Respect the Rage of Bowlive
Words By Andy DeVilbiss
I remember buying my first Soulive album from the Homegrown Music tent at a festival. It was Turn It Out. I had read a brief blurb about the band somewhere awhile before that festival, and they seemed like a group I'd want to check out. Before I tore into it, I noticed there was a sticker attached to the shrinkwrap featuring a quote from none other than the great jazz guitarist John Scofield. It read "My favorite band." Bear in mind this was over ten years ago, and this was the first full-length joint from guitarist Eric Krasno and the Evans brothers (Alan on drums, Neal on keys). I recall thinking, rather dismissively, "Really, Sco? You played with Miles Davis. You're an absolute legend. And these young'uns are your FAVORITE band? They're THAT good? Schyeah riiiight."
I should've known better than to ever doubt the Sco. Because a few minutes into the first cut, "Steppin'," it was readily apparent just how talented these Soulive guys were. Talented enough to get guys like Sco and bass ace Oteil Burbridge to play with them as Soulive launched their career. Talented enough to make a studio album, out of the gate, that dripped with sweat and cooked like a hot live show. Talented enough hook me into becoming an interested and engaged fan for over ten years.
Unlike a lot of groups, I've legitimately purchased every album Soulive has ever put out. I see them every time they come to my Baltimore/DC-area stomping grounds. Their bumper sticker was one of the five total I put on any car I owned, ever. Hell, they're one of the only bands I've planned a trip around, traveling up to the Big Apple last fall for the Royal Family Ball, where I was rewarded with one of the greatest musical moments of my life as I witnessed a veritable holy trinity of guitar gods when Eric Krasno, the aforementioned John Scofield, and the great Warren Haynes shredded on the same stage together.
It was a show that was indicative of two trends that have been part of the Soulive vibe since their auspicious debut album and continued throughout their career: an immense degree of respect and a desire to collaborate from fellow musicians, and the ability to RAGE a stage, working crowds into a blazing fury that matches their virtuoso chops. Two trends that culminate and crash into each other with full force at a little shindig called Bowlive.
What is this Bowlive, you might ask? Well, during March for the past two years, Soulive has played a ten night residency filled with special guests, musical magic and rabid fans at the Brooklyn Bowl, a combination club/bowling alley that's the latest venture of Pete Shapiro, former owner of the dear departed Wetlands. Not surprisingly, the Bowl's becoming the new mecca for our particular scene's music in NYC (I'm going to there for the first time in a few weeks for the Greyboy Allstars, and I'm tremendously excited to check the place out and try the fried chicken), and everyone I've talked to who's been inside that place absolutely raves about it.
If you really want to get a feel for Bowlive, I direct you to the stellar show reviews of the 2011 iteration on this here humble website, authored by my good friend and MusicMarauders' resident Tiny Rager, Karen Dugan. She did a wonderful job. So wonderful that, every time I read her night-by-night recaps, she made me insanely jealous because I couldn't be there myself. (More than my normal level of envy over her almost daily "I'm going to see [INSERT AWESOME MUSICIANS HERE] tonight!" posts on Facebook. F'realz, the Tiny Rager is a live music MACHINE. And I hope she and other NYC residents realize how lucky they are. The show options in that city make even a fairly cosmopolitan area like the Baltimore/DC corridor seem like the musical boonies.)
Soulive must have sensed that anguish, jealousy and desire to be a part of the show emanating from geographically-challenged living room ragers like me and decided to toss us a much-needed bone. Either that or they just realized from the start that this Bowlive thing was going to be something special because they had the foresight to film the maiden voyage of this awesome event in 2010 and cherry-pick some of the best performances for a concert DVD, plainly titled "Bowlive - Live at the Brooklyn Bowl." If you consider yourself a funkateer, or, really, just a fan of great music, you oughta watch it.
It's jam-packed (emphasis on JAM) with over two hours of live performance and backstage interviews with Soulive and the guest artists who joined them on stage throughout the Bowlive residency. And what a roster of guests it is. Let's go to the scorecard (and these are just the guests who are prominently featured):
-Keyboardist, singer and Royal Family Records labelmate Nigel Hall
-The Shady Horns (Ryan "Zwad" Zoidis, Sam Kininger, James Casey, Blake Hillard)
-Beatboxer Rahzel the Godfather of Noyze and drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson from The Roots
-Singer and organist Ivan Neville of Dumpstaphunk and the legendary New Orleans' Nevilles
-Kofi and Oteil Burbridge on flute and bass respectively
-The man who redefined the pedal steel guitar, Robert Randolph
-Up-n-coming garage groovers The London Souls
-Latin jazz guitarist and singer Raul Midon
-The baddest blues power couple on the planet, singer Susan Tedeschi and slide guitar master Derek Trucks
-Turntablist DJ Logic
-The hardest working guitarist in the galaxy, Warren Haynes
Good gawd. That's just a veritable 1927 Yankees Murderer's Row of guest talent. And every single one of them blended in seamlessly with the Soulive party in a way that made you feel like they've all been playing together for years. The DVD rips through Soulive originals ("Hat Trick," "Too Much," "El Ron") and covers from artists like James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Chuck Berry, King Curtis, and Cream ("Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose," "Jesus Children > If You Want Me To Stay," "Lucille," "Soul Serenade," and "Born Under a Bad Sign" respectively) with power and precision that will make your head spin and your ass shake. It's straight funky fire. Even the softer moments like Raul Midon's "Sunshine" burn like red-hot embers.
The music was so damn hot and so immersive, especially when they used a certain camera angle where the picture shook because the bass was THAT heavy, I felt like I was there on the floor. At times, I found myself letting loose with Ric Flair-esque "WOOOOOOOO's" and pimpalicious "Awwww yeeeeaaaah's" from my couch like I would at an actual show, shaking my head in disbelief because I was just mystified by the mad skills I was seeing (In particular Neal Evans' left hand on the bass keys. You could chop it off, set it on a stool, and I might pay to see JUST that left hand play for a few hours). Ivan Neville summed it up best in one of his interview segments when he was asked about how to classify Soulive's music, and he replied simply, "GOOD. GOOD music." Frankly, that may be an understatement. It's great. It's gargantuan groove. It is RAGE, in the most positive sense of the word.
The interview segments which punctuate the performances provide interesting and sometimes hilarious insight into the band's dynamics and philosophy. I loved hearing the members of the Shady Horns discuss their fear of section leader and highly underrated saxophonist Ryan "Zwad" Zoidis' infamous "Snap of Death," which he will break out the moment you lose track of The One. Listening to Neal Evans talk about seeing the London Souls for the first time made me want to see them too. I could sense the passion and awe from Eric Krasno when he was discussing Derek Trucks' guitar tone.
That passion and awe is a two-way street, as every guest musician interviewed reverently spoke of Soulive's quality as musicians and people. Whether it was Robert Randolph discussing how playing with Krasno is like a boxing match where he wishes they'd just get to the tenth round and go to the judge's cards because he's worried about being KO'ed or Oteil Burbridge assessing his time on stage by saying, "I thought I was going to come out of my skin. I really did. I thought my feet weren't on the ground for a while," what comes through is genuine appreciation for Soulive's skills and growth as a band and distinct gratitude for the joyful experience these musicians get when playing with them. There's no higher praise than the respect of your peers, and Soulive has R-E-S-P-E-C-T from their peers. It turns out, echoing that Scofield quote, Soulive is among these great musicians' favorite bands.
Mine too. And they probably always will be. In terms of active jazz-funk bands, if they haven't planted their flag to claim the summit, Soulive is certainly near the top of the mountain. Iff'n you don't believe me, check this Bowlive DVD out. If you've never been to Soulive show, it will make you want to go. If you have, you'll probably love this DVD as much as I do. I'm crossing my fingers and praying to the Funk Gods that Soulive and the Royal Family crew put out a similar video compilation every year for every Bowlive residency. And every time I've got a jones for some live music but can't make it out, I guarantee you I'll be popping Bowlive into the player to scratch my funky itch.
Respect the Soulive rage, y'all, and clear some dancing space in your living room. You just might need it.