“The opportunities to combine the music and the legendary artists of Stax with the contemporary sounds of bands like Soulive are endless.”
-Chris Dunn, (A&R Representative, Concord Music Group)
A band’s sound can be likened to a human’s personality in that it contains specific characteristics that distinguish it from all others. Since Soulive dropped their debut EP, Get Down!, eight years ago, fans have grown accustomed to the subtleties of Alan Evans, Neal Evans, and Eric Krasno’s combined musical persona. Now that persona has a new facet in the form of Boston-based vocalist Toussaint—quite a change for a band that has always been primarily instrumental. So the question becomes: Did the new emphasis on vocals on Soulive’s sixth full-length album, No Place Like Soul, indicate a drastic change in Soulive’s songwriting and studio chemistry? And, if so, how will the addition affect the band’s live performance?
15 Sep 2007: Nokia Theatre New York, NY
While many prolific bands go through experimental phases at some point in their careers (U2, Neil Young, Pink Floyd, and the Beatles, to name a few), audiences don’t always accept these changes with open ears. The only real way for a band to validate a new style is to play the hell out of it in front a live audience. And on a chilly Saturday in mid-September, Soulive—the newest quartet to join the Stax Records roster—attempted just that.
A line of fans wrapped around the venue, as high-definition pictures of the band were projected from the Nokia Theatre’s gigantic outside screens. Once everyone was inside, the band ushered in the show with the edgy guitar shredding of “Outrage”, one of No Place Like Soul’s two instrumental tracks. Guitarist Krasno’s technique was tight enough to make diamonds out of coal, and the crowd’s enthusiastic roars only made him move faster. Alan Evans stood to Krasno’s right, completely surrounded by an escape-pod-style drum kit equipped with a built-in microphone that wrapped over the top so he could simultaneously sing and pound.
On the opposite side of the stage, Neal Evans added sonic depth to the others’ audio abyss from behind four stacked keyboards—multi-colored wires protruding from every angle. This initial instrumental assault was followed by “Steppin”—off 2000’s Turn It Out—another Toussaint-less song that ended with a trademark Soulive jam session.
Toussaint hit center stage on the third song for an energetic rendition of NPLS’s “Don’t Tell Me”. Wearing a puffy black cap, dark sunglasses, and a colorful Rastafarian outfit, Toussaint accentuated the band’s good vibrations with a gritty voice. Between Krasno’s funky riffs, Alan Evans’ heart-pounding rhythms, Neil Evans’ groovy arrangements, and Toussiant’s reggae-inspired lyricism, the updated Soulive machine seemed absolutely supercharged. The audience’s theatre-shaking applause as “Don’t Tell Me” climaxed was a clear indication that Soulive’s approval rating had just skyrocketed.
NPLS’s “Comfort” continued to demonstrate the enchantment of Soulive’s modified stage personality, as words of enlightenment pulsated throughout Nokia’s state-of-the-art speakers. Although Toussaint brought a new element to the band’s live act, this particular show was still a bit stripped down compared to prior Soulive concerts (they’ve been known to flex their muscles with full horn sections).
The less-is-more tone blossomed into an enchanting blanket of warmth when Toussaint began singing “Mary”, a song he told concertgoers was written for his grandmother. Reminiscent of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”, “Mary” is a piece of social commentary exploring trials and tribulations faced by less fortunate people on a daily basis:
Everywhere you looking, another soul misguided.
Thinking his pistol make him a man.
Minimum wage ain’t working, he want that fast money
Spend it as soon as it touch his hand.
After the inspiring reality check of “Mary”, Toussaint took a well-deserved break and let the boys tear things up with a rambunctious version of “Reverb”, off 2005’s Break Out. Later, a heart-pounding version of “Bubble” mutated into a mind-blowing blitzkrieg which saw Neal Evans using two pointer fingers to solo on his keyboards. Krasno’s face scrunched like someone who’d just eaten 20 sour Lemonheads as he showered the crowd with mesmerizing reverberations, and Alan Evans unleashed a hypnotic drum torrent strong enough to alter a person’s brain patterns. Toussaint channeled Jimi Hendrix for a lively cover of the guitar legend’s “Stone Free”, and the crowd chant he incited (“love take over the world”) led into the show-closing party anthem, “Yeah Yeah”.
Soulive’s personality has certainly changed since the band joined Stax and invited Toussaint to build camp on their musical playground. As to Soulive’s stage personality, much of the spontaneity has been replaced by structure. The vocals, however, more than make up for the change: Imagine knowing someone who couldn’t speak for eight years, and then he or she suddenly becomes a walking encyclopedia that just got back from kissing the Blarney Stone.