by Aristea Mellos
Last Thursday marked the sixth night of Bowlive IV—an eight-day music festival devoted to the jiving spirit of soul-jazz that takes place annually at the Brooklyn Bowl. It’s an event that has established somewhat of a cult following over the last few years, attracting a devoted legion of hardcore fans, many of which come armed with full eight-day passes.
The Brooklyn Bowl, described by one patron as a “bowling alley concert hall,” lies in the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Part functional bowling alley, part bar, part concert venue, it resembles a hipster’s paradise. Entering the venue, you can’t help but notice the large wall of voodoo heads illuminated with oversized, multicolored light globes. Last Thursday, loud pre-show music pumped through the hall while screens projected footage of Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. As it grew closer to the show’s start time, a mass of 20- and 30-something New Yorkers began filing into the venue to see Soulive with special guests, including George Porter, Jr. & The Shady Horns, Bill Evans, and John Medeski.
Soulive—the resident band of the festival—is a jazz-funk trio comprising brothers Alan and Neal Evans (drums and keyboards, respectively), as well as guitarist Eric Krasno. The slick trio kicked off the musical proceedings with an original number "Aladdin," a bass-heavy tune that featured impressive left-hand passage work by Neal Evans on Hammond organ. As the crowd began to warm up, the band rolled into their second number, Jimi Hendrix’s "Manic Depression," and a sea of plaid shirts began to sway to Krasno’s virtuosic and psychedelic improvisations, creating the illusion of a moving patchwork quilt.
After a few trio-only numbers, The Shady Horns (Eric Bloom, trumpet; James Casey, saxophone; and Ryan Zoidis, baritone saxophone) joined Soulive, bringing spunk to the stage. When not tooting their horns in a crisp chorus, they often picked up surrounding pieces of percussion to jam along with the winding solos that filled the air.
Guitarist Tracy O’Neal was introduced for a smoky rendition of the Beatles classic "Get Back," a raw performance despite some shaky harmonizations. The surprise treat of the night arrived at the end of the first half, when George Porter, Jr. was announced as a guest. Porter, the New Orleans bassist best known from his days as a member of The Meters, rounded out the first half with a sizzling medley of Meters classics.
After a brief intermission, the Bowl seemed to be at capacity, with close to one-thousand tightly packed fans bobbing and grooving away. Legendary saxophone star Bill Evans took to the center of the stage, flanked by the keyboard guru John Medeski. Songs from Soulive’s album Spark! opened the second half, providing Bill Evans with the opportunity to dexterously swap between saxophones.
Watching the musicians, it was apparent that they were feeding off each other’s energy. A cascade of melody passing and call and response solos flew across the stage, with phenomenal precision and ingenuity. It was particularly inspiring to listen to the musical games at play within the mini-trio that emerged between Medeski, Bill, and Neal Evans, and as the second set developed, it felt as though the incredible displays of musicianship were growing with each passing number.
The finals guests of the evening, trombonist Natalie Cressman and drummer ?uestlove (also serving as the Bowl’s DJ) rounded out a star-studded evening. As the tireless rhythm master Alan Evans returned to the kit for the final number, "Tuesday Night Squad," the concert was brought to close in a rhapsodic manner.
The clock struck midnight, and a final swirl of tunes lingered in the air, whilst the Bowl erupted with the sounds of a musically satiated audience. The sounds of the Mother Starship may have left the building for now, but that’s the beauty of Bowlive: It’s just a 51-week wait until the ship re-docks in Williamsburg for more musical insanity.