Lettuce at The Stone Pony, NJ (9/20/2019) by Chris
Updated: May 9, 2020
Lettuce has long been a powerhouse funk force to be reckoned with. From the first time I saw them play Up North Fest in co-writer Tim Lemon's home state Maine, I was obsessed with this bands vibe and they immediately became an instant classic to me. On Friday, September 20th on the eve of Asbury's own Sea.Hear.Now festival, Lettuce opened the weekend up by bringing the heat to the streets!
Opening with "Madison Square", which for a while could be heard on MSG network's Knicks broadcasts, I knew it was going to be a good night (Let's Go Rangers!) Following was Deitch's drum frenzy "The Last Suppit", an explosive bop with shades of vintage funk up the wazoo. I do tend to miss Kraz on some of these (now throwback) Rage! tracks, but Shmeans got it done in delightful fashion. Side note: I saw Shmeans go up against Jake Cinniger (whom I belive to be one of the great guitar players of our generation) in a head-to-head guitar duel over Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer". They were opening up for rock legends Umphrey's McGee at Penn's Landing, PA in 2015, so it seemed a collaboration between them was imminent. To even moderately hang with Cinniger requires god-like chops, but Adam "Shmeans" Smirnoff absolutely slayed it! Great guitarists are constantly proving themselves and refuse to rest in their laurels. Personally, I don't think Shmeans will ever have to prove his guitar prowess to me in any other way again! (Video of the collaboration below)
Getting back to the show, the third song of the set "Ghost of Jupiter" took it down a notch with some ambient keys and sound beds. The lighting work here also really sold it for me. Following that, they kept the Fly block strong with "Lettsanity", a fiery funk number with an undeniable groove, then a "Slippin' Into Darkness" complimented with some tasteful teasers including B.T. Express' "Do It ('Till You're Satisfied)" and Jimi Hendrix's "Who Knows". After that came Trapezoid, which I must admit is growing on me since the release of Elevate. These cats don't play around with paying homage to their all time favorite musical influences, and those aforementioned are some of their more prominent ones for sure. Speaking of influences, the next song in the setlist was a cover of Sly & The Family Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). Following that, a song appropriately titled "Trilogy" off of Crush ensued, which is basically just 3 songs converged into an indescribable odyssey of sound and emotion. This is where my documentation of the set began to get fuzzy, but somewhere around here is where Benny Bloom played what I'm pretty sure was the greatest trumpet solo I've ever experienced live. It felt like the air was sucked out of the room like a balloon, plateaued, then re-introduced at the climax for a loud, conclusive POP! It was a glorious and absolutely breathtaking moment I will never forget, especially after close to a 4 year hiatus of seeing Lettuce play. The soul fix I had been craving and didn't know it was thoroughly satisfied.
Soon after "the solo", I gathered my senses as the band mushed forward with a real uptempo, calypso sounding number titled "Krewe" off the new record. This song was released as a single prior to Elevate. It's funky and drenched in a collectively determined, unifying vibe. They really jammed this one out too, which was obviously a pleasure to witness. Front row "Benny Side" was a great vantage point to check out the Shady Horns' saxophonist Ryan Zoidis' myriad of effects work. Some of his patches completely transformed the sax into a lo-fi sounding synth, or simply gave it the perfect amount of delay/reverb to allow for a retro sound without overdoing it. This was particularly needed I feel, as although Nigel has been a terrific permanent fixture to the group and is very into experimenting with effects himself, Zoidis fills a lot of sonic spaces that Eric Krasno and Neil Evans filled.
The fun didn't stop yet as the funk outfit charged forth with another greasy classic titled "Pocket Change", with more than a few hints of both James Brown and Oakland funkers Tower of Power infused in the song's pulse. Following that, Purple Cabbage transported the audience into an other-worldly dimension of bliss and pure hip-hop. The effects from everybody as a unit on this one are radical. That is one thing that has always amazed me about these guys is that although they each are unbelievably original with their own unique personalities, everything always contributes to the common denominator which is great songs. It transcends their differences in a positive, meaningful way and I feel very connected to their cause both musically and personally.
They closed out the bulk of their set with Tears for Fears' cover "Everybody Wants to Rule the World". The band has a history of selecting covers they can really make their own, including Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up" off of Rage which more or less got me into the band. I think it's in their nature to try and bring all types of people together, and what better way than to introduce some of those fan favorites into their diverse catalogue. Not to mention, it nestled naturally into the album and at no point felt forced (nor should it as they've been playing it for quite a bit). The band departed briefly, then came back strong, dropping stellar encore "Blast Off!" from (you guessed it) Rage! I was stoked at how much they played off that record because the first time I saw them in Maine, they were just about to release it and stacked their set with those tunes. Definitely a full circle moment for my Lettuce fandom.
That being said, I would have been totally content to leave the venue quietly with my Lettuce stickers as well as half ownership of a Witches Brew vinyl , but fate and possibly some form of funk magic had other plans. As we exited The Stone Pony, stickers (and accidental beer) in hand, I decided to apply one to a freshly written parking ticket in an attempt to ease the pain of it's recipient. Almost as if summoned, we turned the corner and Eric "Jesus" Coomes appeared in the gated lot where their bus was parked! He immediately approached and, although clearly digesting the show and deep in his thoughts, gave us all a bit of warm, genuine conversation and listened attentively as we spoke of how the performance affected us. Speaking from the musician's viewpoint, theres always things you wish you had played better and a sometimes varied perspective from the listener. The energy of playing live music, both before and after the show, is always daunting no matter the size of the venue or audience. Jesus humbly admitted that he "needed to hear that" when we gave him our praises, so that in itself gave me equal joy to seeing the concert. To even slightly console the bassists worried mind and assure him that the message and energy conveyed this night were both fresh and inspiring, was a monumental moment. Thank you Jesus and Lettuce for all you do!