It’s been a chillier-than-usual January in the San Francisco Bay Area, but the famous Fillmore Auditorium has been heating up with hot shows to make it a month to remember at the corner of Geary Boulevard and Fillmore Street. The renowned funk band Lettuce members are rolling in to conclude their west coast tour with a two-night stand here on 27-28 January, and the party people are out in force.
The previous weekend at the Fillmore was lit as well, thanks to a Railroad Earth collaboration with local keyboard phenom Holly Bowling on 20 January and a cosmic funk dance party with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe on 21 January. Denson and Lettuce share quite a bit of common sonic ground. Both bands feature sax and trumpet horn combos adding to hot grooves that are often instrumental, yet with repertoires that also feature inspiring vocal numbers. So it feels like there’s a running theme when Lettuce hit the stage before a packed house on Friday night.
Drummer Adam Deitch functions as something of a lead player and band leader, somewhat similar to Galactic‘s Stanton Moore in that way, and it’s a treat to watch him rocking tight, funky beats all night long. Deitch and bassist Erick “Jesus” Coombes form a monster rhythm section that often feels like a force of nature, powering a series of propulsive grooves as the foundation for the group’s dance-friendly tunes. Saxman Ryan Zoidis and trumpeter Eric “Benny” Bloom are a dynamic duo, giving Lettuce two pairs of sonic superheroes. Then there’s guitarist Adam “Shmeaans” Smirnoff and keyboardist/vocalist Nigel Hall adding leads and extra layers of funk to give the band their signature sound.
Lettuce have been touring behind their eighth studio album with 2022’s Unify, a timely collection of tunes that utilize the tone sciences and some socially conscious lyrics to urge humanity to unite as one nation under a groove. The record also features a guest appearance from funk bass legend Bootsy Collins on “Keep That Funk Alive”, and it’s readily apparent here at the Fillmore that Lettuce are doing precisely that.
The bluesy “Larimar” from 2019’s Elevate album sounds like it could be a soundtrack for Starsky and Hutch if they were on the prowl for bad guys in San Francisco’s North Beach district. There’s a retro 1970s vibe here that’s downright groovy. “Vamonos” from Unify features a Latin-esque vibe, yet with Lettuce’s signature sextet syncopation. “Ready to Live” finds Hall singing out for listeners “to keep on doing you” over an energetic groove that finds fans getting down on the good foot. Meanwhile, “Mr. Dynamite” brings things down a notch with a mid-tempo vibe that maintains a groovy simmer as Deitch keeps a simple yet mesmerizing beat.
A cover of Tears for Fears‘ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, which Lettuce recorded on Elevate – finds Hall and the band remaking the song as a slinky R&B style number to give it their own stamp. “Lettsanity” from 2012’s Fly finds them igniting with high-octane funk power, as the instrumental tune’s title implies, and the energy in the room is electrifying. Deitch gives a shout-out at one point to his uncle in the balcony, who is celebrating his 80th birthday. There’s no doubt that funky music helps both musicians and their fans maintain a forever young spirit, as the groovy vibrations function to uplift the soul.
Lettuce feature the new album again at the end of the show as “Hawk’s Claw” closes the set with some bluesy riffs and horn lines that resonate with something of a modern spaghetti western tone for a cinematic climax. Hall speaks out before the encore, preaching that anyone who’s been going through a difficult time lately needs to hang in there. This prefaces a triumphant finale with “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”, a high-energy anthem from Unify that finds Hall leading a soulful revival as he sings about unity, democracy, and the people coming together. It’s a great way to end the show with an uplifting message to match the energizing power of the funk.
Saturday – 28 January
Twenty-four hours later, Lettuce are back at it for a Saturday night throwdown to close out their tour, and the Fillmore is even more packed than it was on Friday. “The Force” from 2015’s Crush kicks off the show with an upbeat blast of Jedi funk power, and it feels like Mace Windu might appear rocking his purple lightsaber for a cameo at any moment. “Chief” is another high-energy jam that keeps things cranking. The title track from 2016’s Mt. Crushmore album is a timeless Lettuce anthem for the ages, with a funky swagger that hits so good on the Filmore dance floor because the band is most definitely crushing it tonight.
The funk doesn’t stop as Lettuce return to their 2002 debut Outta Here with “Squadlive”, which features a big sax solo from Zoidis. The horns continue to crush with that groovy swagger on “The New Reel”, adding a vibrant, jazzy effect. Nigel Hall retakes command as he sincerely proclaims that the world would find a better day if everyone would get down with some Earth, Wind and Fire.
“This song is about our future,” Hall says as Lettuce launches into “Remember the Children”, which they recorded on 2020’s Resonate. The soulful anthem hits the sweet spot in a big way and it’s no wonder why high school football star Charles Jefferson was so eager to get those Earth, Wind and Fire tickets in the cinematic classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Shmeans, Coombes, and Deitch are locked in here as Hall sings out in the spotlight while the horns pump up the energy in glorious fashion. Keyboardist Kiefer Shackleford from opening act Kiefer sits in on “Breakout”, more of a downbeat R&B number that provides a still groovy breather and some exquisite tone science with how all the parts lay back yet still hit those soulful accents. The band soon cranks it back up to ultra super funk power mode on “Madison Square”, closing the set with climactic energy.
Lettuce go large on the encore as Hall steps out again to lead the group through “Do It Like You Do”, a love song of sorts between the band and their fans. The groovy workout also features a jam on James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”, a fitting tribute to the Deitchman behind the kit.
A rare double encore ups the ante further, with Hall continuing to crush it on Curtis Mayfield‘s “Move on Up”, which Lettuce recorded on 2008’s Rage. It’s a big winner as Hall sings out for everyone to remember their dreams and keep on pushing over a high-octane beat from Deitch. The song also features a jam on Charlie Smalls’ “Be a Lion”, which is fitting since that’s what Nigel Hall has been all weekend as a king of this funky sonic jungle. When the lights come up, there’s no doubt that the unification of funk fans at the Fillmore has been achieved.