After I returned home from college graduation, my buddy Rob took me to a club in Bridgeport, Connecticut where we saw an act called the Black Rock All Stars. They were known as the hottest band in Fairfield County, Connecticut and onstage these cats were tighter than twins. They put their focus on funk, R&B and soul and there they delivered takes on well-known tracks that never came off like covers. The versions they presented were of the band’s own making. That changed when they played Tower of Power. Then and there they applied a reverence to the music that made the setting go from nightclub to tabernacle. That was always most present when they drilled through “What is Hip”. That’s when my casual love for Tower of Power evolved into a connection to “Oakland Soul” that’s lasted a lifetime. Few bands have been able to replicate what Tower of Power delivers with ease. It’s hard. Lettuce changed all that, a lot.
A band birthed almost 30 years ago in Boston at the Berklee College of Music, Lettuce grabbed the funk torch and has never looked back. The sextet: Adam Deitch (drums), Ryan Zoidis (saxophone), Adam Smirnoff (guitar), Erick Coomes (bass), Nigel Hall (keyboards/vocals), Eric ‘Benny’ Bloom (trumpet) are like the band that inspired them. They’ve been road hounds, playing nightly to big bunches of people who love soul-driven funk. They are now about to release their eighth studio album, Unity, the third consecutive record made at Denver’s Colorado Sound Studios, completing a loose trilogy starting with 2019’s Grammy-nominated Elevate, and continuing with 2020’s Resonate.
The first single is a re-imagined version of The Clark Sisters’ gospel hit “Everything’s Going to Be Alright!” Unlike tastings of Clark songs sampled in the past by Jay Z and Beyonce, the Lettuce approach to this track features vocals by New Orleans-based Dumpstaphunk’s Nick Daniels and is a song for the times. Keyboardist Hall rethought the original applying lyrics that have an eye toward modern sensibilities and concerns. The new take maintains the original version’s integrity and adds a subtle sense of hope through horn and high-hat parts that make the track glisten.
But it’s on “Gravy Train” where the band returns to its funk roots and smacks the pad. Here the guitar parts are patient, deep, soulful and so big-bodied that you’ll take a step back from the groove, wipe you your face, take a well-earned deep breath, and ask yourself what just happened?.
It was the perfect jump off point to ask guitarist Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff about the single and the rare connection so many bands have to one school in Boston.
GOLDMINE: I’m struck by how many jam bands were birthed at the Berklee College of Music. Does the school inspire that?
SHMEEANS: I don’t think that Berklee does inspire this kind of music. What you have to kind of understand about us is that we were kind of like Berklee outcasts in some ways. When we were there this was not the popular thing. It was all about jazz, or even metal. We were not the norm by any means. A lot of us left Berklee early and I think that only one of us ended up graduating. The Berklee thing for us was the ability it created for us to get together, to meet other musicians, and the ability to find out who you are and who you’re not.
GM: You are sharing some bills with one of your idols, Tower of Power. How special has that been?
S: When I was in my high school jazz band, my music teacher came up to me and handed me a mixed tape that he had made. I asked him why he had made it for me and he said “I made you a funk mixed tape because every time we play something funky I see you light up.” I was like “OK!” and I put it on. The tape started with the “Oakland Stroke, Parts A&B,” but together as one. I think I wore out that tape completely, just rewinding it over and over again just trying to figure out what was going on and why it felt so good to me and why I loved it so much. It’s one of the reasons that Tower of Power is beyond important to me as an individual.
GM: The single “Everything’s Going to Be Alright” reinterprets a gospel original in a way that still heralds the original.
S: That was 100% Nigel Hall. He had made a demo for us where he had played every instrument with his reinterpretation and writing. We were in the studio and had decided that we needed another “vocal song “and he really wanted us to try it. We put it down and we all loved it; the message and the guest vocals with Nick Daniels singing it and joining in on the chorus with Nigel. He’s just so talented. If anyone’s not familiar with Dumpstaphunk they should definitely check them out.
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