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Lettuce Brings the Funk to Brooklyn Bowl

by Steven Pisano

Lettuce at Brooklyn Bowl(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

Funk here, funk there, funk everywhere. That’s how I spent the first weekend of 2016 when the band Lettuce brought its pyrotechnic funk to Brooklyn Bowl, playing two full sets long into the morning on both New Year’s night and the night after.

At the January 2 show, I left the club at quarter-to-three, midway through the second set; contrary to the old song, there were still a lot more people there than just me. The club sold out both nights, and Lettuce showed no signs of letting up on their high-octane grooves. The only way to get those guys off the stage was to turn out the lights and lock the door.

Formed while still students at the Berklee College of Music, bonding over a shared passion for Earth, Wind, and Fire and Tower of Power, Lettuce has been around over 20 years now. But, their reputation rests almost exclusively on the word-of-mouth about their kick-ass live shows. And they certainly did not disappoint at Brooklyn Bowl, with pin-sharp sets that had the precision of Formula One cars on the curves at Le Mans.

Lettuce at Brooklyn Bowl

With the deep-as-the Grand-Canyon bass lines from Erick Coomes and the giant-killer guitar riffs from Adam Smirnoff leading the way, Lettuce is old school funk the way their heroes played it. And they definitely  would have a higher profile in the music biz today if, first of all, their name wasn’t Lettuce (I mean, come on), and second, if they weren’t primarily an instrumental band.

Back in the day, such a group might have become the house band at Stax or Motown—a faceless group of exemplary musicians for whom grooves and rhythm were the stuff of life. But quick, how many bands on your top 10 bands of all time, or even your top 100, are instrumental bands? Even if they had inane lyrics and bad singers, you probably can name more bands simply because they had singers. Back when I was a kid, the equivalent band was Booker T and the M.G.’s. They at least had one hit single (“Green Onions”), something the Funk Brothers over at Motown couldn’t claim.

Lettuce at Brooklyn Bowl

Too bad that along the way, Lettuce couldn’t have lined up a top-notch vocalist as part of their funky stew. When guest singers Alecia Chakour and Nigel Hall each took a turn helming a song, the whole dynamic on stage changed, and their vocals added something rich and spicy that mere instrumentals just cannot aspire to, song after song. Hall especially was a magic fit, with his jazzy, hip hop influenced voice and manners.

Down in front near the stage, people could not keep their booties still, and there was a whole lot of gyrating and grinding going on. Whether a song was led by Coomes’ bass or Smirnoff’s guitar, or whether saxophonist Ryan Zoidis or trumpeter Eric Bloom were taking the lead with some solid horn riffs, songs often started out slow, then began a steady climb, then percolated to a climactic boil. Neal Evans on keyboards also laid out some groovy lines on keyboards, especially when making his instrument wail like an old Hammond organ. The only players, strangely,  who couldn’t be heard driving the beats were Adam Deitch on drums and an unknown guy on congas. Their sound just seemed to get eaten in the mix.

(More photos can be found here.)

Lettuce at Brooklyn Bowl