The Musical Patriot was never much of one for large-scale musical rituals or entertainments. While I understand the vital purpose of music in organizing public spectacles—from parading troops to state funerals to athletic games—I always have a feeling that sonic arts find higher purpose in more intimate, individual spaces. And if I am distrustful of crowds, I am doubly so when music drubs them into submission, whips them into hysteria or otherwise manipulates the corporate emotional state.
While my sisters trekked off with tens of thousands sin the 1980s to take in the revival tours of The Rolling Stones and The Who, as well as other bands of newer vintage, I stayed home. Curiosity did spur me to join some college mates and journey from Boston to the Oxford Plains Speedway in southern Maine to hear the Grateful Dead back in 1988. Any unease at joining the tie-dye hordes was blunted by a battery of elixirs supplied by our expedition leader, now a hedge-fund math guru on Wall Street. From our position atop the speedway bleachers we could doing their thing and we could just about make out Jerry and co. busying themselves at their instruments and with their voices, the results of these movements catapulted into and over the assembled throngs thanks to massive banks of speakers. It was not just because of my chemically impaired faculties that the sound seemed blurry, even unintelligible.
In advance of the concert, I had listened to many pre-concert lectures from our expedition leader back at his apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a beer-soaked den stocked with his vast collection of Dead live-concert cassette tapes. Thus I arrived in Maine with at least some knowledge with which I could better appreciate the music and culture of the Grateful Dead. Nonetheless, when the epic concert finally closed with Sugar Magnolia, I was exhausted by the work of musical appreciation, even while the crowd surging and shimmering on the racecourse infield seemed as inexhaustible as nature itself.
Our leader judged the concert to have been mediocre; his opinion enjoying some credibility, expert as he was in the repertoire and far-flung performance history of the group. He’d heard all the songs countless times in countless different performances, and was therefore equipped with a template against which he could parse the amorphous sounds that reached our ears that Maine afternoon and evening. In a place like that under sonic circumstances like those, you have to know the music already in order to enjoy it. This truth operates not just at the level of musical nuance—from the improvised lick that departs from convention in Crazy Fingers (also done at the Maine concert)—but perhaps most crucially in the realm of the lyrics. If a song tells a story, you better know what the words are. The opera house solves the problem with super-titles, a possibility not explored by those who cling to the notion of stadium rock’s immediate appeal and the distant musician’s superhuman connection to the audience. Lofty notions like comprehensibility are deemed irrelevant.
The independent rock quartet Lake Street Dive is not the Grateful Dead, and the glorious 1920s State Theatre still adorned in crusader chic in Ithaca, New York is not the Oxford Plains Speedway of Southern Maine. Yet for all its energetic and finely-tuned musicality the Lake Streeters’ recent concert in our town’s most venerable hall raised kindred questions of accessibility, communication, and the dubious rituals of concert going.
I was duly excited when a friend pressed a pair of tickets into our hands to join him to hear the group last Sunday night along with some fifteen hundred others filling the State Theatre to its capacity with about the tenth of the numbers at that Dead concert of yore.
Lake Street Dive was formed a decade ago in Boston when the band’s members were students at New England Conservatory. Each of the musicians has fully-trained chops that have shaped the impressive timber of their native talent. Some call the group a jazz quartet, and the bluesy grooves that they often favor pulse with that lineage; but their influences are diverse, the music creative and visceral, given virtuosic edge and jubilant energy by the skill of the musicians themselves. The band subverts many expected paradigms, musical and otherwise: there’s gender equality (two women, two men) that seems to obtain not just in performance but also in artistic and orientation and creative contributions; a bass viol rather than an bass guitar provides the fundament; there’s only intermittent use of the guitar, since they guy who plays it is mainly a trumpeter; and musicians’ skin shows no visible tattoos or piercings, at least not from afar.
The Lake Street Dive original songs brim with the grit and soul of Motown, which itself often has a gospel aura generated by the formative experiences of so many of the label’s musicians in black church choirs. Indeed it is the Lake Street Dive’s communal singing that is so thrilling—the harmony more often in three parts rather than four, Mike “McDuck” Olson often puts down his light blue guitar and picks up his trumpet. He’s better on the latter, but good on both: his peppery trumpet solos don’t exactly breathe the fire of a Fats Navarro, but they’ve got enough heat to add flair and resonance to the songs. His is often a contrapuntal commentary, integrated into the arrangements but in a way that retains an evocative, sometimes slightly forlorn distance.
But it is the predominantly choral approach underpins the group’s sound: there is no keyboardists and constant guitar chords to bolster the harmony, so that the concerted voices provide the defining sonority. The band claims to love to sing when driving between gigs, and one hears this in the precision and verve of their joined voices. The vivid spur of Mike Calabrese’s drumming and the powerful drive of Bridge Kearney’s bass are all the more impressive as they do these instrumental duties while singing in purest, vibrant harmony. Thus the band projects a cohesion that refuses to be just plain stable; the centrifugal force of the individual band members pushing in their own direction only adds to the forward momentum of the whole.
Lake Street Drive is a hard working group clocking well more than a hundred shows a year; they’ve been busy in 2014 pushing there album Bad Self-Portraits released back in February. Thus they’ve developed a large following, especially in a self-styled alternative enclave like Ithaca where the band delivered a great show with knockout songs and tight presentation. Up front at the mike with only her voice and a blue checked dress not reaching the knees and leaving much flesh of shoulder and chest to gleam in the glare of stage lights was Rachael Price. Now in her late twenties, Price demonstrated great potential as a jazz singer already in her teens and still does, even if she’s detoured into a kind of rock and roll that allows plenty of space for her huge voice and talents. I’m sure she can sing in any genre. She could certainly fill the Metropolitan Opera House without a mike.
Which raises the question why mike her at all? Yes, the amplified guitar is essential to the genre, even if that instrument was often slumbering in its cradle at Sunday’s night show. The songs performed tell a story or capture moment or a character. Yet more than half of the words were lost to distortion or otherwise ambushed by amplification. The younger hipsters of Brooklyn-self styling (Brooklyn being of course where the band is based) might think me simply an old fuddy-duddy, who spent the entire night fumbling with his hearing aid. Regardless of age, however, the message and meaning often go missing in the heated action of the live show.
The band’s ardent followers, who after the first song were allowed by the bald and bearded bouncer to push down the aisles towards the stage and boogey and sway rather limply for the rest of the concert, know the words and allusions. Thanks to the album, they have already trained themselves what to feel and when. But for those discovering the band for the first time, the lyrics remain obscured.
Before the concert I added myself to the millions who’ve already listened and watched Lake Street Dive’s cover recorded on a Brighton, Massachusetts curb of the 1969 debut single of the Jackson 5 “I Want You Back”. As if to underscore the relocating of the original from glitzy stage to sidewalk, Lake Street Dive slows the song way down to a greasy, heartfelt groove that would almost be dirge-like if it didn’t bring a smile to your face. This is music-making that seems spontaneous, and is emotionally rich, natural, and tremendously fun. Divested of all the electronic nonsense of large- or even medium-scale entertainments you get the real stuff of life and music. When Lake Street Dive pulled out the song as their encore last Sunday the crowd cheered, even through the throb of the speakers hearing what some of us really wanted in the first place—that sidewalk sound.