Soulive, The Apollo Theater, NYC- 4/26
I was pretty down on Soulive in the ’01. While the early tour with Project Logic produced many excellent performances (all of which I missed), my first shows of the year included the two-night CD release at Irving Plaza. The shows included a cavalcade of guests, but the end result was a pair of clunky nights that just didn’t flow. Soulive was simply trying too hard. Admittedly the Prospect Park set in June was pretty smokin’ once the technical glitches were worked out, but the Berkfest sets left just about everything to be desired. November’s three-night stand at the Bowery was equally unsteady. The first night was interesting as many fans were treated to the new material for the first time; the second was a better performance; the third was sadly almost identical to the two previous shows, and it was plagued with more technical problems. It was a strange time; I’d been diggin’ Soulive literally from the very beginning, but for the first time I just wasn’t interested in the sounds being produced. The smoothest cats around had lost some flair and lost their groove.
It would be easy to blame it on the change in line-up, except alto man Sam Kininger has been a long time friend of the band, and he’s always been good for turning it up a notch. It could be that the material was getting old, but there were rearrangements of some tunes, continued polishing of others and a whole bunch of new ones. I chalked it up to a transitional period for the band. But then the discs started rolling in- the Austin shows, the Temple Bar shows, some random one nighters in college towns. To my surprise much of the music stood up. There was actually a lot of fine music being produced. Could it be that I just happened to catch a half-dozen lack luster shows?
That’s too easy too, but Friday night at New York’s legendary Apollo, it all became clear. After an outrageous Steppin’ opener, a version that was played so up tempo and with such ferocity, Neal traversing the gap to the Janet section with such style and grace, that it could’ve easily been the closer, Sam joined for Hurry Up And Wait. Right from the start Neal and Sam were complementing each other with unbelievable precision- they were just short of completely harmonizing on a barrage of a thousand notes. Kraz popped up for a short solo that fed the theme, and Sam was off on his first solo. Again Neal was right at his side with his little pattering notes, and bass lines from the Roland that were nothing but clean. Eventually there was a drop to just Al and Sam. I was stunned by the former’s ability to keep a steady groove while switching up his beats every few bars- now thumping a straight bass drum, now swelling up with toms and cymbals, now carving a new area somewhere in between. I was being reintroduced to a band I know better than most.
The full Soulive Horns, including Josh Roseman on trombone and Ryan Zoidis on tenor, then joined for Sam’s first Soulive composition, Whatever It Is. Again the harmonizing through the first bridge, this time with all the horns, Neal and Kraz, stood out, but the whole song was replete with interesting passages, whether they were Sam’s leads, Al’s and Neal’s shake downs, or quick Krasno solos. It was sometime during that tune that it came to me. Yes, I had seen a bunch of lesser shows, but they were no indication of where the band was at. At the same time, however, it really was a transitional time for the band. When Soulive was a trio, the roles were clear. If Kraz was killing a line, Al was pushing from behind and Neal was coming up from underneath. If Al was spanking it, Neal and Kraz were nailing the one. But when Sam joined full time, suddenly the whole mix shifted. No longer could any one musician fill all the complement space, or conversely sit out completely. They had to redefine their relationships, make room for each other and begin to respond in more directions at once. It took some time, but Soulive seems to have achieved a new level of sophistication. As I said, I’ve been introduced to the band all over again.
There were certainly other highlights to the show, including a thirty minute Tuesday Night Squad and an encore of Sex Machine (with Shuman) into I Don’t Know What You Come to Do, with N’Dambi singing over the second half of Turn It Out. Of course many fans will see the same closer, as the band has varied the set list very little on this tour, which is certainly worthy of criticism considering the breadth of Soulive’s repertoire. One final note: since this tour is a 21st Century Soul Review, there are many great supporting acts. At the Apollo we were treated to a fine, but short set from the 20th Congress and a wonderful set from vocalist N’Dambi. The woman has some serious lungs, and her band is in fact Soulive! The sounds range from some slinky soul grooves to all out rockers. If N’Dambi is playing in your town, don’t miss her set- it’s serious music all the way around.