Saint Patrick’s Day in uptown Oakland may not be one of the more traditional locales to celebrate the Irish holiday, but with the funk gangsters of Lettuce in town, it has become a party time hotspot. There aren’t any Irish bars on the main drag along Telegraph Avenue, but music fans could find a spot with good food, holiday drink specials and March Madness hoops at Camber. The modern style Thai restaurant just down the street from the Fox Theater has a full bar, beer and Irish whiskey shot combo specials and NCAA Tournament basketball on multiple screens. It makes a fine setting for fans preparing to ascend Mt. Crushmore.
The mythical mountain monument serves as inspiration for 2016’s Mt. Crushmore EP, the follow up from Lettuce to their 2015 Crush LP. Both platters are full of the high energy funk jams that Lettuce has become renowned for crushing on a regular basis. Some fans find that something is amiss in 2017 with the absence of lead guitarist Eric Krasno, a longtime Lettuce mainstay who is no longer a full-time band member. Krasno is touring with his solo band back east at this time, leaving Lettuce as a one-guitar band for the moment. This has even led the band to remove Krasno’s image from the Mt. Crushmore artwork as if the aliens from Mars Attacks had blasted it away.
Lettuce is not so lead-guitar driven as many jam rock groups, so there are some fans who hardly even notice and feel that the band is just as good. Ace drummer Adam Deitch is considered the band leader, somewhat similar to Stanton Moore in Galactic and Zach Velmer in STS9. Deitch and bassist Eric Coomes still make a wicked rhythm section and are surrounded with talent galore. Keyboardists Alan Evans and Nigel Hall add another dimension, as does the horn section of saxman Ryan Zoidis and trumpet player Eric Bloom. Guitarist Eric “Schmeeans” Smirnoff is no slouch, but can he carry the full weight of Krasno’s absence? It’s a tall task.
When the band hits the stage around 9:45, their funky sound takes over the Fox with a vibrant energy that gets the Friday night party people grooving from the git-go. As the show progresses, the band leans heavily on up-tempo grooves that rarely develop with the layered sonic dimensions and improvisational flair that Krasno brought to the band.
“Lettuce is not what it was with Krasno… Now more in your face without the dynamic peaks and valleys or finesse,” says a veteran fan on one of the jam rock message boards and the analysis is on point. Time and again, the band relies too much on volume and tempo to establish a plateau of energy that doesn’t reach as high up Mt. Crushmore as when Krasno serves as the band’s sherpa.
There are still highlights of course, such as when Deitch and Coomes deliver tight breaks where the horn section can take the lead to fill the spaces. Trumpeter Eric Bloom is the hero of the night, leading the band through some jazzy space jams that conjure the greatness of the Miles Davis fusion era. Deitch also throws down some hot mini-solos, interacting more and more with the horns. The horn-driven jams with Bloom out front provide the best improv action of the night, conjuring a realm with great potential for further sonic exploration by Lettuce as they try to figure out how to fill the considerable void left by Krasno’s absence.
Schmeeans doesn’t try to fill Krasno’s shoes, content to vamp out for most of the night. Nigel Hall stars on lead vocals on fun numbers like “Ready to Live” and “Do It Like You Do”, serving as something of a hypeman in giving Oakland some extra love. But ultimately, this version of Lettuce is like a very good basketball team that’s missing the multi-talented all-star player who makes everyone else around him better. This is not to suggest the band should throw in their mountain climbing shoes, but it seems they will have a more challenging time reaching the peak of Mt. Crushmore until they figure out how to generate more of those dynamic peaks instead of being content with a certain plateau.
The Floozies set the stage with an opening set of high energy jams based around the duo’s funky breakbeats, dynamic melodies, and dazzling light show. The duo doesn’t quite have the dynamics of a full band with guitarist Matt Hill doubling up on laptop production duty while his brother Mark throws down block rocking beats, a la other jammy duos like Big Gigantic. The duo holds promise, but adding a bass player could go a long way to giving their sound a greater dimension.