Written by Kyle DiRaddo
Photos by Jane Barbacane
It is difficult to know what to expect when attending a two-night run. If a band is only going to be in town for a single night, it is usually safe to assume that they are going to bring their best to make sure that crowd is entertained and in attendance the next time they’re in town. A three-night run is almost guaranteed to have at least one show that a bunch of people are talking about not living up to the other two. Two-night runs can be a gamble. Is the band going to drop hot fire on consecutive nights or are they going to take their foot off the gas for one? In the case of Soulive’s twin showing at Ardmore Music Hall this past weekend, they not only kept their foot on the gas, but they stomped that bad boy to the floor.
Soulive is a jazz/funk fusion band comprised of brothers Alan and Neal Evans on drums and keys respectfully with six-string slayer Eric Krasno running roughshod on guitar. The trio formed in 1999 in the Evans brother’s Woodstock, New York studio over a jam session that has morphed itself into a career spanning two decades. In their time together, Soulive has collaborated with everyone from Marcus King and John Scofield to Chaka Kahn and Ivan Neville and have even opened for the Rolling Stones.
As if seeing Soulive wasn’t enough, the boys were bringing along some extra ammo for the weekend’s festivities. Saxophonist James Casey and trombonist Natalie Cressman (my long-time musical crush) from the Trey Anastasio Band were going to be providing some backup both nights. The stage was set for a really solid pair of shows and the only thing standing in my way was finding a parking spot…which eventually remedied itself, but not without some colorful language from yours truly.
The Ernest Stuart Trio kicked things off on Friday and they did not disappoint. Aggressive, loud, and totally unique, “Yeezus,” as Stuart called his band, were a lot of fun to watch and proved that you don’t need to conform to the traditional format of what makes up a band. Using only a trombone, drum set, and a stand-up bass, Yeezus filled the intimate setting of the Ardmore Music Hall from beginning to end. The trombone and bass traded between rhythm and melody frequently and with ease and their high-energy performance kept the surprisingly large crowd moving.
Philadelphia’s own Maggie Mae opened things up on Saturday with her ten-piece band that included three saxophones and a trio of female backup singers. Her style of folksy rock was a nice change of pace and the tight musicianship of her band absolutely betrayed the fact that they only released their first single in 2018. If you can find them doing Bill Withers’ “Use Me” anywhere on the internet, listen to it and thank me later. It was a completely new take on a song that has been covered to death and it worked really well.
And now, ladies and gentlemen…Soulive.
There isn’t much that I can say about Soulive that hasn’t been said a million times before. They are an incredibly gifted trifecta of musicians and you’d be hard pressed to find another band whose styles blend together so well. The instrumental make-up of the band is always going to draw a ton of comparisons to Medeski, Martin, and Wood or The Meters, but what makes Soulive their own entity is the attitude and subtle swagger they bring to their performances. Multiple times over the course of both evenings, I found myself grooving to extremely complicated up-tempo numbers and I would look up expecting to see three faces mirroring the intricate music they were producing. Instead, Krasno and the brothers Evans all looked as if what they were doing wasn’t super hard. That is the quiet cool of Soulive. It doesn’t matter how difficult the music is, it’s old hat to these guys. They’ve been here before and they know they’ll be here again.
The Ardmore shows should go forward known as “A Tale of Two Evenings” for how different they approached each show. Friday night saw Soulive reach back into their classic bag of tricks and show what has made them such a solid draw for so long. Never staying in one place for too long, they hopped between upbeat jazzy tunes and Stevie Ray Vaughn-esque bluesy jams on a dime. At times, Neal’s Hammond organ (side note: the Hammond organ is the benchmark for all keyboards. Prove me wrong. I’ll wait.) would be funking up the joint while Alan’s skins were banging out extremely elaborate jazz beats with Krasno dropping blues riffs over all of it. Time signatures exist as more of a suggestion rather than law in Soulive’s world and that opens them up to explorations in genre mashups that no one else is even close to touching.
Saturday night saw a continuation of Friday’s vibe, but not for long. Krasno took up the banner and lead his bandmates through a couple of jazzy arrangements before moving aside and letting Neal take the wheel and drive them through the end of the evening’s second song. It was there that Soulive took a hard-left turn and brought out what I can only describe as dark surf rock before bringing in some straight-forward rock and roll and a nasty cover of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” that would have impressed Dickey Betts. They brought more funk on Saturday night than Friday and I could have sworn there was some mid-90’s West Coast hip-hop inspired grooves with some Garcia-esque moments as well.
James Casey and Natalie Cressman were brought out two-thirds of the way through the set on both nights and while they weren’t on stage as much as I thought they would have been, they made the most out of their time. Soulive brought a lot of energy themselves, but Casey and Cressman added a whole new dimension to the show. The addition of the sax and trombone brought out a different dynamic that re-invigorated anyone who might have tried to take a breath. While Cressman solidified in my mind why she is such a sought-after performer, it was James Casey that really stole the show. Soulive gave his solos ample time to develop and the crowd ate up every note as if someone was going to come in and take them away if they didn’t. I would have loved to have seen James and Natalie on stage a little more, but when they were out there it definitely added a layer that I didn’t know I needed until it was there.
It shocks me to my very core that we aren’t talking with any regularity about Eric Krasno being in the upper pantheon of jam guitarists. The guy is an absolute monster. He doesn’t spend an incredible amount of time high up on the neck, but instead chooses to play with the middle and lower tones which gives him a more old school sound then a lot of his counterparts in other groups.
It also surprises me that we aren’t looking to Alan Evans as a source of renewable energy. It’s as if he is mainlining espresso because he never stops playing. His tempo changes and time signature mastery border on the unfair. Meanwhile, brother Neal impressed me to no end with how he controls the bass line with his left hand and takes the melody with his right. He isn’t playing left-hand keyboard parts to mask the lack of a bass. He is constantly playing legitimate bass lines with his left while making his Hammond sing with his right and the level of skill and talent that takes is truly mind-boggling.
Soulive has been doing what they do for 20 years and it really comes through not only in their incredible musicianship, but in the ways they are able to blend and change their sound at will. They captivate their crowds with an unpredictability that lots of bands try to execute, but few are able to pull off. If you haven’t listened to Soulive or they don’t make their way to your playlists that often, you need to change that. Immediately. They are the embodiment of true free-form improvisation and your friends will be super impressed with how well-rounded you are.
Thank you, Soulive. That was a real good time.