The Art of the Sit-In | Alan Evans
Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Tom Hamilton, Rob Barraco, Eric Krasno, John Kadlecik and others.
Esteemed taper Scott Bernstein recently described Alan Evans’ Playonbrother to “P-Funk+Zappa+Cream.” He’s certainly not the only one to notice that despite having the same instrumentation as Evans’ better-known jazz-funk band, Playonbrother has carved out an identity as much more than just a side project for a member of Soulive.
Evans launched the Alan Evans Trio about two years ago, and over the past year especially, Evans, guitarist Danny Mayer and keyboardist Beau Sasser moved less toward Soulive-familiar instrumental soul-jazz into a gripping, groovy rock band painting with a different palette.
Earlier this summer, Evans announced Sasser’s departure, and into his stead came Kris Yunker, a longtime bandmate of Mayer’s from the On the Spot Trio.
JamBase caught up with Evans in the midst of Playonbrother’s extensive summer tour to talk about what’s ahead for Playonbrother and also for Soulive.
JAMBASE: You’ve played a few dates so far with Kris Yunker now in the keyboard spot. How’s the chemistry?
ALAN EVANS: It’s absolutely incredible, man. I’ve known Kris as long as I’ve known Danny – I produced On the Spot Trio albums for them back in the day. Their first album was actually done at my old recording studio in Massachusetts, and the second album we did in California. When I was out there for that, we were recording but they had shows, too, and I did some touring with them for a long weekend, playing rhythm guitar and also drums on some tunes.
So yeah I’ve played with Kris before, and Danny’s played with Kris for almost 10 years, so I felt like when we got together, it felt like we didn’t miss a beat. And that’s no disrespect to Beau – he’s a phenomenal player. But playing with Kris is literally the first time I think I’ve played with someone other than Neal that can get to a level of magic. Neal is a freak of nature, and you don’t meet too many players that can communicate with the drummer like that. Kris is like that.
JAMBASE: Earlier on when you launched the Alan Evans Trio, did you catch a lot of flak for it being the same instrumentation as Soulive? I think anyone who’s seen or heard Playonbrother recently would know it has its own identity, but on paper it does look similar.
AE: Yeah, yeah. It’s been difficult a bit because some people, yeah, they see it and they just assume it’s like another version of Soulive. But I would describe it as being like playing basketball. You have a team; you have five players on a court. Everyone on that team understands the game – there’s a language to basketball, a way to communicate. And when one player or a couple of players leave that team, well, you’re still playing basketball and it’s still five people who can speak the language, but the communication of that team will be a little different.
So yeah it’s a quote-unquote organ trio, but there’s a certain way to communicate that makes these different bands. Each person’s personality has a lot to do with the sound of that – of course it’s going to be different. Something funny I’ve noticed is that people don’t usually bug that much on someone trying a different band if it’s a four-piece or a bigger band. For some reason, an organ trio gets that a lot more – maybe it’s just that people are used to it and assume it’s going to be a Soulive type of thing. But it’s different for sure. I sing, we get out there – I mean, this is a rock band.
JAMBASE: How did this band become a priority for you? It’s been a long time since you were so invested in another band like you are Soulive.
AE: I never had any intention of starting a band, honestly. Soulive – we’re as busy as we want to be, and I also am in my recording studio quite a bit. This just kind of came to me. But Soulive, we’ve been together for more than 15 years, and like any band that’s been together that long, we all had other things we wanted to try. I write a lot of music, and as I went over some of it, it didn’t fit the Soulive mode. I also really love being on the road. I love to tour. It’s what I’ve always done and what I love doing. I found a fit for my songs and an opportunity to tour with Playonbrother.
JAMBASE: But did you actively seek out Danny and Beau with a band in mind?
AE: Not quite. Beau hosts these Wednesday funk nights in Northampton, MA, and it’s a rotating cast of players, so whenever I was in town, he’d say hey man, come on and play. That’s where that part started. And then when I was out in California recording the On the Spot album, it happened that Danny was also playing with another band and their drummer happened to be away during three week I was there. I filled in, and that’s when I really got a chance to play with Danny. As these things were both happening, I began to think I could get these two guys together with me and play some music.
The first tunes we did – and this is why I can’t really blame anyone for thinking it might be like another version of Soulive – were tunes I had written with Soulive in mind. Drop Hop, that first album, you could hear a lot of those tunes and where Soulive might have gone with them. It’s just what felt good at the time. But two years later it’s definitely a whole different thing. With Kris in the band, it’s definitely getting some momentum.
JAMBASE: I understand you’ve started a Kickstarter campaign to support the next album. Talk about this batch of music.
AE: This is a Playonbrother album. Some songs I wrote years ago, and some are new and starting from a new place. I write all the time, and whenever a song comes to me, I don’t necessarily think about where it’s going to end up. So I had a little batch of tunes I’d been sitting on for years that just didn’t fit anywhere, and all of a sudden, now they fit somewhere.
The webcast we did [on July 14] will be a nice preview of what’s to come, and we’re going to release that recording as a little EP, too. I’m really excited about it.
JAMBASE: Is it easy for you to focus on singing, too? Obviously not something you do a lot of with Soulive.
AE: Yeah, it is. Going back to Moon Boot Lover, that was a vocal group. All of us sang and Pete [Prince] wrote great songs, and still does write great songs. When we started Soulive, I was into different things, and we’ve been lucky enough in Soulive where, for whatever reason, we’re an instrumental band and we still connect with people.
It’s easy to connect as a player with other musicians, but there’s just something about the voice that lets you connect with an audience. And it’s not all about that – although obviously we’re looking to build an audience – but singing and doing more of that is where I’m at now and I want to make myself happy.
JAMBASE: I’m sure there’s a balancing act there: carving out this band’s unique identity but also acknowledging that your best-known association is with Soulive and that that certainly plays a role in whether people show up.
AE: Yeah, you know, when I first started AE3, people were into it, and a lot of promoters were pushing it hard and all that. Now, maybe a few weeks ago, we did a little weekend run – our very last weekend run with Beau – and it was cool, it was like 50 to 60 people out at the shows. I don’t bag on the attendance. Whoever comes to see the show deserves a great show.
But one of the nights after we finished that run of shows in Albany, we did a Soulive show in Rochester at the Rochester Jazz Festival, and there were probably 15,000 people there. So you do think about it, and I think that a lot of people might have assumed that the Soulive crowd would just automatically come to see me and might have been surprised when it didn’t. The name helps me out, but my point is that Playonbrother is a new band. It’s coming up like a new band comes up.
That’s how I had my “f it” moment: hey man, I’m not trying to cater to people, I want to have a lot of fun, and I’m going to do what feels good. It’s a very freeing feeling when you finally get to that, and also know I’m happy with where things are with Soulive. Playonbrother isn’t a side project – it’s a band. If you were to look at the dates we have booked with Playonbrother and Soulive, you’d think Soulive was the side project. This is definitely a full-time thing.
JAMBASE: You mentioned that Soulive is as busy as you guys want to be. It’s not a ton of gigs anymore but you seem to have arrived at this stage of Soulive organically and everyone is happy with the balance.
AE: Neal, Kraz and myself are very lucky. We put a lot of time into Soulive. We’re lucky people still want to come see us and that we don’t have to road dog it. When we come back to do Soulive shows, we bring different things and experiences to the band. But you know the thing with us? You probably have certain friends you may not talk to for seven years, but once you see them, it’s like you’d just hung out with them the day before.
We don’t gig a lot anymore, but when we do, it’s Soulive. The three of us are happy with life. When we get together, we have a great time, talking, hanging out, and there’s no pressure from our agent or anyone. We do exactly what we want to do. To me there’s not a lot worse than paying to see a band whose [members] can’t stand each other. You can tell from the audience, and it affects the music and the whole vibe. You can be happy and you can do it when you want to do it. That’s why I’m surprised when people come up to me and they’re like, “Are you still in Soulive?” It’s like, “Of course I’m still in Soulive!”
JAMBASE: What were your impressions of this year’s Bowlive run? Did you have a favorite night?
AE: It was definitely my favorite Bowlive yet, and each night, at the end of the night, we all sat around and we were like, whoa, how are we going to top that. And then the next night, it would happen.
It’s really hard to pick a favorite because each show is so different. We had Susan [Tedeschi] with us one night, and then the next night DMC. It really doesn’t get much different than that. You know Danny came down one night and it was cool to hear his description of the band. He was all, man, you know, it’s just a vibe in the room – this energy. You know it’s something special when we can pull off eight nights and 10 shows – we do the two kids shows on Saturday now – but every year we’ve asked, are people really still going to come? People keep coming.
JAMBASE: So there will definitely be a Bowlive 6?
AE: Oh yeah, without a doubt. The one thing that comes up every year is how are we going to top it. I don’t know how we’re going to top this year but we have every intention of trying.
JAMBASE: How do you prioritize Bowlive guests, especially balancing people who have played with you before that you know are going to fit well, and people who are new to Bowlive?
AE: Most of the Bowlive guests are friends of ours. But this was, for example, our first time meeting DMC. That happens every year with somebody. Pete Shapiro and a bunch of others will also make suggestions, and they’re all like, go get so-and-so! That’s one grea thing about Pete: he’ll com eup with some crazy idea, but he’s got vision – it works.
Overall, it’s a little easier to get people now because more people know what Bowlive is now. And it’s also the kind of thing where word of mouth happens and people hear about what happened one night and have to come on the night after just to see what’s going to go down.
JAMBASE: Right, you announce certain guests to get people excited, but there are always different things that happen. Warren Haynes has sat in I think every Bowlive, for example, but he’s never been announced as a guest ahead of time.
AE: True, and a lot of times that’s a business thing, too – he’s usually playing at the Beacon and for contract reasons we just can’t say anything. But we do talk with a lot of people who say they’ll try to make it down and sometimes it works out.
Last year, Oteil and Kofi showed up really late and we ended up doing three sets that night. We were actually done for the night. They had told us earlier in the day they were going to come, and we’re getting toward the end of the night and we say, OK, they’re just not going to make it. We get off the stage, and we’re hanging out, and right when we’re just done, they walk in. And we’re sitting there and we’re tired, but it’s like, they came all this way, you know?
The crowd for that third set had thinned out a bunch – people thought the night was over. But the people who stayed got something really special. Bowlive is physically taxing for us, and toward the end of the run we’re totally exhausted. But when guys like Oteil and Kofi show up we’re at first like, “all right, here we go, up we go,” and then as soon as we get on stage the magic happens. That night I heard Oteil and Kofi play stuff I’d never heard from either of them – I mean, they were exhausted too – and the same from Neal. It was just incredible, all of us.
JAMBASE: Who is at the top of your Bowlive guest wish list? Someone who hasn’t been there before.
AE: It would have to be Prince. I mean some years there have been rumors that Prince might stop by the Brooklyn Bowl and it didn’t happen. Prince is on another level.
There’s this video cruising around Facebook about Purple Rain, the original concert footage – it’ll take you two seconds to find it online. What I didn’t know, and I think a lot of people didn’t know, is that the original recording of Purple Rain was recorded live. Prince put some overdubs and edited it later, but that blows your mind – to think that he didn’t spend months and months slaving over every detail of such an iconic song and that he just went in and edited a few things and that’s how it got done.
You know Soulive was supposed to play one of his parties one year. He had asked us to be the band, and that ended up being like the only year the party had to be cancelled.
JAMBASE: Oh man!
AE: Exactly, that was such a bummer. But to go back to the question, to be able to play with someone on that level – it would be incredible. We’ve done it before in Soulive where we’ve cold-called people to come play with us, and generally that doesn’t work out too well. You always prefer it to happen organically, because there’s mutual respect. But I don’t know. Prince is one person I’d love to have there. That would be insane.
JAMBASE: I often close this column by asking for a good sit-in story, either by you in another band or someone in one of your bands. You already gave me the Oteil and Kofi story but any others, especially recently?
AE: Sure. At the Soulive Rochester Jazz Fest show, the London Souls came up and played with us. Chris [St. Hilaire] got up on drums and I sang “Them Changes,” and Stu Mahan was playing bass. It was crazy. We’ve done that before with them, we did New Year’s with the Souls in Boston, and also did London Soulive at the Bowl. But they played right before us in Rochester at this place down the street so we brought them over, and it was great.
I always love playing with those cats. We always toy with the idea of doing that with them a little bit more. That would be pretty awesome.
Here are five recent performances well worth your listening hours that highlight Alan Evans in a few different contexts.
A little too short and to-the-point to get the full effect, but a nice, concise example of the earlier Alan Evans Trio bridging what it sounded like when it started with what it sounds like today. Trombonist and longtime pal Brian Thomas, who plays with Sasser in Akashic Record, and ace Boston jazz sax player Mike Tucker join the trio throughout its opening half hour.
An adult dose of the band soon to be renamed Playonbrother demonstrating more confidence and deeper command of its strengths than even a few months earlier. The second set, especially the sequence of “Nothing to Say” into “Easy Meat” and “Who Dare Knock” and the “Sunshine of Your Love” encore, has a nice pulse.
Picking just one night from this year’s crop of Bowlive shows is no easy task, but we’re partial to this show’s eclectic mix: core Soulive, doing what they do so well, Soulive with horns, ripping as always, Soulive with Nigel Hall and all the rich soul-jazz that entails, and then Soulive with A-game guests, including the incomparable George Porter Jr., the furious Mr. Warren Haynes, and first-time Bowlive guest Nicki Bluhm. Evans is a typically inspiring presence throughout.
This set hasn’t gotten much attention next to some higher-profile sit-ins and shows, but this was one of the strongest sets of this year’s Wanee Festival, not least because it keys in on the core Soulive trio rampaging through classics like “El Ron,” “Hat Trick” and “Flurries” with injections of Beatles and Hendrix to boot.
Playonbrother, Evergroove Studios, Evergreen, CO, 7/14/2014
The trio’s recent show at Evergroove Studios in the Rocky Mountains, captured in a live stream and archived on video here, is the sound of the band now: mutant funk-rock with a much edgier feel than the early days of the Alan Evans Trio. It’s an especially good example of Playonbrother with new keys man Kris Yunker, who as of this show was only four gigs into his tenure with the band. Purchase a recording of the set here.