Blast Off: Lettuce’s new material leaves Rage in the dust…
Adam Deitch – Drums
Neal Evans – Organ/keys
E.D. Coomes – Bass
Adam “Shmeens” Smirnoff – Guitar
James Casey – Alto Sax
Nigel Hall – vocals/keys
As the funk super group Lettuce began the familiar strains of Curtis Mayfield‘s “We’re a Winner,” which morphed, as it usually does, into Mayfield’s “Move on Up” to close out Wednesday Night’s Royal Family Holiday Party at the Brooklyn Bowl, I couldn’t help but laugh because it was a perfect bookend to a new chapter in the life of this fantastic band. This dynamic tune, with Nigel Hall jumping up to deliver some soul shaking melodies on vocals, has been one of the band’s most consistent the last couple years, and it made me think about how far this band has come.
Rewind three and a half years! I’ve returned home from my first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and was itching for great live music to stem the withdrawal tide. I headed to the Bowery Ballroom to see this band I had skipped at Fest because I knew they were playing at home later…and I dug it. Great band, busy, Rube Goldberg type funk (you know, lots of moving parts coming together to make awesome, think of the Charles Mingus track “Moanin'” and you’ll see what I mean), high energy, great musicians, even had this awesome dude come up and sing a few classics, including a great Curtis Mayfield cover. Nice stuff, liked it a lot. Snagged the new (at the time) album, Rage and really liked most of the tracks. It actually spent a lot of time in rotation in the car and the Ipod.
But here is the thing, if you don’t know the Lettuce story, then you don’t get the power of the whole picture. Unlike bands who stay together and tour often like Galactic, the members of Lettuce only gather for small periods of time throughout the year. When you are Lettuce, you record a quick album, maybe you see each other a couple times a year for a few gigs, but that’s largely it, you’re not necessary wood-shedding together a whole lot.
Case in point: On archive.org, Lettuce has eight recorded sets in 2002, one recorded set in 2003, no recorded sets from 2004-2007. None! Then, moved by the passing of James Brown and J-Dilla, the fellas recorded Rage and started out on the road again in 2008. This is not to say these guys aren’t monster players on their own, because they are. But there’s a difference between rocking out with old friends and playing sets with increased regularity, rehearsing and getting into the groove, finding and exploring new places. You gotta know who else is there to really get there! That’s why I like seeing shows at the end of the long run instead of beginning, because players will have gotten a little more comfortable, a little more familiar, and will be able to stretch out. That’s the band we saw on Wednesday night.
A couple Royal Family Ball throwdowns in New York and New Orleans, a Royal Family Ball tour, two Bowlive runs, the first ever Royal Family Affair (which I sadly missed), two Royal Family holiday concerts, Bear Creek Arts and Music Festival, Jam Cruise, prep for the CRAZY set with Dr. John and Maceo that kicked off this year… it’s been a big couple years for Lettuce. Each performance felt a little stronger, a little tighter, a little more impressive.
With Nigel Hall and Alecia Chakour in the mix, Lettuce can grow to as many as twelve or thirteen folks on stage at a time, and making that sound tight ain’t easy. Some of the fellas putting down roots in Brooklyn really allowed for a base of operations for the group, particularly at the Brooklyn Bowl, and it shows. Lettuce has done more gigging, rehearsal, and playing together than they have done in a while. As 2011 winds down, they’ve started dropping new tunes in shows, tunes that feel deeper and stronger than any of their previous material. Again, I dig Rage, a lot. However, this is no longer old friends putting together some real solid grooves and giving props to the giants who’s shoulders they stand on. Lettuce is now a fearsome unit ready to flex their own muscles.
The band is tight as hell. Everybody sounds awesome. I was loving Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff leading a couple tunes and laying out a great solo. Adam Deitch is locked in on the drum kit and he and E.D “Jesus” Coomes combine to make one killer rhythm section! The Shmeeans/Deitch beatboxing was HOT as well! Eric Krasno keeps growing, which seems preposterous for someone as good as he is. Neal Evans always brings that extra something to kick the songs up (though as much as I love Neal, the clavinet was a little up in the mix, and I had to abandon my normal front right spot to make sure I could hear the horns). And while Sam Kinninger was missed, the horns did sound awesome, with Ryan Zoidis leading the pack, Rashawn Ross and Eric Bloom on trumpet, and sentimental favorite James Casey (see: ridiculous solo on “Get Back” from Bowlive 1) on tenor. In fact, due to Kinninger’s absence, Casey could be seen upstairs with headphones on learning Kinninger’s parts right up until the show began. True dedication! I would have loved for the band to give the horns some more spotlight. Either way, they were solid as always. Vocalists Nigel Hall impressed the most this night having grown so much as an artist and a dude in the last two years. Alecia Chakour and Mel Flannery are also great additions to the krewe.
I’ve seen these musicians before, but not like this. I kept turning to people and saying, “What?!” The new grooves are chest-thumping, gut-busting, smack the person next to you and say “Damn, that shit is dope!” kind of tracks. “If I Was Jack Spade That Would Be My Theme Music” kind of tracks. KILLIN!! I can’t say it any plainer than this: the new material Lettuce is playing is FIRE! Nasty, literally jaw-dropping funk not to be messed with. Of the five or six songs I heard Wednesday night, four of them would be my favorite track on Rage! right now, and that’s an album I really like!
My advice to other amazing funk/soul/jam bands I know and love, especially when playing anywhere near Lettuce, STEP YA GAME UP! 2012 is a year of a lot of eagerly awaited album releases: Galactic, Antibalas, Soulive + Karl Denson EP, even hip hop legends Black Star are getting into it. But if Eric Coomes’ warning to me on my walk out of the Brooklyn Bowl holds true: “Dude. Wait till you hear the other shit, you don’t even know.” The best one of all could be coming from the Royal Family straight out of Brooklyn.
At last, that blessed day has come.
Set-List: Madison Square, Fast Kraz, Play, By Any Shmeeans Necessary, Last Suppit, Slow Zap, Mean Funk, Slippin’, Dilla, Let it Ride, Kings of the Bergs, GoGo and Makin’ My Way Back Home (w/ Nigel Hall), Blast Off
Words by Russ Agdern
Pictures by Josh Raskin
Video by Bill Giordano