On a Boston sidewalk, the brassy, sassy combo Lake Street Dive tears into an acoustic soul cover of the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back.” The band, consisting of nimble upright bass, spare but precise percussion and swinging Big Easy brass, plays live with front woman Rachael Price. Price, a jazz pop revelation, comes across like a pair of Joneses — gritty as Sharon, sophisticated and syncopated as Rickie Lee.
The YouTube video of Lake Street Dive’s take on the Jackson’s standard went viral, netting LSD 1,000,000 views and counting. On September 29th, the band, dubbed the “mixologists of soul, folk and jazz” by Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor, performed music from the upcoming Cohen Brothers’ valentine to the 60s Greenwich Village folk boom Inside Llewyn Davis, sharing an NYC stage with the likes of Joan Baez and Patti Smith, and Lake Street Dive is now looking forward to their first European tour.
“It will be our first time overseas and we couldn’t be more excited about it,” says bassist Bridget Kearney. “The shows are already selling well and we can’t wait to see how folks respond over there to our music.”
Yet before Lake Street Dive crosses the big pond, they will make a stop at the Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF) near Black Mountain North Carolina on Friday, October 18, 2013. The fit could not be finer. Nestled in the alpine Blue Ridge mountain valley — where avant-garde composer John Cage staged his first “happening,” and father of the geodesic dome Buckminster Fuller once taught design — LEAF takes place on the former campus of inspired and eclectic Black Mountain College. The long shuttered school’s graceful, uplifting and go-for-broke spirit imbues the festival, which finds a perfect complement in Lake Street Dive’s free-and-easy mash-up of jazz, Beatlesque melodies, stirring harmonies, Steely Dan cool and bop-inspired improvisation.
The band assembled at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, and has been together for nine and a half years. Kearney and Price met in a mandatory drumming class. According to Kearney, “(Rachael) was a terrible drummer, but a terrific musician. I knew I wanted to be in a band with her as soon as I heard her sing.” The story goes that guitarist/brass-man Mike Olson (AKA McDuck) called the foursome together to demo the concept of “free country,” a brainy mix of Patsy Cline and Ornette Coleman. But wiser heads prevailed and the group morphed into their present incarnation. In interviews, McDuck points out that this tale is a great origin story, but it’s simply not true: “I just wanted a bar band, and finally, we have it.”
Price, a key component to this most unusual “bar band” (named after a street in McDuck’s native Minneapolis that is lined with dive bars) got into music at an early age. “I started singing jazz when I was 5 years old and performing when I was 11,” she says. “My father definitely was an influence. Jazz was the music his father listened to, and that always had an impact on him. I started singing professionally with my own band when I was 19.”
At one time, Price envisioned a contemporary jazz career path along the lines of Diana Krall, and for a while balanced a solo career with her work with Lake Street Dive, but in the past few years that course has changed. “I stopped doing jazz full time and sort of let my career take me where it wanted to go. At that time, everyone in the band was figuring out what projects were most important to them and naturally, the band came to be everyone’s top priority. For me, I feel like I’m using all the versatility I learned from jazz and am able to put it into this entirely unique sound. As much as I love jazz standards, nothing can replace the excitement of interpreting new songs.”
Several new songs have been recorded on the as-yet-unreleased LP Bad Self Portraits, held up until Price can extricate herself from contracts tied-in with her jazz past. In the meantime, Lake Street Dive has plenty of other songs, including inimitable and idiosyncratic covers like their Louis Jordan style jump jazz update of George Michael’s “Faith.” “We’ve always included covers in our sets as a way to draw people in,” says Price. “We play mostly original music so we like to do a song that everyone in the crowd would recognize and that would put a smile on their faces. First and foremost, we want (the songs) to be very recognizable even after we’d messed with them.”
Sublimely messed-up music has always been a part of LEAF. Yet the festival has continued to include a mountain music component in its eclectic and worldly mix. As Lake Street Dive gears up for the LEAF, one nagging question remains: How did a pop band that effortlessly masters the tricky art of swing become a staple at festivals that feature bluegrass? “We’re not really sure why the bluegrass community has welcomed us so heartily, says Kearney. “But considering we don’t fit into any genre, we don’t mind! It’s a great community of musicians and listeners and we’re happy to be a part of it.”
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