For a band that got its start at Boston’s Berklee College of Music in the 1990s, Lettuce sure has embraced New York City. In addition to the band’s yearly residency at Brooklyn Bowl alongside sister band Soulive and its music synch on MSG network before their sporting events broadcasts, they got the ultimate indicator of NYC-respect two Wednesdays ago [June 5]: a co-sign from former Knicks legend John Starks, who introduced the seven piece group as “the funkiest band in the land” as they took the Brooklyn Bowl stage.
With Lettuce’s third studio album, Fly, released the day before, the show marked the group’s album release party, and they duly set out to perform the album in its entirety, complete with blistering extended solos from the likes of guitarist and bandleader Eric Krasno and sax player Ryan Zoidis accentuating each song.
In many ways, Fly is more diverse as an album than previous efforts Outta Here and Rage; rather than a lot of the rhythm-centric, straight-ahead funk/soul that the band excels at, Fly peppers in much more. Title track and show opener “Fly,” with it’s lackadaisical, falling-leaf-feel of a groove, the high-flying intro of “Madison Square” that gives way to a mean, horn-punctured, almost Bond-like theme, and the tight, wah-guitar-drenched, Funkadelic-esque riffs that permeate “Jack Flask” and “Play” — the latter which combines parts that wouldn’t seem too out of place on a Fela Kuti or a Meters album in different areas — all showcase the diversity of the power that the band exudes.
And, of course, when vocalist Nigel Hall joins the band, as he does on Krasno’s sultry “Do It Like You Do,” Lettuce flies into another category. Why exactly they have yet to put out an entire album with Hall — a frequent collaborator and special guest at Brooklyn Bowl Wednesday — is a bit of a mystery, but when he takes the stage it is as if he’s the missing piece of a puzzle that you didn’t even know you needed. Whereas Lettuce is perfectly capable of submitting a stellar show of solely instrumentals, the addition of Hall just makes them better, more well-rounded, more engaging in many ways.
“Let it GOGO” was a fun, horn-led romp that featured a percussion breakdown and Nigel Hall leading the band through a medley that included the late Chuck Brown’s “I Feel Like Bustin’ Loose,” while Alicia Shakur joined the band for a slow blues cover that reiterated how much more immediate Lettuce feels with a vocalist. It’s as if that one element serves to accentuate the band’s strengths while also giving fans another outlet to connect to… not that the majority of the unabashedly dancing crowd needed much more. After playing Fly all the way through the band launched into other instrumentals from their previous two albums, before launching dozens of balloons into the crowd and finishing with an encore of “Move On Up” with Hall again taking the vocals — though resisting Curtis Mayfield’s falsetto delivery — which reinvigorated the crowd and closed down the band’s two-plus-hour set.
There really are few straight ahead funk bands in the music scene today that combine the breadth of the genre in one place, and work as hard to make it look as effortless as Lettuce does, and Fly is as good an indication of that as any. Tge band in the past has shown a tendency to take long breaks in between appearances, but now with two albums out in the last four years — Rage came out in 2008 — and even despite the members’ near-constant dips into other projects — Soulive just released an EP, Spark, with Karl Denson as a tribute to the late Melvin Sparks, keyboardist Neal Evans has a new solo record, Bang, and drummer Adam Deitch is touring Europe — it doesn’t appear that Lettuce is going away any time soon. And with Fly marking the group’s twentieth anniversary, that fact is a celebration in more ways than one.