For a whirlwind weekend in Colorado, two white-hot bands, both riding waves of unprecedented success, converged on the Front Range. Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals and Lettuce were booked on back-to-back nights at Red Rocks Amphitheater on the mid-June weekend the iconic Morrison venue celebrated its 78th anniversary.
More than halfway through their Best Teef in the Game Tour, Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals sold out yet another show on Friday night, with Thundercat and Earl Sweatshirt providing direct support, respectively. The popular Dr. Dre affiliate let it all hang out for an hour-and-a-half blitzkrieg that made it crystal clear why his star is shining blindingly bright in the summer of 2019.
The following evening, psychedelic funk-hop sextet Lettuce, arriving on the scene merely one day after the release of their critically-acclaimed fifth full-length LP, Elevate, took over the celebrated amphitheater for their annual RAGE ROCKS extravaganza. This year’s installment found LETT rolling through with New Orleans brass band legends The Soul Rebels and funky instrumental-fusion quartet TAUK in tow, and performing another Jerry Garcia Band tribute set in addition to a set of Lettuce originals.
Betwixt these titanic events, in a considerably smaller space and much deeper into the night, these two factions would come together with a bevy of friends, the spirit of collaboration, and a downright righteous vibration to make history at Cervantes’ in Denver.
Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals – “Heart Don’t Stand A Chance” – Red Rocks
Like a freight train, the Best Teef in the Game Tour barreled into Morrison, Colorado on Friday, June 14th, deep into a late-spring/early-summer jaunt that’s taken them around the world in just a few months. But this wasn’t your average theater or arena gig—we’re talking about the mighty Red Rocks Amphitheater, so you know the stakes were high for Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals.
The singer/drummer/emcee has released two full-length LPs (Oxnard and Ventura) in the last calendar year, and high-tailed into this big weekend riding one helluva head of steam. After a pair of well-received warm-up sets—first from stalwart Los Angeles-based bassist extraordinaire Thundercat, then by smoked-out, lo-fi rapper Earl Sweatshirt—Anderson .Paak, the hottest artist in contemporary music today, stormed the stage with a youthful exuberance that instantly set Red Rocks ablaze. Beginning with a jazzy trumpet intro from Maurice “Mo Betta” Brown, the electrifying master of ceremonies leaped into a nearly one-hundred minute excursion that ran the gamut of .Paak’s short but meteoric career.
The set began with a gospelized take on the beloved Malibu cut “Heart Don’t Stand A Chance”, the first of many deafening roars filled the air; from there, the star plowed through one scintillating jam after the next with a torrent of mojo. When .Paak segued from “Heart Don’t” into a version of “Savior’s Road” that flipped Sister Nancy’s timeless reggae anthem “Bam Bam” on its axis, I worried about the structural integrity of Red Rocks Amphitheater, as it shook and reverberated with The Free Nationals’ vociferous low-end theories. Classic cuts like “Come Down” and new joints like “King James” worked extremely well together, and The Free Nationals dropped their own track “Time” (which features the dearly-departed Mac Miller) while .Paak took every opportunity to astound the sold-out Red Rocks massive with demonstrative displays of swagger. Don’t he make it look easy… don’t he make it look good?
Anderson .Paak – “Tints” – Red Rocks
With the solid backing of his hometown homies, Cheeky Andy left nary a stone unturned as he raced from the front of the stage to his elevated drum kit, set atop a psychedelic Rubix cube of sorts. The drums were part of a contraption that would mutate, rise, fall and hide from view whilst the man of the hour covered every square inch of this multi-level stage design, bouncing from one spot to the next with reckless abandon.
.Paak seems to have re-arranged many original songs, each in a fashion which highlights the strengths of his band, particularly the enigmatic T-NAVA on the keys (and DJ Kool-esque ad-libs), and the aforementioned trumpet wizard Mo Brown. In this writer’s opinion, the finest selection of the evening was Oxnard’s “Trippy”, a luscious groove chock-full of mouth-watering dynamics, thrilling and undeniably sexy. Other .Paak highlights included an earth-rattling rendition of his Kaytranada collab “Glowed Up”, “Put Me Thru” and the golden “The Waters” off Malibu, the quintessential early cut “Might Be” (Venice), the torrid vibe of NxWorries‘ “Suede”, a bombastic two-fer in “Bubblin’>Milk n’ Honey”, and a scorching triple encore of “Am I Wrong”, “Lite Weight” (Malibu) and the emotional Mac Miller tribute “DANG!”.
Few artists put more pure energy or personality into their onstage performances, and even fewer have the rock-solid catalog to back it up. From slick, sarcastic rap verses to crooning, soulful come-ons, from the thunderous drums to running all the way out into the ravenous Red Rocks throngs, from chicken-sh*t ho to magnificent pro, Anderson .Paak proved without a shadow of a doubt, that the man they used to call Breezy Lovejoy hoo-rides in a league of his own. YES LAWD!!
Anderson .Paak – “The Waters” – Red Rocks
After the Best Teef in the Game Tour torched Red Rocks, around midnight, Maurice Brown and The Free Nationals took over Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom, selling out Denver’s popular venue on extremely short notice. .Paak has frequently showed up and performed at these random late-night parties in various cities across the country, including shindigs in Charlotte, New York City and, most recently, New Orleans (which featured a surprise showing from Janelle Monae, among others). On this full moon Freaky Friday, The Free Nationals and Brown were assisted by a plethora of friends including Anderson .Paak, Lettuce’s Adam Deitch and Ryan Zoidis, Break Science’s Borahm Lee, Marcus King Band’s DeShawn “D-Vibes” Alexander, Tyler Coomes aka Tycoon, and others—all of whom would treat the Denver massive to a raucous one hundred and fifty minutes of juicy jams.
The ever-mutating group was most often fronted by Mo Brown, who alternated between his trumpet and enthusiastic emceeing and acted as de-facto musical director for the at-times sloppy yet undeniably-thrilling, once-in-a-lifetime experience. For the majority of the affair, the house band was augmented by drummer JD Beck and keyboardist DOMi, a pair who showed-and-proved throughout the elongated set, revealing impressive instrumental prowess and humble confidence.
Truth be told, the electricity that so many of us chase was without question most prevalent when both .Paak and Deitch shared the spotlight, commandeering the two drum kits at the rear of the stage and making many hearts swell over the course of a handful of improvisational joints.
Anderson .Paak & Adam Deitch w/ Maurice Brown & The Free Nationals – Cervantes’
[Video: upful LIFE]
When the Red Rocks schedule came out a few months back pitting .Paak and LETT back-to-back on the same weekend, we could only have imagined manifesting a musical connection between these two cultural icons. But thanks to the efforts of Cervantes’, Maurice Brown, the Free Nationals and, of course, .Paak and Deitch themselves, in a matter of fleeting moments, a dream we dreamed one afternoon quickly became the reality of our surroundings. Believe you me, this was beyond magic.
The actual music performed onstage was quite good, and occasionally great. Funky jams owned the night, as well as numerous R&B and hip-hop tangents that quoted Dilla, De La Soul and beyond. Ryan Zoidis came and went a few times throughout the set, blowing sweet sax into the night; meanwhile, Maurice Brown led the charge with furious verses and occasional ethereal trumpet lines to accompany .Paak’s crooning from the kit. Performances aside, there was no doubt a tangible, almost mythical vibe that percolated within each and every soul present in Cervantes; that night, as we knew we were witnessing history in the making. This magic a memory that I will carry with me for the rest of my days.
Was an honor to play double drums with the great @AndersonPaak 2nite at a great afterparty.. Dude truly cares about the music in a sincere next level way… #DenverPoppinOff #RedRocks2nite @lettucefunk pic.twitter.com/7rkZJUUNq7
— Adam Deitch (@RealDeitchBeats) June 15, 2019
The following day, it was Lettuce’s turn to take the stage at Red Rocks. After The Soul Rebels kicked things off with a criminally low-key opening set, TAUK took the Red Rocks stage and revealed an hour of their multi-faceted, instrumental fusion grooves. Thousands were in attendance as the band tore into “Friction”, found on their 2014 LP, Collisions, and thousands more filed in to the powerful rhythms of drummer Isaac Teel, his inimitable swag permeating throughout the majestic confines of this supernatural venue. Late in the set, local horn players Jon Gray (trumpet) and Nick Gerlach (sax) joined TAUK onstage for a fiery original in “Pitter Patter” and a timeless Stevie Wonder classic “Higher Ground”, the latter delivered in pulverizing fashion.
TAUK – Afro Tonic – Andrew Story
[Video: Andrew Story]
To reprise their historic LOCKN’ performance from last August—a mammoth throwdown that featured Oteil Burbridge, Kofi Burbridge, Bob Weir, and John Mayer, Lettuce took the stage for the first frame of RAGE ROCKS 2019 and delivered another sturdy set of Jerry Garcia Band covers. This particular part of the culture is not necessarily in the LETT wheelhouse, though bassist Jesus Coomes and guitarist Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff are card-carrying Deadheads. The rest of the band learned a handful of iconic JGB numbers to deliver in the Lettuce-funk style. After a chilled-out, slowly-swelling “Finders Keepers” opened the show, longtime JGB organist Melvin Seals joined Lettuce on a Hammond B3 on the wing, performing with the band for the remainder of the first set. (Note: I’m convinced he did not play on “Keepers” because that song predates Seals’ stint with Garcia, and he likely had never performed the groovy vamp with Jerry while he was alive).
Lettuce – “Cats Under The Stars” – Jerry Garcia Band Tribute – Red Rocks
[Video: upful LIFE]
Employing the glistening, vibrant vocal contributions of Laneesha Randolph and Raquel Rodriguez, the remainder of the JGB tribute at RAGE ROCKS 2019 mirrored their performance from LOCKN’. Lettuce featured Smirnoff’s lead vocal for “That’s What Love Will Make You Do” and “After Midnight”, while Eric “Benny” Bloom (trumpet) took the microphone for “Tangled Up in Blue”, a song rabid LETT-stans have affectionately re-dubbed “Tangled Up in Bloom”. Nigel Hall really found the sweet spot on “How Sweet It Is” and “I Second That Emotion”, digging into the Motown numbers with a pulpit authority. Hall and Seals had an inter-generational chemistry on display for the entirety of the set, with Seals guiding the grooves into realms of the familiar, his whistling Hammond B3 and Leslie speaker singing to the stars. During a slow and groovy “They Love Each Other”, Lettuce couldn’t help but detour into a brief passage from Herbie Hancock & the Headhunters arrangement of “Watermelon Man,” a tease that was vocally well-received where we were dancing. “Cats Under the Stars”, which saw bassist Jesus Coomes step up to the mic and offer a bright and bulbous rendering of the beloved cut, brought their opening frame to a close. Naturally, “Cats” subtly mutated into an outro jam that might as well have been The Meters.
Lettuce – “Tangled Up In Blue” – Jerry Garcia Band Tribute – Red Rocks
[Video: upful LIFE]
To unfurl the second set, billed as “Pure Lettuce”, the boys chose to detonate “Trapezoid”, the opening salvo from their brand new LP, Elevate. A cannon blast of subsonic proportions, the song marries elements of post-Trap and future-bass to the LETT modus operandi, and the results are nothing short of staggering. To up the proverbial ante, Lettuce invited the Skyline Drumline, who perform at Denver Nuggets home games, to the RAGE ROCKS stage to sound off for the “Trapezoid” outro, leaving mouths agape as rapid-fire military riddims launched into the moonlit sky.
The remainder of set two was a combination of sublime energies and bubonic force. Next up was a District double shot of “LETT it GoGo > Making My Way Back Home”. This song pairing showcased the homegrown steez of keyboardist/vocalist Nigel Hall who, despite his Yankees fitted, reps D.C. to the fullest.
Elevate’s first single, “Krewe”, got the dance party started quickly and featured a shimmering Ryan Zoidis tenor sax solo. “Royal Highness”, channeling Prince and P-Funk in one fell swoop, propelled the RAGE ROCKS massive even further into a dithers. This fresh Lettuce flowed into their new album’s celestial centerpiece, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. Nigel again took the wheel, revealing a touching, tangible emotional quotient as his D’angelo-like vocal swells rose to the occasion. The band built to a creamy crescendo while Randolph and Rodriguez returned to shower us all in the Gospel spirit with soaring backup vox. The band showcased a side of themselves throughout the evening that they seldom unveil: Quiet Storm R&B. On several tracks, “Rule the World” in particular, the minimalist vibe and mid-’80s aesthetic of Quiet Storm was present in abundance, just another terrific tool in LETT’s voluminous shed, as the band proceeded to dive deep into the abyss of their own creations.
Lettuce w/ Skyline Drumline – “Trapezoid” – Red Rocks
[Video: upful LIFE]
After a deep breath, the band turned a corner and furiously tunneled to the Far East on the unreleased “Moksha”, as Smirnoff took it to the house with fearless lead guitar work while Coomes and Deitch held down the rhythm section with an authority only they can summon. Midway through the set, the band welcomed Jesus’ brother Tyler Coomes, aka Tycoon, to augment things on a small percussion set-up. Drumline mania notwithstanding, the finest LETT performance of the evening was Elevate’s psychedelic hip-hop masterpiece, “Purple Cabbage”, which took flight and careened through the galaxies with an untold fervor that detailed, in no uncertain terms, just exactly what neighborhood this band of brothers lives in 2019.
To wrap up LETT set two, the band had planned a to drop “The Force/Phyllis” sandwich, both standout tracks from their 2015 LP, Crush. Up against a curfew, the phenoms instead delivered a lengthier “Phyllis” to close out the frame, complete with a choice Adam Deitch drum solo before the song’s double-time reprise. For the obligatory encore, Lettuce returned to the stage for a somewhat truncated “The Force”, instead of the planned “Madison Square”. The latter would have been sensational choice, yet the former offered a bouyant journey to the cosmos and certainly served to satiate the huddled masses still swaying in the whipping frontier winds.
With brief, boisterous “The Force” to close out the festivities, RAGE ROCKS 2019 was written into the books. A perfunctory exclamation point for this band beyond description, and an idyllic final comedown for this fantastic voyage weekend frolicking to the funk on the Front Range.
Words: B.Getz / Upful LIFE