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Published: 2011/06/07
by Chris Diestler

Eric Krasno and the Timeless Sounds of Soulive

Since he’s a Jam Cruise veteran and I’ve never been, I take the opportunity to ask him about how he’d compare it to other festivals. “From an artist’s perspective, at least, it’s like a festival because you get together with other musicians and work shit out. But it’s different from a festival because you get off the boat and see the sights of Honduras, Jamaica, the Mayan pyramids…

“Some of the festivals that I really enjoy are the ones that are smaller. They probably don’t make quite as much money, but [for example] we do one in Florida called Bear Creek where they have a lot of funk and soul artists, a lot of legendary guys and a bunch of new guys kind of carrying it on. But I guess festivals like that might be more enjoyable for the artist.”

The “Bear Creek All-Stars” – with Alan Evans, Kirk Joseph, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Skerik, and Ivan Neville – was just one of Krasno’s five gigs at Jazz Fest this year. Another was “Dr. Claw,” with longtime Lettuce bandmate Adam Deitch. Though he still cherishes the time he spends playing and taking in late night shows at Jazz Fest, Krasno has strong reservations about the headliners there this year, and bemoans what he sees as the fest’s turn toward the commercial: “Kenny G?” he asks, incredulous. “Awful, awful idea. Kid Rock? Whatever. Bon Jovi? The vision of Jazz Fest I had didn’t include Bon Jovi and Kenny G. But there’s still all sorts of amazing other stuff going on, so you have to look past that.”

Another big kahuna of ongoing festivals, Bonnaroo, originally grew out of Superfly’s incredible after-hours shows during Jazz Fest. Though its line-up has always been characterized as “eclectic,” Krasno feels Bonnaroo, too, has “definitely become much more of a commercial event. They get a lot bigger, mainstream artists now. It’s definitely changed. But y’know, I dig it. I think it’s cool, it’s just gotten huge to the point where it’s lost some of the vibe it originally had. But they’re trying to appeal to more of the mainstream kids out there.”

So, what hope does the up-and-coming band – or the established band, for that matter – have in today’s musical environment? There have always been, and always will be, musicians who love making music so much they’ll do it regardless of how much or little they’re getting paid. Krasno may be right about the impending ubiquitous cloud, but hopefully he’s also right about artists being able to somehow monetize streaming of their art. Otherwise, there may be a sudden, horrible, and total withdrawal of artists who can afford to make art full time.

When Jesse Gibbon (of Schleigho) first took Krasno (then, as now, of Lettuce) to see (future Soulive bandmates) Alan and Neal Evans with Moon Boot Lover, the year was 1995. My computer screen was still a black field with orange letters and nothing else. Soulive made their first recordings in upstate New York in 1999. The internet was still young then and only rich people or very, very patient people ever downloaded anything. Even if you were only opening a .jpg, you had time to brew coffee. Now it’s 2011, and most people’s phones are faster than those relatively primitive home computing machines. Bands still record and release music, even in the face of nobody with enough time on their hands ever paying for anything, but aside from love of their craft, what keeps a band like Soulive together?

Krasno’s recipe for Soulive staying together 12 years: “We’re like-minded, almost family. We let each other breathe, have space, and try new things.” Here’s hoping that recipe fuels them for another 12 years because tonight’s performance shows a band on top of their game.

There’s a DJ (not Kraz, unless it was a really good disguise) before Soulive takes the stage. The selections are mostly obscure, and lean toward the quasi-funky. I overhear a couple of early floor arrivals say they’d just seen Soulive at Jazz Fest. They’re pumped. When Soulive takes the stage, I can hear one of those guys bellowing (over the anticipatory crowd) a mighty and triumphant, “Krassssssnnnnnno!!!” Krasno almost cracks a smile, but it’s business time, and they launch into an epic reading of one of their early recordings, “Aladdin.” Their show tonight seems divided into 3 acts. First up is a batch of mostly familiar Soulive classics performed by the original trio with precision and verve. They’ve practically blown the top of my head off by the end of Act I, but little did I know they were just getting warmed up. This is my first time seeing Soulive and, truth be told, I’m pretty pumped too. Maybe even more pumped than that one guy.

Act II is a string of Beatles covers they worked out when recording their latest album, “Rubber Soulive.” The one that works best with their instrumentation is “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” Frankly, I’m less enamored with the Beatles covers than I ought to be. I love the Beatles. It’s just that well, I came to see some jazz-funk, dammit! Perhaps the Soulive/Beatles release is a mostly-instrumental band’s attempt to attract a larger audience. It’s hard to turn people on to instrumentals, if they happen to be songs-with-lyrics kinda people (and, I’ve found, most are). Like David Byrne once said, “Singing is a trick to get people to listen to music for longer than they would ordinarily.”

Act III turns out to be the longest portion of the show, and has the most transcendent moments. They are joined in Act III by sax player Ryan Zoidis (of the Shady Horns). One highlight is “Hat Trick,” one of my faves from their newest batch of originals. Following that tune, just when they’re about to break a sweat, Krasno finds his way into a slow groove so poignant, it almost seems out of place with the rampant bacchanal of a few moments earlier. The song is called “PJs,” and also appears on 2009’s “Up Here.” It’s absolutely gorgeous. Couples mash together and soak up the sweet stuff.

I’m deeply impressed by the skill these musicians demonstrate. Neal Evans shines on a 3-tiered behemoth of a keyboard rig that many others couldn’t play if they possessed 6 arms. But now, as they smoothly finish the night’s designated slow jam, it’s Alan Evans’ time to shine. I wish I had a portable video recorder to document the clockwork choreography and raw power the drummer/singer has during this number – “One In Seven.” I can feel the muscles in my jaw grinning impossibly wide as Soulive keeps chugging through to the end of the show, which lasts about 2 ½ hours, no set break. Possibly they ran up against the venue’s curfew, ‘cause it sure seems like they could’ve kept going indefinitely.

Is there a future for the working musician? Krasno seems to think so. He tosses out a caveat for the up-and-comer, though. “It’s harder now,” he says. You gotta be good; you gotta have a unique sound, almost outlandishly different.” Gogol Bordello and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros immediately came to my mind. More words of wisdom: “Be prolific.” Well, at least he practices what he preaches. Then, “Make more spontaneous singles, like James Brown. Get it all out there, y’know? Albums aren’t what they’ve been for the last 30, 40 years. Albums are just collections of singles again.” This reference strikes me as slightly ironic, since Soulive is touring in support of an album of covers from the original “concept album” band.

Certainly we’re on the verge of something. I’m not sure if anyone can really say what it is, any more than anybody could’ve predicted at the dawn of the digital era that we’d all be using our phones to listen to music, or having portable phones at all. Well, okay, Gene Roddenberry predicted that. Maybe Krasno’s vision of a slave-to-the-cloud future will happen, maybe it won’t. Maybe the apocalypse will intervene. Maybe aliens will scoop us all up and take us to a strange new world and we’ll have to reboot civilization all over again. If we had a time machine we could investigate further, but H.G. Wells seems less prophetic a sci-fi creator than Roddenberry in this case.

“I know exactly what I’d do with a time machine,” Krasno offers. “I’d go back to 1974 and play guitar on Herbie Hancock’s Thrust. ”

Anyone who thinks they can make a time machine, get busy.

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