Soulive: Get Down!

Get Down!
Velour Recordings

So I’m over at my friend Pierre’s place the other night and he puts this CD on. It’s pretty amazing to hear a 1950’s organ trio play with such prescience; I swear to god that some of their rhythmic ideas sound like they’ve already heard James Brown and George Clinton and hip-hop. And the production is so clean. Wow, I’m gonna have to go see if they have a greatest hits somewhere . . . and that’s when Pierre hits me with the info that they’re actually a brand-new group, and that this disc originally came out three years ago.

So I get all up on my high horse and say “Well that’s just ruined my whole excitement about this music. If it was original, I would have been totally into it; now that I know that it’s just a very good copy with a slightly modern filter, I’m bored by it already. If I wanted to listen to Jimmy Smith or Shirley Scott records, I’d just listen to them instead of this perfect copy.”

So that’s when Pierre set me straight a bit. He’s got this whole thing about how “authenticity” and “realness” are outmoded concepts anyway, about how what matters is the work of art itself rather than the myth of “progress”. He told me the story of Soulive, about how organist Alan Evans, fresh back in the east after a stint playing in San Diego, convinced his drum-playing brother Neal to join him in a group where they would try like hell to emulate the good old Hammond B-3 trio: organ, drums, and guitar, just like back in the day. (The organist always plays bass with his/her footpedal, don’t you know.)

But that wasn’t all. Alan and Neal decided that they’d dress in dark suits (they couldn’t afford anything more than second-hand, but it didn’t matter because they looked cool as hell) and that they’d build their own studio. Then they decided to get Eric Krasno, the guitar dude from Boston funk band Lettuce, to play with them (and supply his own suit, probably). And this CD, Get Down!, was the result.

So Pierre tells me they got signed to Blue Note and have released three more LPs, each one with higher-profile guest stars and ambitions and stuff (rappers, soul divas, Dave Matthews, Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all) on each release. But since they’re making a name for themselves, Velour has decided to re-release this first record, which was an EP in March ’99, with a couple of bonus live tracks from that summer to fill it out.

So now I kind of understand. This isn’t some kind of back-to-the-roots wankery; it was their first record, and consists of just the music they always wanted to make. They’ve moved on, but this testament remains.

So how is it? Well, it’s really good for what it is: nearly note-perfect Hammond trio soul/funk jazz. Just about every track follows the same format, no matter which one of the three wrote it: a lengthy complicated theme statement followed by lots of organ and guitar solos, and then return to the theme and out. Classic. Smooth. Repetitive, perhaps (except on the last studio track, “Turn It Out”, which has a neat unison session at the end), but dead-on and lovely.

Alan Evans is clearly the crucial linchpin on every song, because he’s playing rhythm (in conjunction with his brother) and accompaniment and lead, and he never disappoints. His solos are tastefully spunky (if never fiery), and he knows when to lay back and when to charge ahead. Listen to him on his composition “Uncle Junior” — his solo passage starts off like Booker T. Jones, moves into be-bop territory, and comes back around like a Sly Stone melody, especially at the end when he’s dueting with himself. Sweet, concise, tactful.

Krasno is also an economic soloist; the era they’re aping was all about smooth competence rather than Coltranian soul-searching, and Krasno sounds content with that. Everyone compares him to Grant Green, and I can’t say no to that. His is a humble funk; he never lets his guitar scream or cry or testify in the studio, but he can wring some minimalist magic from it nonetheless. His work on tracks like “Cash’s Dream” and “Rudy’s Way” is probably way too understated for anyone to actually love, but it’s real easy to like very much indeed.

And Neal Evans is simply a great drummer, handy with the support stuff but capable of knocking out a martial roll to start a song when necessary (“Rudy’s Way”) or just doing a ticky-tacky cymbal deal so others can shine. Where he really comes alive is on the two bonus live tracks. These pieces are lengthy workouts for the young band, and it’s Neal Evans keeping them together during the slightly shaky intro to Lou Donaldson’s “Brother Soul” and guiding everyone through the ten-minute “Right On” with a minimum of fuss.

So I was listening to these last two songs once again and I realized how much fun Soulive would be to see live. You can almost see the band’s “let’s be careful out there” mask drop when they charge into “Right On”, playing with both precision and (gasp!) passion. They are cooking, yes, but they do that on the studio tracks; this is something different, something more edgy. They’re flirting with the deeper hip-hop cadences of their later work on this one, and when they drop the tempo and turn it into a blues-funk setting for Krasno to just go off in Sonny Sharrock mode, it’s a high-wire experiment that actually ends up working. That’s when I see the true beauty of Soulive: they care about what they’re doing. They think they can actually re-create not just the sound of the ’50s and ’60s groups they love, but also something of their adventurousness, their ballsiness. And then they go out and do it.

So Pierre’s laughing at me now because I really like this CD even though it’s not very original or next-level at all. I don’t care. It sounds good. Now I want to go get the later stuff, the collaborations with Talib Kweli and (lord help me) Matthews. And I want to keep this one in my changer for a while longer. Cause it really cooks, man.