Funk music of all contours was in abundance across California’s Bay Area as 2019 drew to a close late last week. The loaded run of shows around the Bay Area came to a celebratory crescendo in phenomenal fashion on New Year’s Eve, when Grammy-nominated funk merchants Lettuce steamrolled through San Francisco for a single-night engagement at The Independent.
After a busy 2019 which saw them release their critically-acclaimed Elevate LP, the band looks to approach the next chapter with a bright and sunny start to 2020.
Up against a laundry-list of heavy hitters who performed around the area that evening including Dead & Company, The Claypool Lennon Delirium, Bonobo, and Claude Von Stroke, among others, Lettuce rose to the occasion and delivered a New Year’s Eve to remember.
World champion DJ Chris Karns warmed fans up early, setting the proverbial table with a selection of proper breakbeats, rare-groove, funk classics, and golden-era hip-hop. Karns, who’s worked with Break Science and Pretty Lights, offered an appropriate appetizer for the thrilling main dish on the way.
The room was fairly packed though not quite sold-out, which made for a feeling of “the place to be” yet also allowed for enough wingspan to properly move across the dance floor. The band took the stage around 10 p.m. and wasted no time getting busy with a lengthy and adventurous run through “New Reel”, a beloved deep cut from 2015’s Crush that has experienced an injection, resulting in a bit of a revival in 2019. “116th Street”, from 2016’s Mt. Crushmore EP, brought a Harlem vibe to the California Bay, while the unreleased “Ngudu”, named for and inspired by Leon Chancler, delivered a decidedly old-school hip-hop aesthetic to the festivities.
Trumpet phenom Eric “Benny” Bloom offered soaring leads throughout the first set, primarily eschewing pedals and effects for a clean horn sound and traditional tones. Bassist Erick “Jesus” Coomes, clad in a festive one-piece, sweet new flat-bill, and his omnipresent sunglasses, served as de-facto bandleader upfront while stomping, hopping, and commanding an enveloped crowd that was heavily imbibing both the open bar and his funky bass in equal proportions.
The sextet got neck-deep in the good stuff with a nuanced exploration through the J-Dilla-inspired “Mr. Yancey > Purple Cabbage”. The former, found on 2008’s Rage, is the embryonic tune that started this band’s love affair with Detroit donuts, while the latter is Elevate’s newest evolution in a decade-long homage to the late sound scientist. Inside of both “Mr. Yancey” and “Purple Cabbage” alike, a new and pulverizing brand of improv bubbled beneath the surface before detonation, LETT-step.
“Last Suppit”, another oldie-but-goodie, was reworked with a dynamic new intro and included a detour into De La Soul’s “A Roller Skating Jam Called Saturday”. Later in the frame, the band busted out a crucial cover in OV Wright’s 1978 arrangement of “Straighten it Out” with an impassioned croon from keyboardist/vocalist Nigel Hall. “Straighten It Out” also featured guitarist Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff‘s aching, emotional solo on his Les Paul.
The first set finished with a rollicking run through the elastic rare groove of “Pocket Change” that saw saxophonist Ryan Zoidis inhabit the spirit of the late Rusty Bryant with a soaring solo which was nothing short of a San Francisco treat, before wrapping things up in a bow with a surprise dip into “Sam Huff” to shut it down for 2019.
As a set break DJ session from Karns kept the bodies movin’ during intermission, Lettuce’s New Years which crossed over the midnight hour was a whirlwind of free-wheeling energy, funk frenetics, and sonic intoxication. Lettuce took flight with a solid “Krewe” before stomping into another track from the front end of Elevate, “Royal Highness”. Channeling a new and powerful generation, Lettuce built “Royal Highness” into a frenzy as the clock struck midnight and balloons fell on the audience, the band veering in and out of “Auld Lang Syne” before stopping for a few moments and relaunching back into a furious march. The boys and their adoring audience spent a few minutes popping balloons, toasting one another, embracing, celebrating, and elevating before getting back to business with a quickness.
Lettuce – New Year’s Countdown – 12/31/2019
[Video: Jeff Thorpe]
The first song performed in the new year was that of “Trapezoid”, another unique-to-Lettuce composition that mutated into a promethazine trip. After Lettuce chopped, screwed and ran the trap for a good while, business got personal with a searing “Mt. Crushmore”, mightily morphing into what was quite possibly the jam of the night. After making their way through the composed section of “Crushmore”, the squad organically found its way to the beat to Redman’s “Tiger Style Crane”, a cut that drummer Adam Deitch produced for Reggie Noble back in 2010 (as Fyre Dept.). This unforeseen Funk-Doc detour provided this writer’s show highlight, proving once again that these dudes are just tuned in to each other.
“RVA Dance”, a brand new track developed over the past few months, saw the crew welcome B3 bully Wil Blades of the Adam Deitch Quartet who delivered some choice organ vibes while Nigel comped alongside on his Fender Rhodes and synths. An ethereal intro gave way to a stirring take on “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, where Hall once again pulled at the heartstrings of every human assembled in the room.
A brief, enthralling tease of Michael McDonald’s timeless “I Keep Forgetting” revealed the always-scintillating “Phyllis”. The popular track off Crush often features an ambitious improv jam, and this evening’s “Phyllis” flirted with garage, two-step, and later unfurled into full on drum & bass mania. As they neared the end of the show, the band was fully ablaze but this would be our final deep dive into the tank.
For an encore, the band rushed a short, truncated trek through “Ready To Live”, complete with empowering messages for the new year. With that, the NYE party was over, and the people spilled out onto Divisadero, with boukou bounce to the ounce, hella pep in their step, and a new brand of 2020 vision. With a future so bright, the forecast calls for stunna shades, but for one special San Francisco night, Lettuce was the very best in town.
Scroll down for a mix of fan-shot videos fro the band’s New Year’s Eve performance at the Independent.
Lettuce -“Last Suppit” – 12/31/2019
[Video: Jeff Thorpe]
Lettuce – “Royal Highness” – 12/31/2019
[Video: Jeff Thorpe]
Lettuce – “Pocket Change” – 12/31/2019
[Video: Jeff Thorpe]
Lettuce’s 2020 tour campaign picks up later this month with a performance at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, OK on January 22nd. Head to the band’s website for tickets and tour info.