The Lee Boys wear constant smiles, throwing glances around the stage as each man toys with the groove, intensifying it and backing off, working the jab to see who's going to solo.
Like their pedal steel-tickling, sacred steel-espousing compatriot Robert Randolph, the appeal of the Lee Boys lies in an expertly realized frissons-to-down-time ratio. It’s heavily skewed, of course, toward the former ingredient. When the band is taking its time to work up a jam, its music can seem repetitive, underwritten, and formless. But when the Lees have burrowed so deeply into a hard-driving rave-up it's impossible not to dance or at least be somehow moved -- those chugging drums, that rumbling bass, the skywriting guitar, and pyrotechnic pedal steel do so much to roust one from the exhaustion of the work week -- then their magic owes much to the same lineage as that of, say, classic tent revival gospel or, secularly, the heydays of funk pioneers like the Meters and Parliament/Funkadelic. In other words, it is a dance-your-ass-off nirvana reached through layers of grooving, driving, and re-driving home a point, feeling alive and blasting out all the bullshit. For their occasional faults -- as with Randolph, the Lee Boys' songwriting ability is miles below their technical prowess and ace showmanship -- I'm moved to pick up what they lay down any time they play my neck of the woods, and the Lees have been good to New York as of late. They were here in June for one of those long, blistering nights that by virtue of show length, jam quality, and once-in-a-blue-moon guest appeal -- keyboardist Marco Benevento was the announced sit-in, guitarists Warren Haynes and Eric Krasno the surprises -- induces veteran downtown concertgoers to wax nostalgic about the days of free-for-all jam-band sit-ins at the Wetlands Preserved. Their return visit to Sullivan Hall was sparsely attended -- by the end of the night, there were but 30 people in the room, if that -- but no less potent, another fine belt notch as the Miami-based group begins to carve out its niche in the Northeast and pick up new fans. Those who prefer the formerly nuttier and sloppier Robert Randolph and the Family Band to the still-fun-but-more-antiseptic RRFB of today might find the cure for what ails under Roosevelt Collier's blistering fingers. The lineup of the Lee Boys depends on geography. The band at full strength comprises the three Lee Brothers -- vocalists Derrick and Keith and guitarist Alvin -- and their nephews Roosevelt Collier (pedal steel), Lil' Al Cordy Jr. (bass), and Earl Walker (drums), but when traveling far out of their southeastern base of operations, usually only Alvin and the nephews make the trip, as they did to Sullivan Hall. They are nothing if not tireless -- the Lee Boys this year believably broke a single-band record for performances at a New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (seven gigs in four days) -- and relentlessly charming. All four wear a constant smile, throwing glances around the stage as each man toys with the groove, intensifying it and backing off, working the jab to see who's going to solo and usually yielding to Collier. The steel ace's improvisations are like Randolph's in that they're squealing, note-y, and filled with fiery peaks, but he's also more apt to bounce notes off what his bandmates are playing and ride the rhythm instead of snatching all the limelight away. He favors the brighter, bouncier material above all, shining especially on Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" and a blazing take on the sacred steel standard "Joyful Sounds". Guests, too, were in the offing; Soulive's Krasno was again on hand to punish Alvin Lee's guitar on a few songs, including the band's chunky take on "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love". Los Lobos saxophonist/keyboardist Steve Berlin was also in the house, having made the trek down from his band's free gig at Central Park earlier in the evening. Unfortunately, technical problems precluded adding Berlin's burbling saxophone to the mix -- he was left to watch appreciatively with a few friends near the side of the stage for most of the show, say his goodbyes, and depart. But the Lees don't need bolstering, per se -- theirs is a sonic wall of good-time music for which terms like "energetic" and "sensational" feel narrow and slight. If they can wrap their soulful arms on some better original songs and rely less on cover material, however fun to hear, they'll really make us all believers.