Royal Family Ball, Terminal 5, NYC – 10/20
Photo by Vernon Webb
In what has become a Terminal 5 tradition, the Royal Family (Soulive, Lettuce, and their opener Nigel Hall & Friends) convened last month for a nearly six-hour ragefest. With two new albums on the table ( Fly, Lettuce’s first album in four years, and Spark, Soulive’s 4-track EP memorializing the late, great, soul-jazz guitarist Melvin Sparks), the two bands had plenty of new material to play. But they didn’t just showcase their new songs. Both Soulive and Lettuce delved into their classic rock and soul repertoire, balancing tried-and-true throwbacks with their own high-octane funk.
Clean-cut in matching gray suits, the jazz-funk trio jumped right into it, opening with “Hat Trick” off their 2009 album Up Here. Having primed the funk pump, they moved on to the lengthier “Spark,” the title track from their new EP. Unfortunately, Karl Denson (who makes a guest appearance on the album) wasn’t able to partake as he did at Bowlive back in March. As a result, the tune lacked some of its original eeriness that owes to Denson’s quavering flute. But the song nonetheless had its highlights, including a wildly dissonant bass-keys solo from Neal, as well as colorful flourishes from guitarist Eric Krasno throughout.
Soulive then brought out the Shady Horns for “El Ron,” a fan favorite that ends with some New Orleans-style group horn improvisation. Always up to the challenge, the Shady Horns played a game of musical leapfrog, exchanging lines and feeding off of each other’s ideas.
The series of covers began with an especially energetic rendition of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” which, admittedly, was somewhat rushed. But when they sunk into the psychedelic warmth of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun,” Krasno nailed the Hendrix sound, warping the drowsy melody by fading in and out with his volume pedal.
Shifting nimbly from a featherweight touch, Alan Evans’ slow crash on the snare drum dropped some extra weight onto their poignant and slow-building cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Lenny.”
Next, the horn-heavy “Vapor” really got the blood flowing. With the full sound of the horns in place, Neal was free to focus on the demands of the rapid-fire bass line. Like a confident kung fu master singlehandedly trouncing his opponent, he held his right hand behind his back while deftly working his left.
Robert Randolph made his first appearance during a cover of “Changes,” the earthy funk-rock track written by Hendrix’s drummer, Buddy Miles. The needle-sharp shriek of his lap steel guitar was painfully loud, verging on white noise during the climax of the song, but Randolph’s contribution did make for a lively performance.
Soulive closed their set with their version of “Crosstown Traffic,” another Hendrix classic. Here, Randolph pulled out all the stops. He stirred things up with a rhythmic scratch by strumming his lap steel with the picks on his thumb and forefinger before launching into a solo that sounded like the falsetto of an impassioned soprano. Channeling Hendrix in more ways than one, he stood up at one point, did a spin, and sat back down. Later, he even mounted his instrument, nearly tipping it over.
Laying waste to all those who dared not rage, the funk squad began with “Madison Square,” one of the dirtiest tracks off of Fly. Rhythm guitarist Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff strutted his stuff, exchanging his supercharged strumming with the Shady Horns’ brassy outbursts during the song’s extended breakdowns.
Soulstress Alecia Chakour took the stage for a sultry cover of Isaac Hayes’ “Do Your Thing,” and she had no trouble hitting all the high (and low) notes. Things got even steamier when Krasno took his time with his solo, bending and carefully teasing out every note—“playing with it,” as George Clinton would say.
Meeting each other in plush harmonies, Chakour and Nigel Hall sang the catchy clap-along “Do It Like You Do,” a swaying R&B song that bassist Erick Coomes begins by plucking high-register harmonics. Ending the song with a drum-and-sax exchange, tenor-man Ryan Zoidis blew breathy blasts to match Adam Deitch’s accents on the snare and bass drums.
When Maceo Parker took it to the stage, Lettuce took their interplanetary funksmanship to the next level. Parker, who has played with both James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic, sauntered out in a crisp suit, his saxophone in hand and a grin on his face. Although he’ll be turning 70 in February, he seemed as natural and energetic a bandleader as the Godfather himself. He assured the crowd that “If you hear any noise, it’s just me and the boys,” alternating between the buttery croon of the chorus and some fluttering saxophone licks.
Lettuce kept digging up the way-back-yonder funk, first with “Uptown Up” from Parker’s album Roots & Grooves. In the thick of the up-tempo song, the Shady Horns’ newest member Eric Bloom passed his horn through a wah-wah pedal, creating huge psychedelic smears of trumpet. The JB classic “Funky Drummer” followed, continuing the funky chain reaction that Maceo had begun.
Reaching even further into their bag of classics, they pulled out “Night Time (Is The Right Time),” an old blues song by R&B legend Nappy Brown. It was a nice change of pace—Coomes showed some restraint, laying down a slow-plodding blues line on bass with only the occasional daredevil flourish.
Lettuce began their encore with “Ziggowatt,” another livewire funk track from Fly. As usual, Deitch proved metronomic, his timing perfect as he played with the rhythms under the gritty crunch of the staggered guitar riff.
But the mothership didn’t truly land until “Lettsanity,” an aptly named highflyer from Fly that’s as much psychedelic rock as it is funk. Bloom once again fired mutated pulses of trumpet into the air while both guitarists intertwined rapid-fire staccato picking. The effect was overwhelming—or, better yet, extraterrestrial.
Then, after the night’s many nods to Hendrix, Lettuce ended with yet another gesture to the guitar god by segueing into “Who Knows,” the funkiest psych-rock song from Band of Gypsys. The original recording of the song features vocals from both Hendrix and Buddy Miles, so Lettuce honored that detail by giving Nigel Hall and Alecia Chakour the soulful duet (complete with voice-straining scat singing). Carried by the slinky rhythm of the catchy hook, and unfettered by the simplicity of the single-chord song, Krasno explored the full range of his fret board, closing his eyes and bobbing his head as he lost himself in the moment.