for my album." Krasno and Neal both have a solo albums coming out on Velour Records next spring. Both will incorporate some electronic elements and drum programming to achieve a new post-jazz jazz sound.

Now that I'm here, I realize these guys carry their hip hop influences like a banner. "Man, you wouldn’t believe how JZ sounds when he’s got the Roots behind him," Neal says. "I mean, his rhymes are tight but on the album his beats are just kinda weak. But you put ?uestlove on drums and give him a full band, and damn, that shit was off the books." He goes on to rave about Detriot hip hop crew Slum Village and Prince's new album, Krasno spins some new Greyboy on the laptop, and they both give it up to their most unlikely fan. "Dave Matthews, and everyone in the whole organization, was just so cool," says Kraz. "They were really supportive of what we do, they just dug the music. He sings on a track on the new album." [I heard it and believe it or not it worked. Soulive gets the award for Most Versatile Jazz Band.]

Eventually Krasno's brother Jeff and another dude come in, making it a real family affair. More beers are opened, things are smoked, shit is talked. The afterparty is mentioned. I can tell it's time for me to go.

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As always, the cover of Stevie's "Jesus Children of America" was outstanding, with the second night’s version rolling through a slow buildup that exploded from the heart with serious drama. In fact, even with a screaming version of the Isley's classic "It's Your Thing" that blew the second set through the roof, it seemed like the second night was more restrained, more dramatic than the immediate soul inundation of the first night. The band busted into Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon" that second night as well, spacing out the shuffling thump of the original with a few orbits around Planet Dub before bringing it back home for a final blitz.

About halfway through Thursday’s second set, Giant Person Carlos Washington stepped onstage and blew a scorching horn solo that raised the room temperature a few degrees. Soulive made room for Carlos and his strong, earthy style was another vivid color in an already dazzling sonic rainbow. But what really got me off is when Soulive kept it mellow, not full-on blazing hot but midtempo, caught in a state of suspended groove. On tunes like "Uncle Junior" and "Steppin," which we also got both nights, they can stretch the tune out and snap it back like a rubber band, never losing momentum or weight. The midtempo tunes allow for maximum outpouring of soul, sacrificing manic intensity and gee-whiz virtuosity for total unity of mind and heart.

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It's been a long couple nights, absorbing a lot of Soulive's music and a little of their lifestyle, worth all the scrawl in my notebook and every melody I can't flush out of my brain. Like blues and reggae, soul music is technically pretty simple, inherently all about how you play not what you play. That leaves a lot of room for painting by numbers and messing up the big picture. If you're not feeling it--whether it's lowdown dirty blues, the irie heights of reggae, or deep down soul--you can’t play it. By honoring their roots and making a tradition out of innovation, these guys aren't just feeling the soul they play, they're living it, bringing it to the people. It's a tough job, but somebody's gotta do it. When Soulive punches the clock, get ready go to work.

Jonathan Zwickel
JamBase | San Francisco
Go See (Sou)Live Music!

[Published on: 12/27/01]

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