On Friday, June 8th, psychedelic hip-hop/funk collective Lettuce returned to Morrison, Colorado, hosting the third-annual Rage Rocks. This year saw the veterans co-billed with popular Kansas-based duo The Floozies, with both bands playing a 90-minute set. A stunning, beautiful afternoon greeted funkateers who’d come from far and wide to take in the single biggest Lettuce show of the year, and a busy lineup card provided an early start to the festivities.
This engagement marked Lettuce’s fifth appearance at the celebrated Red Rocks Amphitheatre, while The Floozies were returning for their fourth play at the legendary natural outdoor venue. Yet it would be some relative newcomers that made the most noise early in the day. Having caught Portland scion Ryan Zoidis’ ear many moons ago, Lettuce hand-selected JAW GEMS for direct support back in 2015 and have been grooming the group ever since. JAW GEMS took the stage at 6 pm sharp, and the Maine krewe wasted little time getting acquainted.
DJ Moore, Andrew Scherzer, Tyler Quist, and Dane Farnsworth unassumingly stepped onto this hallowed throne with mojo and panache. The quartet married boom-bap beat science with IDM dissonance, making unflinchingly high art in a sort of post-rock/post-jazz trip-hop amalgam that paid homage to the likes of David Axelrod, J Dilla, and Flying Lotus.
From behind walls of analog synth and layers rich in nuance and abundant in colorful dynamics, JAW GEMS worked hard to win over a small-but-growing contingent steadily filing into the venue. Though their production struggled a little bit to make the transition to the humongous Red Rocks stage, rest assured, JAW GEMS left one helluva impression on those who showed up early. Highlights from their supper-time set included “Peace Pipe”, “Rvil”, and set closer “Baleen”.
Canadian DJ duo The Funk Hunters were on next for the golden hour, and the fun-lovin’ party starters played a focused selection of their popular block-rockin’ beats. A blur of hyphy-energy behind their controllers, computers, and turntables, Nick Middleton and Duncan Smith served up one adrenaline-filled drop after another—and appeared to have a lot of fun doing it.
Smith’s “indefatigable charisma” powered The Funk Hunters live show, as the pair mixed and matched recognizable beats and samples, effectively keeping the crowd hyped. Recently, The Funk Hunters have begun to release and perform original music (TYPECAST), and late in their set, they invited both a vocalist and an emcee to join them onstage for a couple of their own brand-new jams.
Before long, The Funk Hunters late-afternoon affair shifted smoothly into a lengthy set from another electro-funk duo making waves in the festival scene. Comprised of Lawrence, Kansas-based brothers Matt Hill (producer/guitarist) and Mark Hill (drummer), The Floozies are very popular for their accessible brand of electronic music—a mixture of live instruments and production software.
The siblings added to their sound for this big occasion, bringing no less than three live horns out to Red Rocks to join them. The brothers Hill performed a blend of original Floozies music that saw Matt not only play guitar but also step up to the mic, using a talk-box/vocoder straight out of Peter Frampton’s playbook. Even better, Matt Hill would sometimes shift over to his laptop, and cue up big ol’ bass bombs and dubstep drops amid an assortment of samples.
Meanwhile, brother Mark Hill was holding things down behind the kit, matching his beats to the programmed drums and samples coming through the software. It was remarkable how The Floozies had nearly every element of contemporary electronic music at their disposal, and you could enjoy everything from bro-step womp to a page out of Fatboy Slim’s playbook, all inside of a single song. If that wasn’t enough to satiate the masses, the group sampled everything from Outkast’s “SpottieOttieDopalicious” to Kanye West’s “Runaway”, reaching a crescendo when they injected some classic Backstreet Boys into a jam.
To bring their set to a conclusion, frontman Matt Hill, clad in a white tank top and shorts, proceeded to lay down on his back mid-song, playing guitar and spinning around. Ever the showman, Matt continued on his back as he thrilled his screaming fans, shredding the axe like a classic rock star. Because The Floozies don’t just re-create your favorite mixtape jams, they also rock the house really hard, too.
After a half-hour of deep, dubby reggae pumped through the PA and guided the vibe in transition, Lettuce took the stage as a sextet and assumed their positions for blast off. Last year, the band fielded a ten-piece for Rage Rocks and invited a who’s-who of Lettuce’s canon of heroes to sit in throughout the night. For 2018’s installment, this would be a power-packed hour-and-a-half of lean, mean LETT machine—only the core members would appear (save for some light percussion contributions from longtime ally Tyler Coomes). Truth be told, the band has never sounded more cohesive, or unified in theory, as Lettuce does right today; Rage Rocks’ fantastic voyage was Be Here Now, a prime example of their elevated state of union.
After an atmospheric intro, the boys launched into “The Force” for a quick turn before detouring into a passage led by saxophonist Ryan Zoidis, and the band delivered streamlined ideas for what sounds like a new song that’s being developed within “The Force.” The band made their intentions clear with a mammoth take on “Purple Cabbage” in the second slot. Through this newer composition, they asked for the already-ensconced audience to follow them beyond the clouds during a huge middle jam section. Eric “Benny” Bloom took the handoff to the house all night long, and his soaring trumpet led “Purple Cabbage” squarely into the danger zone.
The psychedelic influence was heavy, early, and often, led by the fearless guitarwork of one Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff, who was playing his very first concert with infant daughter Simone in the crowd. In welcoming her to the Lettuce funk fold, Shmeeans employed a bevy of tones and choice textures, including (but not limited to) a hollow-body, minimalist staccato that recalled the great Ernest Ranglin and a tasteful MuTron effect that tickled many a Deadhead’s proverbial fancy. Lighting director Blake Addington is rapidly becoming LETT’s secret weapon; as usual, he wowed the crowd with kaleidoscopic laser beams, but it was his mesmerizing imagery and projection mapping on both the large LED screens and against the natural Red Rocks structures that left many awestruck fans’ with jaws agape.
The Rage Rocks audience was more than willing to follow, listen, and get quiet when the LETT dynamics called for a hush or the jam subtly asked us to breathe. Despite the fact that this was Rage Rocks, the crowd seemed gripped by the performance, captivated and collectively in tune with Lettuce. Taking notice of this undivided attention, the band set the gearshift skyward and did not look back for the remainder of the set, sailing into the stars with yet another session destined for the annals of crunkalogic science.
Lettuce continued unveiling evolved versions of newer songs that will be included on the band’s still-untitled album due in the Fall. “KHRU” came off gang-busters, sounding like a hip-hop park jam from the Bronx back in 1977, the perfect soundtrack to a breakdance session or painting a city train. “Moksha” revealed a decidedly different persona from the longtime funk stalwarts—Smirnoff was again calling the shots, dealing in Middle Eastern themes and scales, recalling his heroes John McLaughlin and Ravi Shankar, yet within the context of his own creation. Bassist Jesus Coomes, the de facto frontman clad in a black and white kimono, dedicated the song to the moon’s lunar energy, and the crowd howled their approval with an amber glow.
With a humble confidence and appropriate verve, Lettuce harnessed this intergalactic momentum and channeled it into a luminescent “Gang Ten” that stretched toward fifteen minutes. Cascading through sentimental instrumental tones, the krewe told a tale in terms that everybody could easily understand. The centerpiece of their forthcoming fifth full-length LP, this mystical original song took a breathtaking flight into the night, searing through the emotive composed section and into the blissful boom-bap of no-man’s land, winding between Gotham soundscapes and a city of angels, before returning to the song’s victorious resolution. “Gang Ten” was truly a multi-hued expedition.
Bloom scolded the now-engrossed audience to get fired up as the band dropped into “Ready to Live”, an uptempo affirmation of life sung with gusto by keyboardist Nigel Hall. The song took on a deeper resonance on this particular evening, as many folks in the audience were reeling from the sudden deaths of both a globally-revered philosopher/chef, and on a more personal level, a beloved longtime JamCruiser. On the heels of that stirring performance from Hall, the boys delved into their arrangement of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, an emotional song that (over the past decade) Lettuce has most definitely made their own. “Welcome to your life… there’s no turning back.” Damn… chills. What made this version of “Rule the World” terrifically transition from tear-jerker to siracha was a newly-added, super-spicy middle section courtesy of Nigel; a sordid slab of intravenous sexy that sounds straight out of the Soulquarians’ cookbook. This swaggering groove might be the single sexiest sound to ever emanate from this squad. Vibes and vibrations, indeed.
Drummer Adam Deitch needs no introduction, but every beating heart at Rage Rocks was well aware just who was driving this runaway train into outer space. The living legend’s lead right foot and relentless pocket gives LETT its gangsta-lean, a concept made crystal clear through the drummer’s exemplary performance this evening. On the unreleased “His Royal Highness”, Deitch put on a funk clinic like only he can, all the while still serving the song. While Adam repeatedly got wicked, Hall proceeded to bomb the squad with a spasmodic run around his ARP synth. Arriving at the titantic instrumental hip-hop epic “Trillogy,” the boys rattled King Tubby’s tomb with a series of thunderclaps that let all of Rage Rocks know the time.
The three-part Crush opus has steadily earned its way into the beloved bosom of Lettuce’s swollen songbook, and the sprawling version delivered as Rage Rocks careened into the stretch run was a blood-tingling exhibit why. The beginning of “Trillogy” found Coomes giving birth to the G-Funk vibe that is native to the song’s first section. Just when Zoidis’s eerie sax-synth textures had worked all of Red Rocks into a dithers, the boys dipped into a decidedly dancehall groove that injected some yardie flair into the ether. This sort of riddim-excursion lends itself quite nicely to this band’s steez and repertoire; given their tendency to throw down Kingston styles, we can only hope it rears it’s rudebwoy head once again.
From “Trillogy”’s future-trap third chapter, Zoid and Shmeeans took turns steering the spaceship until it emotionally arrived at the band’s embryonic psychedelic creation, “Phyllis.” A gripping, if truncated version ensued, much to the vocal delight of the still-reverberating Rage Rocks massive. Lettuce appeared a bit confused at the conclusion of “Phyllis”, and left the stage rather unceremoniously—turns out there were some technical difficulties beyond the band or crew’s control that caused a bit of snafu.
Thankfully, the band got the green light to return for an encore, and naturally, Lettuce did not disappoint. A behemoth run through “Trapazoid” brought the house down and the sent the people home aglow, as Deitch’s organic 808s and Jesus’s bulbous bass underpinned the burly Farfisa organs, emboldening the triumphant brass heads to tell the song’s inspirational story arc. A hard left into Cardi B’s inescapable “Bodak Yellow” added some much-needed levity to a gravity-defying performance, for nearly one hundred minutes, LETT dove thirty-thousand leagues deep, and we all gleefully followed suit. A magnificent portal of future funk/hip-hop drenched in genre-bending psychedelia, “Trapazoid” was a perfect note to close Rage Rocks III; instead of revisiting the glories of yesteryear, we celebrated the moment, and shined our glistening headlights on the magic that’s still to come.