Soulive – Break Out (2005)

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by Pico

Jam bands seem to come in all kinds of flavors. The Allman Brothers took blues-rock, mixed it with soul and jazz and stretched it out. Grateful Dead was into a psychedelic kind of folk while Phish was known for their eclecticism and thrived on absurdity. Virtuosos Derek Trucks and Jonas Hellborg use the extended form as a vehicle for their instrumental prowess.

Meanwhile, Medeski, Martin and Wood’s brand of music is more cranial, twisted and unpredictable.

But if all that sounds too unnecessary complicated or labored for you to dig, then Boston-based Soulive is where it’s at. A trio (Eric Krasno on guitar, and brothers Alan and Neal Evans on drums and Hammond B-3 organ/Fender Rhodes respectively), their sound pays direct homage to the jazzy soul-funk of the time when Sly & The Family Stone, James Brown and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters ruled that world.

On stage, they won’t shy away from a 15 minute blowing session, but at least they take care to groove for every second of that fifteen minutes. In the studio, that groove is compacted and often the magic is harder to capture. That’s why I think their first full length release Turn It Out worked better than the Blue Note releases that followed; the songs were more road tested and stretched out to near concert length. It also didn’t hurt that some of the songs were recorded live, either.

Fast forward five years later to 2005; the brief Blue Note run ended with two inferior studio albums (Doin’ Something, Next) and a live album Soulive. Now with Concord Records, the band’s latest effort Break Out still doesn’t capture the live magic of the first release, but the flip side is that the band shows more depth. They don’t really live up to the album title, but they’ve added a bit more variety to their music.

Overall, the sound has more contemporary touches with drum loops and the like but without losing that seventies feel. Some horn charts sound more like Tom-Tom 84 (Earth, Wind & Fire) than the JB Horns (James Brown).

Sure, those familiar mid-tempo funk trances are still present in tracks like “Reverb” and “Glad To Know Ya”, but then there’s a surprising turn with a sweet Latin-influenced groove called “Cachaca”. Meanwhile, Krasno has branched out from aping George Benson almost exclusively to now showing the strong influences of John Scofield (“Vapor”) and Ernie Isley (Jimi Hendrix cover “Crosstown Traffic”, “Freedom”).

Guest vocalists like Ivan Neville, Reggie Watts and former Living Colour frontman Corey Glover break up the instrumental tracks with some good, gritty R&B but they’re topped by funk diva Chaka Khan, who returns to her classic Rufus sound with the appropriately titled “Back Again.”

As someone who grew up on this stuff, I’m glad to see the rise of retro grooves and bands like Soulive leading the charge with solid records like Break Out. The other day my iPod dialed up some vintage Average White Band right after this record and I barely noticed. That’s when I knew the guys in Soulive were keepin’ it real.

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