New Year’s Eve: The clock ticks down to midnight like the master plan of a James Bond nemesis. The secluded lair is the Paradise, the madvillains are none other than the jazzy mutherfunkers of Soulive, and the minions are a sold out legion of loyal Bostonians. The ranks are well rounded: hippies, hipsters, preppies, hepcats, bros, hos, brokers, tokers, mothers dressed like daughters, and daughters dressed like mothers were it not for the telltale under-21 ‘X’ tattooed on the back of their hands. Few bands could summon such a heterogeneous congregation for a New Year’s bash, which is fitting – fewer bands have covered as much ground in the past decade.
To say that there is little to be called standard about the trio speaks on multiple levels. While most groups within the jazz idiom rely on the tried and true pages of the Real Book for foundational material, Soulive digs into classic funk and soul music for their choice covers. This year, they dug up roots of a different color with the dropping of Rubber Soulive, an album comprised of Soulive-flavored Beatles renditions.
The first set of the night drew largely from this new release. After an unteathered romp through the classic ‘Steppin’’ they kicked off ‘Revolution,’ setting the laid back Beatles staple to a party pace that matched the evening. Despite being a well-trodden song, the trio blazed a new path through ‘Come Together,’ inspiring the crowd sing along. Guitarist and friend of the site Eric Krasno took the spotlight for a delicate treatment of ‘Something’ before Neal Evans leaned into ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’with the appropriate booming weight on his bass keys. Alan Evans kicked off ‘Eleanor Rigby’ with a frantic pace, driving it out into the stratosphere before dropping it back to earth with planet smashing gravity for the half-time chorus.
They broke shortly before the calendars turned over to grab champagne and jerry rig a balloon drop. Krasno lead the countdown with an impish smile on his face, as if he was only ticking off the minutes until he got to play again. All but a stubborn few balloons fell as the revelers ripped into their paper noisemakers, instilling me with a fleeting nostalgia for the South African vuvuzelas that haunted the past year’s World Cup.
They rang in 2011 with opening act Nigel Hall belting out ‘Too Much’ from Soulive’s 2009 record Up Here, then popped the cork on some old fermented favorites. Krasno hushed the crowd with his trademark rendition of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s ‘Lenny’ before leading the band on a ferocious tear through ‘Uncle Junior’ and ‘Aladdin.’ Nigel Hall returned for the encore, a blistering rendition of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’ played at such a breakneck speed, you’d think they were being hurried off stage due to curfew.
With the exception of Nigel Hall, the night was strictly a trio event. At this point in the Soulive’s career, they’ve undergone so many line-up additions involving singers, MCs, and horn/percussion sections that their true style is hard to pinpoint. The band isn’t so much a crossover success as it is an ever-expanding outward victory (Hell, they even got Blue Note Records to traffic hip hop when they brought in Black Thought and Talib Kweli for their 2002 album Next). After so many years of growing their ranks, my ears have come to expect surgical horn stabs and harmonies grafted over their well-documented tunes – but somehow I didn’t miss those vestigial musicians.
The time they’ve spent foraging through various solo and side projects has born succulent fruit. Their James Brown send-up project Lettuce has taught them restraint and militant conscription to the groove. The hip hop production avenue of Fire House has disciplined them in the value of a riff. On their soul pop record No Place Like Soul with singer Toussaint Yeshua, they realized the danger of overproduction. Now stripped back to a trio once more, the material they wrote a decade ago remains the bulk of their set. Disarmed of their peripheral sounds, they reanimate the songs as a entirely new beasts. This newly-afforded space is a fertile field to both breathe and frolic, to morph from pretty to dirty with the crack of a snare. The material is the same, but the band is not.
Their earlier recordings display an almost timid aesthetic when compared to their modern incarnation. Krasno’s guitar was squeaky clean and drunk on wah to melt into Neal’s cool Hammond sound while Alan was light and crisp on the drums, growing heavy on the crash alone. Now they attack their songs like a three-headed bull in their own china shop. They live just on the right edge of ‘out of control,’ attacking their songs with rocking abandon. It will be interesting to see where their sound goes in the coming years, especially given their new roles as curators of Royal Family Records. As members of the famously supportive jam band scene, the band has begun to use their label not only as an exercise in their own music business savvy, but also as a staging ground for associated talents like Nigel Hall – and we’d all do well to follow their charge.