photo: Andrew Rios
In an Independence Day weekend confluence of supersonic sound-art and the majesty of the natural world, future-funk cosmonauts Lettuce hosted the vibiest party one could hope for at the Dillon Amphitheater, nestled in gorgeous Lake Dillon Colorado.
The veteran ensemble was ably assisted by supremely-gifted sorcerer Cory Henry, the enthralling songstress Judith Hill, and kaleidoscopic producer du-jour Flamingosis, plus a positively picturesque backdrop that belongs on a postcard. Over the course of two magical days and evenings, funkateers poured into Colorado from all over this great land and bore witness to a liberating celebration of bubonic funk, scintillating soul, instrumental hip-hop, jazzy excursions, rhythm, blues, crunk and thump.
Upon arriving at the venue on Friday, July 2nd for the first of two shows, the thought that initially came to mind was that “this place is like a mini-Gorge.” Breathtaking views of the stoic Rocky Mountains, the recently-completed, state-of-the-art venue renovation, the glistening blue waters of Lake Dillon, and a quaint little mountain town that thrives on its shores. Immediately, it felt like a perfect environment for a conscious music event of this kind. The amphitheater and its dazzling surrounds were an idyllic setting, tailor-made for connectivity onstage and off—between the band members, and between the rabid fans who had flocked into town, together in communion with the wonders of nature that enveloped us all.
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Ever the prolific squadron, Lettuce has stayed pretty active since the pandemic began to give way a bit (Delta variant & other recent developments notwithstanding), performing a smattering of shows from Colorado to the Southeast whilst recording and mixing their yet-untitled seventh full-length LP in Colorado Sound Studios over the spring. Each band member has worked on a variety of pet projects over the past year and change; keyboardist/vocalist Nigel Hall‘s long awaited sophomore opus Spiritual, featuring members of Butcher Brown, is set to release on July 16th.
As folks first slowly descended in awe on the magnificent Dillon Amphitheater bowl, the producer Flamingosis was soundtracking the making of our acquaintance. Clad in a colorful tie-dye and peeling off selections from Daymaker, his recently released sack of heatrocks recorded at the venerable Color Red Studios. Flamingosis had just the right vibe for the early evening: mid-tempo numbers rich in live instrumentation that slapped hard as hell, his throwback aesthetic and inventive soulful grooves providing precisely what the funk doctor ordered for this prelude to a rage.
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The mighty Lettuce took the stage shortly after 8 p.m. as the sun was still up and shining brightly. Lead by guitarist Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff, the group delved into an abbreviated take on the rare and riff-heavy “Silverdome” before pulling up into the tension of the “Madison Square” intro and then exploding into a behemoth version of the bombastic fan-favorite found on 2012’s Fly. After a deep improvisational jam within “Madison Square”, a furious “Lettsanity” spiraled into frenetics before settling into the greasy pocket of “LETT Bobby”, the latter cut named for (and inspired by) drummer wunderkind Adam Deitch’s father, Bobby. The group flirted with a theme from “Resonate”, and at one point in this opening segment, nonchalantly worked KRS-ONE’s “Step Into A World” into a particularly sharp improv section.
In a shocking twist that left many jaws agape, the boys seamlessly segued straight into the succulent “Daylight” by obscure late-’70s band RAMP, a deep cut produced by the legendary Roy Ayers, and a beloved sample made timeless by A Tribe Called Quest on their cherished “Bonita Applebum”. The masses bounced and vibed, footloose and fancy free to the classic, buoyant groove. A sizzling version of Cold Blood’s “Ready to Live” was right on time with the news of vocalist Lydia Pense’s health woes, and featured shimmering trumpet from the always steezy Eric Benny Bloom, plus strong vocals and Fender Rhodes work from Nigel Hall. Deitch and bassist Jesus Coomes uncorked a typically titanic “Trapezoid”, complete with a dubtronic, tri-chromed outro captained by saxophonist/resident arkologist Ryan Zoidis, a thunderously smoked-out segment that would’ve made Mad Professor smile.
The untzy, four-on-the-floor “House of LETT ” shifted gears with a lightning bolt of energy, and the krewe once again incorporated K-OS’s seductive “Superstar Pt.0” vamp into the searing jam section. A sublime chestnut in “Breakout” gave the masses a chance to catch their breath and stare into the stars, if only for a few moments, before the elusive “Relax” kicked in with its hammering stomp. A number from the aforementioned forthcoming album recently worked into the rotation, “Lock it Down” is a laser sharp sword inspired by—and dedicated to—Lettuce’s Berklee-era sensei, guitarist Jeffrey Lockhart, as explained by Coomes before the boys launched into the methodical newness.
“Lock it Down” flowed brilliantly into Hall’s always-gripping interpolation of Tears for Fears’ ubiquitous “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. While the speaker stacks continued to smoke and the fans hollered for an encore, Lettuce swiftly retook the stage for a spirited run through another older track, “Squadlive”, a brief-yet-burly rendition that saw Hall summon the spirit of the late James Brown a time or two before the boys ran out of clock.
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On Saturday morning July 3rd, we awoke to the glorious environs of Lake Dillon. People fanned out across the expanse to enjoy the reality of our surroundings before the big day of music began. Meanwhile, Shmeeans, his adorable little girl and yours truly ambled our way into Cory Henry’s soundcheck, only to find guitarist Isaiah Sharkey—he of D’Angelo & the Vanguard glory—warming up along with Henry and renowned drummer TaRon Lockett.
“It’s not every day that maybe the world’s greatest guitarist is… opening up for your band.”
–Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff, Lettuce guitarist
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Just after 5:00pm, people began rapidly streaming into the amphitheater while the lovely and talented Judith Hill took the stage with her super-tight, supremely-funky band. Hill, who fans may recognize from television program The Voice some years ago, and others may remember from her work with Prince shortly before his 2016 passing, proceeded to stun everyone in early attendance with her sizzling vocals, assertive stage command, guitar chops, and a tangible mojo that rang out into the mountain air.
Hailing from Los Angeles, CA, Judith Hill unveiled an ambitious set that focused on tracks from her most recent record, Baby I’m Hollywood, songs all about her self-discovery. Hill’s sound was bathing in psychedelic ’70s grooves, with subtle nods towards her dearly departed mentor and his patented brand of Minneapolis funk. Hill’s band featured her parents—veteran funk musicians— plus a pair of soulful backup vocalists, and Judith slaying a mean guitar her damn self. Judith Hill brought a new blues, the funk, classic R&B, and a thang decidedly all her own. A phenomenal opening set to kick off day two of the festivities.
The venerable Cory Henry really needs no introduction, and on this particular evening it was apparent that many in the crowd were as excited to see this celebrated Snarky Puppy veteran and chief Funk Apostle as they were the headliners. The all-around keyboard cyborg did what he came to do, with Isaiah Sharkey and TaRon Lockett holding him down with spectacular swagger. Henry unleashed a ebullient torrent of furious styles across Hammond B3 organ, various synths and keyboards. Opening with The Stylistics‘ “People Make the World Go Round”, it was clear that Cory n’ Co. would be bringing the soul in abundance. Not your run-of-the-mill laconic grooves either—these boys would play with odd time signatures, and still stay lurking way back in the voluminous pocket, a sea of heads bobbin’ like emergency brakes.
Cory Henry Trio – Dillon Amphitheatre – 7/2/21
[Video: DeitzOnBeatz Media]
A series of phenomenal Henry-penned numbers followed, including “Trade it All”, “Art of Love”, and “Switch”. Sharkey channeled the ghost of the late, great Chalmers “Spanky” Alford, while tossing his own secret sauce into the mix in the form of pristine percussive licks, shimmering melodies, and pinch-your-nose stank guitar tones. Lockett was equally impressive, his multi-faceted riddims keeping the people bouncin’ and movin’ their feet while stunning onlookers with a metronomic precision and seemingly effortless feel. Henry’s trio covered quite a bit of their own ground, blending musical elements of their church upbringing with Dilla-time, R&B/neo-soul, post-modern Black American music, and slivers of golden-era hip-hop aesthetics.
Stage right, shoulder-deep in keyboards and sporting an enormous, glistening smile, was bandleader extraordinaire Cory Henry, instructing “everybody” to tell “all the bodies” just how it was goin’ down. Henry closed out the short set with his ballad “Icarus” and chased that joint with the popular “Don’t Forget”, a finale that whipped the audience into a frothing frenzy.
Lettuce slipped into their second performance of the weekend with a slithery “Monorail 3000” intro before detonating the swaggering “Blast Off”, a high-energy opener that set the tone for a feverish frame. For the second night in a row, out of nowhere, A Tribe Called Quest-centric bustout arrived, this time in the form of the dusty “Luck of Lucien”, a deep ATCQ cut that makes tremendous use of a sample from Billy Brooks “Forty Days”. The SMZA picked up a Stratocaster, Nigel caught wreck on the Rhodes, and Zoidis’s tenor saxophone soared atop the boom-bap with an assertive aplomb before Deitch hijacked the runaway train towards some proper D.C. Go-Go.
From the District, Deitch and Coomes led yet another detour into what sounded a whole lot like a vamp on Busta Rhymes intoxicating “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” before tucking a slick segue into Elevate’s “Krewe”. A Big Apple throwback to the park jams of yore, body-rocker with breakdance vibes and a euphoric climax, “Krewe” continued the band’s subtle homage to the birthplace of hip-hop and it’s long hallowed golden age..
With Shmeeans in the driver’s seat, Lettuce then took it back to the Twin Cities with the purple-hued “Royal Highness”, Hall raging the ARP synth, then galloping through a portion of “Funky Good Time” with a nod to the heavens before the collective dropped into the ornate, Eastern-tinged “Moksha”, another Smirnoff spotlight. Nigel then retook center stage with “Sounds Like A Party”, a JB’s-styled rework that extrapolated into a lush, Dilla-fied transition simmering in the spacey-ether, before uncorking a cacophonous blast in “The Force”. The opening track on 2015’s Crush was a turning point on this evening, as the band dropped into an aggressive, thumping jam section with a subterranean pocket that called out to the Crescent City.
Lettuce – Deitch Drum Solo – 7/3/21
[Video: upful LIFE]
“The Force” segued marvelously into the chromatic “RVA Dance”, a lively one that appears on the next Lettuce record. “RVA Dance” has really sparked ablaze in recent performances, on this night it would be no different. Eric “Benny” Bloom took flight with bright, brilliant clean trumpet leads atop a rollicking, funky-ass groove. Once again, Bloom really showed out without showing off, as is the norm for this accomplished jazzman.
Then came the rumble of “Trillogy”, an instrumental G-funk banger also found on Crush; now it was our turn to enter the Zoid void, as the saxophonist cooked up hazy shades in the KORG synth-lab for a foreboding, spooky first section. During the middle portion of “Trillogy” Erick Coomes went full E. Danger, delivering thunderous blows to the solar plexus, leading the charge through the never. A near-lethal entry into “Phyllis” saw Deitch and Coomes unleash a garage-like two-step riddim before the squad pumped the brakes and flirted with lysergic sound design. Nigel tickled the Rhodes, Shmeeans laced up those patented quiet storm guitars, and the full-band improvisation reached its apex during this “Tryllis” passage, building to an orgasmic crescendo, careening into Adam Deitch’s afrobeat-scented drum solo, before one final “Phyllis” coda.
After that whirlwind half-hour, the band could have called it and walked off to a standing ovation. Instead, they invited Cory Henry and Isaiah Sharkey to the stage for a positively filthy romp through “Do It Like You Do”. A red-hot take on the Lettuce original saw Shmeeans and Sharkey setup center stage and proceed to get after it, a stirring display of dual axemanship unveiling an arsenal of chicken grease – the likes of which won’t soon be forgotten. Meanwhile, Henry joined Hall on his center rear riser, shaking a tambourine, jumpin’ on various keyboards, and chiming in on spirited back-up vocals while Hall showed everybody – and he meant all the bodies, Cory included – just exactly whose house we were in.
Lettuce w/ Cory Henry, Isaiah Sharkey – “Do It Like You Do” – 7/3/21
[Video: upful LIFE]
To bring this whole shebang to a close, Lettuce returned for an encore with both Henry and Sharkey in tow, and launched into their treasured cover of Curtis Mayfield’s timeless “Move on Up”. Sharkey and Shmeeans teamed for yet another blistering exchange of six-string wizardry. The searing LETT set and wild wonderful weekend came to first a crescendo – and then a gratifying conclusion – with Nigel Hall taking command of the entire amphitheater, holding us all in the palm of his hand with a solo Rhodes diversion through Frankie Beverly & MAZE‘s “Happy Feelings”. A serene sayonara that saw Nigel yet again dig so very deep in his soul, setting us free with those feels like only he can. A ceremonial cherry on top of a monumental live LETT experience on the beautiful banks of Lake Dillon.
These two Lettuce shows, and my L4LM feature review are dedicated to a pair of LETT superfans: the late Arthur “Nashi” Zoidis (Ryan’s father) & Chris Zegers (co-founder of Lettuce Fan Club) , both of whom passed away in the days leading up to this event. May their memories be a blessing. – BG
Scroll down to check out galleries of photos from both nights of Lettuce and all three opening acts via photographer Andrew Rios.