Soulive feat. Karl Denson :: 12.11.10 :: The Independent :: San Francisco, CA
Northeast jazz/funk power trio Soulive joined forces with California Acid Jazz pioneer Karl Denson in San Francisco at the refurbished Independent and the results were predictably pleasing. Touring in support of their recently released album of Beatles covers, Rubber Soulive, the trio has been playing a set sprinkled with favorites from the Fab Four, but San Francisco marked the first stop on the tour that would also feature the considerable talents of Mr. Denson. With tickets being snatched up early for the two sold out shows, it was clear that Bay Area music aficionados were fired up to see what these occasional collaborators would bring to the stage this time around.
The Independent is currently the best small-midsize venue in San Francisco and with the improvements Another Planet made to the club earlier this year, the place now has the looks to match its superior sound, lighting and layout. Thinking back to the days of the Justice League and before that, the Kennel Club, which used to occupy the space, this place has come a long way. From the fantastic lighting of Hunter Pipes, to the all-aces bar staff, right on through to the security and door guys, this is a professional operation. It had been some time since I'd been to a Saturday night show at the Indy, so as 10:00 PM rolled around and found us still imbibing at the Ethiopian dive bar across the street I urged my friends to drink up so we could head to the show.
After navigating through the crowd of ticket-seekers out front, we walked into the club as Soulive was already launching into their second tune of the night. The band is made up of Eric Krasno on guitar and brothers Neal Evans on Hammond B-3 and keys and Alan Evans on drums. Krasno stood in between the two brothers towards the back of the stage playing a sunburst Gibson semi-hollowbody, with Neal on stage left and Alan stage right, all three looking sharp in black jackets and ties. Krasno is one of the finest guitarists currently on the jam band" scene, his playing combining fast, precise runs with a warm, slightly fuzzy tone as well as soulful, string-bending blues, rock 'n' roll pyrotechnics and percussive funk licks. Add to that the volcanic B-3 chops of Neal Evans and the powerfully swinging drums of brother Alan and you've got yourself a bubbling cauldron of jazz-funk stew. These guys love to rage and rage they would.
Knowing that Rubber Soulive had just recently dropped (Soulive's seventh studio album was issued September 14 on the band's own Royal Family Records), I was looking forward to some Beatles covers, but when I made out Krasno playing the first notes of Come Together" I could tell we were in for something special. A jazz act covering The Beatles is nothing new or unheard of. Wes Montgomery covered Eleanor Rigby" way back in 1966, as did Stanley Jordan on his debut Magic Touch album. But with all due respect to Mssrs. Montgomery and Jordan, their tributes were nowhere near as emphatic as those delivered by the boys from Soulive. This empathy was reflected in the songs they chose to play live, including Abbey Road rockers Come Together" and I Want You," as well as Get Back," from Let It Be and Eleanor Rigby," off Revolver, which featured an incendiary mid-song jam by Krasno that brought the crowd to a fever pitch. At one point I found myself playing air bass to one of the signature McCartney lines in I Want You" only to realize that there was no bassist up on stage, only Neal and his insane left hand, dropping bass bombs like no other. It is Neal's ability to play essentially two musicians' parts at once that really ties the whole thing together and makes Soulive such a potent musical force.
The first set was all instrumental, but with the way the crowd was shouting out familiar lines about California grass," and how you, Got to be good looking 'cause he's so hard to see," it certainly didn't lack in enthusiasm or volume, and left us anticipating great things to come.
After a rocking instrumental second set opener that ranged from hard-bop to reggae and back, it was time to introduce The One and Only" Mr. Karl Denson. From the first note, Karl was clearly at ease playing with Soulive, sharing the spotlight and the middle of the stage with Krasno as they tore into a rocking boogaloo to start the funked-out dance party portion of the show. The place was packed to the gills and was soon moving as one sweaty mass to the heavy grooves coming from the stage.
Karl D is always a great showman and on Saturday night he blew his sax with a vengeance, honking and bleating and goading Krasno and the brothers Evans to give him whatever it was they've got. After three tunes with Karl, Alan locked the band into a rocking funk cadence and then introduced, Soul Brother Number One, Nigel Hall!" for an electrifying Royal Family joint Do the Two," which segued directly into the funknasty original Too Much," which sounded like James Brown meets Sly and featured a call-and-response duet between a scatting Hall on vocals and KD on sax. Hallrecently signed to Soulive's Royal Family labelwas a revelation. In white coat and black pants, he stood out from the rest of the band and provided powerful vocals that blended raw emotion with soulful crooning.
As I was catching my breath after that staggering one-two punch, I thought I heard Krasno playing a familiar repeating six-note phrase, but it seemed like almost too much of a non sequitur to take seriously. But sure enough, as the band locked into it, there it wasa guilty pleasure from the 80s: Everybody Wants to Rule the World" by Tears for Fears. It is a mark of just how good this lineup is that they can take a song like that and turn it into something much less than kitsch and bordering on transcendent. After stretching this three-minute pop tune out to almost ten minutes with Karl playing a gorgeous flute throughout, the band took their bows and walked off stage.
After a short break, all five musicians walked back on to a screaming reception and ripped into a brisk cover of Stevie Wonder's Signed, Sealed, Delivered" with Nigel on lead vocals supported by Karl and Alan on backup and including a ripping sax break by Karl. Closing out the evening was the Curtis Mayfield classic, Move On Up" that featured Nigel doing justice to the soul great's signature work.
As the happy crowd filtered out onto Divisidero Street, my friends and I stayed behind for one last drink and to soak in the exhilarating performance we'd just seen. The Rubber Soulive Revue was off to Arcata the next night and then on to Sacramento, Santa Cruz and LA, where they added Karl to the bill. It was a rare pleasure to see these musicians sharing the stage in top form and I would highly recommend catching them the next time they come through your town.
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