Soulive, Knitting Factory, NYC, 2/5
Soulive began its month-long NYC residency playing to an overcrowded, newly renovated Main Space at the Knitting Factory. It's hard to believe that it was actually three years ago when the trio had its last New York residency at the Wetlands, a legendary run of shows that went a long way to making Soulive what they are. (Few remember that it was during that run that Neal decided to leave Soulive, but changed his mind about a week later.) Those events featured special guests including the Masters of Groove, the New Deal and a host of MCs, and Stretch, the title for the 2003 four date series, is organized in much the same way. The Knit show was billed as "jazz" although it was really opportunity to bring together the latest incarnation of the Soulive Horns. Coincidentally, it was also by far their finest incarnation. The full horn section first appeared at Irving Plaza in April of 2001, but the shows lacked the flow and energy that fans were used to. While some rather cheesily still hunt out the on-stage recordings because the second night was 4/20, the two night stand really mark the beginning of a strange period for Soulive. They tried many new ideas, playing in different styles and at different venues and even added long time collaborator Sam Kininger as the official fourth member, but most of their experiments did not meet with plaudits from their fan base. Still it was a time of growth, and it culminated in the Soul Revue tour early in 2002, when the horn section reappeared to greater success. The shows, the Soulive portion anyway, were energetic and fun, but the set lists were rigid, and still many were left unsatisfied with the tour as a whole. (To be fair, though, the tour was nominated for a 2002 Jammy.) The Soul Revue returned in the summer of 2002 for one night: the ill-fated Saturday night set at Berkfest. Broken equipment, awkward pauses, nervous stage banter and an aggressive festival management that unplugged the band made for an! ugly performance, but again it was a moment of growth. From a fan's point of view, it was the final blow in a bumpy year and a half ride. Soon after, Soulive announced they would get back to their roots, hitting the rode as a trio again, producing new material and recording the tour to create their first live album, due out this spring. The tour began with three nights at the Mercury Lounge in New York, and from the first moment it was plain that Soulive had returned. Those three nights include some of the dirtiest, grittiest, all out soul groove of the year, and word quickly crossed the country: Soulive was back. Taking a step back and reexamining what makes Soulive Soulive paid off in a big way, so it wasn't all that surprising when the trio announced Stretch, but it certainly was exciting.
The house had been packed for quite a while before the band took the new, narrower (if you can believe that) stage, and seemed to feed off the energy of the room as they exploded into Aladin. Neal worked the synth bass, as he would for much of the night, and his clavinet leading up to the song’s central B-3 solo. The pairing of the clav and synth is very nice, the old school keys taking some of the edge off the synth, while still allowing for the heft and clarity of each note. The group followed the opener with another joint from the recent fall tour, El Ron. Kraz started up with an aggressive, twisted line, all alone, and he didn’t relax as Al and Neal joined the mix, but carried the idea through the top, over the bridge and out to the other side- a really fine, chilling passage. Continuing his run, Eric moved to the wah pedal and Neal unleashed a vicious barrage of bass, pushing and pushing till the tune peaked in a moment of shredding fury. If this was jazz night, it wa! s crazed, amphetamine induced jazz, not what Scofield called "real jazz" on Works For Me- the opening pair was possibly the most rambunctious playing I’ve ever heard from Soulive.
Al called up the horns, featuring Russell Gunn on trumpet, old friends Ryan Zoidis on tenor and Sam on Alto, and the legendary arranger and trombonist Fred Wesley, who stayed for the rest of the set. Much of the material they played was new, potentially one-time only material, and chosen to make the best use of the horns, and it worked well. The Fast Maceo was a perfect vehicle, with its subtle, pseudo-Latin tinges. As the horns worked over a particular statement early on, Sam picked a nice lead, and after a few bars, stretched it out to a solo- slick. He carried the movement through a breakdown when Neal grabbed hold with the B-3 and carried it back to the top, setting up a solo for Russell. Gunn went for an electrified wa sound, but his solo was almost entirely lost in the mix.
The band continued the set with another first, the aptly named Sea of Tranquility from Kool and the Gang’s first album. The horns were truly rich here, filling the room with layers of sound, and the crowd was treated to the first of Fred Wesley’s solos. To see him play, to hear what he can do with a trombone is to understand what a master performer is. He made sounds that were entirely unexpected, but entirely beautiful. His solo was not a statement, but a short soul manifesto. Russell took the second lead again, playing clean as Neal raised the song from below, adding high flourishes and accents here and there, eventually bringing it back to the top. For a closing passage, the group slunk into a slow, sultry sway that would simply drift away. Throughout the show there were a number of short, smooth movements akin to early versions of Church or Lenny, each one adding an extra layer to the music and expressing the creative vibe of the room.
Cannonball began with another such byway, an almost Beatles sounding section that plunged into a monstrous version of the Adderly tribute. The song was the highlight of the show, filled with the quick drops and spot-on accents that take longer to describe than to happen- truly engaging music. Musical confluences rose and fell, Kraz destroying a rhythm lick at one point as the horns blared at full force, Neal climbing ever higher on broad plateaus. But it was Alan who overwhelmed the movement and brought the song to the bridge. It is mind boggling what Alan Evans can produce with nothing more than a kick, a snare, a high hat, a ride and a crash. As Russell took yet another lead, bringing the music way down, Alan was playing the top frame of kick to great effect, his brother joining with double handed bass work- masterful musicianship.
After a 45-minute break, the trio returned to the stage and the crowd hadn’t thinned a bit. Opening with Cash’s Dream is always a good move, the bright swing of the tune setting smiles and feet flying without fail. This one was filled with more great drumming and some fine rhythm complements from Eric during Neal’s first lead. For the guitar portion, Eric began with a pair of sleek lines that he carried to a wah solo, finally delivering the composition back to itself with the aid of a short synth/clav groove. The tune closed out with a long, clear Bama style movement, Alan’s drums standing out once again, so much so that he fell into a short solo, Eric and Neal grinning widely as they watched.
The rest of the set included Sam joining for a nice Hurry Up and Wait, the Sam and Alan breakdown being particularly strong, and a blues in F that was essentially just a solo vehicle for the horns, which now included Jay Rodriguez of Groove Collective on flute. It was a quieter tune, but included none of the interaction that made the rest of the show so hot. Doin' Something was strong, but what really shined with the crushing groove that Neal initiated right at the end. As the spontaneous composition formed, Sam quickly directed the rest of the horns in a two part structure, adding it to the mix- while Fred is unquestionably the master arranger, Sam knows Soulive like nobody else, and only he could create such an appropriate addition on the fly. The set finished with Wesley's House Party, a run through of Maceo's theme (Sam and Ryan spelling out SOULIVE instead of MACEO), and even a guest appearance by Ivan Neville, who is slated to perform with Soulive at the Joe's Pub at the end of the month. Soulive is certainly on top of their game and not to be missed. Chances are the rest of Stretch is already sold out, and if it isn't, it will be soon. Do what you can to get in; you won't be disappointed.