Words by: Eric Podolsky
Royal Family Ball :: 05.14.11 :: The Fillmore :: San Francisco, CA
When the Supergroup Funk Ensemble known as Lettuce reunited back in early 2008 (they originally formed while attending college at Berklee), they exploded onto the scene with insanely tight grooves and an entire album's worth of excellent, all-new material. Their furious shows quickly established them as one of the best live funk acts on the planet, and though Lettuce performances have since been sporadic due to the band members' various other projects, these guys (collectively known as the Royal Family) still get together a number of times a year for what amounts to a guaranteed throwdown extravaganza. Lately, they have been bringing their other bands together on the same bill to throw epic parties, and there is no question that this Fillmore show was an event in every sense of the word, as four-plus hours of music will certainly attest.
To begin this three-act night, Adam Deitch and his Break Science project started us off with a big set of hip-hop electronica. This consisted of Deitch flexing his skills, drumming along with DJ Borahm Lee's bass-heavy street-beats. It proved to be a good warm-up for the night, but was far removed from the jazz-funk to come later, to the point that the bombastic hip-hop beats were lost on much of the crowd.
Round two brought Soulive onstage, which saw guitarist Eric Krasno take the reins in a hard-hitting set that rocked harder than the Soulive of years past. Krasno's slinky lines led brothers Neal and Alan Evans in a telepathic display of musical communication that explored musical avenues which were a far cry from the straighter jazz-funk that this band used to dish out. Krasno's furious, fuzzed-out solos dominated the mix, while Alan's drumming set the band's dynamics – from balls-out rock to bluesy, down-low breakdowns, this band has evolved into a heavy power trio. Neal took surprisingly few solos, instead holding down the music with his left-hand keyboard basslines and organ comps.
|Soulive by Rob Chapman|
As is the standard for Soulive these days, the heart of the set featured an epic Beatles medley of “Come Together/ Something/ Eleanor Rigby/ I Want You (She's So Heavy).” The crowd sing-along was surpassed by Krasno's gorgeous phrasing of the verses of “Something” and a furious, driving take on “Eleanor Rigby” that featured Alan’s stellar skin work. This all peaked out in the burning, Hendrixian buildup of “She's So Heavy” that proved to be the highlight of the set. Krasno then brought things down with a warm, bluesy cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan's ballad “Lenny,” a surprising choice that slow-burned its way to a truly rocking climax. With the rock seemingly out of their systems, Soulive brought out the Lettuce horns to groove up their closer and ease our transition into the dirty funk which awaited us.
After a short break, all eight members of Lettuce took the stage and slinked into a patient groove. From the start, it was noticeable that the band was allowing the music to breathe more than in years past. Leaving more space in-between their notes, their playing sounded more open than ever – rhythmically stretching and playing with the music like putty, new life was brought to old songs. Notably absent from the lineup were saxman Sam Kininger and vocalist Nigel Hall, who's contributions are usually a huge part of the band's sound. These absences, especially Hall's, seemed to change the band dynamics, which left the band with no vocals and forced them to rely more on chops and rhythmic interplay. The horn section also played a noticeably smaller role this time around, with only a few sax solos and one trumpet solo to go around all night.
|Adam Deitch by Dave Vann|
But no matter, the core of the group held it down with power and precision. The music's foundation was kept rock-solid by rhythm guitarist Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff , bassist Erick Coomes and Deitch, who was given ample space to stretch out, pushing and pulling the rhythm into uncharted territory with his infectious street-beats. Deitch is simply a beast on drums, and his fluid detours led the band into all sorts of exotic rhythms, which were picked up on effortlessly by Coomes and the rest, making for a shape-shifting musical experience. Krasno once again shone brightly, weaving his way through the notably open-ended rhythmic textures in a virtuoso display that never got tired.
In one memorable sequence, the band morphed from a Neal Evans-led modulator slow jam into an Afrobeat groove into heavy, Zep-like riffage, eventually landing in some dirty Smirnoff-led Prince-funk. Especially notable was the projection screen behind the band, which provided surreal, psychedelic visuals to compliment the music – old cartoons, the Marx Brothers, Jim Woodring comics, Fritz the Cat and Chevy Chase all bopped around in time to the shifting grooves. It all melded together into one long dance party, and by the time the band left the stage it was 1:30 am.
|Lettuce by Dino Perrucci|
It's always interesting to watch a band evolve and transform over time. This show saw a group in transition, taking old material and exploring new spaces with it. While Lettuce was once a taught, precise funk powerhouse, their newfound open-ended approach has brought a whole lot more jazz to their funk. There's no denying that this is still the one of the best party bands in the land, leaving audiences sore and stinky from dancing. And with this many virtuosos on one stage, there's really no going wrong, as their collective chops and chemistry will leave your jaw on the floor more often than not. Here's hoping these guys keep Lettuce as a priority in their busy schedules, as we're lucky enough that this much talent is playing together at all.
JamBase | Royal Court
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