The Fillmore, San Francisco, CA

By Jimmy Leslie
Everybody talks about chemistry—Soulive epitomizes it. The instrumental soul jazz trio put on a clinic demonstrating how to work together and control the flow of energy in a room.

Soulive set up on stage in the same configuration that is depicted on the cover of their new self-titled CD, with guitarist Eric Krasno in the center and brothers Neal Evans on drums and Alan Evans on keyboards flanked to the left and right, respectively. Both brothers faced inward, allowing the audience to see their hands, and all the players were at an equal depth near the front of the stage, creating a three-headed musical monster. The Evans form a tight and complete rhythm section, as Neal primarily plays organ and covers the bass parts. Krasno sits, literally, in the enviable middle position, riding the considerable wave of sound being built up and ponged back and forth between the two siblings.

Krasno delivered his Scofield-inspired guitar lines over the brothers’ revved-up organ soul jazz with an air of cool control—it’s obvious that this is one mellow cat. So it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that it was the vivacious drummer who stood up from his drum stool when the song was over and gave the audience a warm welcome announcing enthusiastically, “Y’all came to the right party tonight!” As a first-timer to a Soulive show, though, I have to admit that I was surprised. Since Krasno sat in the center and played the majority of the melody it was only natural to expect he was the “frontman,” but this band plays to its strengths in all regards. Neal’s got a natural knack as an emcee, so he handles crowd control. Most bands aren’t so egoless and self-aware.

Speaking of egoless, it is worth mentioning that Soulive headlined the show, but their equipment was in front of the openers’ gear. When I asked their label president about it he said, “It was just easier that way.” Soulive was doing a weekend stand at the Fillmore, flip-flopping headlining and opening slots with the Steve Kimock Band, which is a larger ensemble. It was pretty cool of Soulive to make the space sacrifice in order to make staging as painless as possible both nights. It’s also a pretty good program by the Fillmore—making the most of audience crossover and allowing both bands to have a night off from travel.

The audience; however, did not get a night off from travel—in fact they were taken on a journey. The fact that they were unaware of exactly which member was at the wheel or when the pit stops were further demonstrated the chemistry of Soulive. For instance, Alan Evans’ charismatic keyboard solo was in full swing before it was readily apparent that he was even taking a complete solo. The other members had bowed out so gradually and gracefully that the transition was seamless, and it was the same way when the solo section was over.

The evening’s tempo and dynamics were equally as subtle in transition, making them all the more powerful. Soulive’s set works in a similar fashion to a DJ’s, with smooth segues into different tempos and layers of funky grooves stacked upon each other until a heavy dynamic is reached. Another similarity to a DJ set was that there was never a misplaced event such as a guitar strum, or drum hit, or keyboard note out of time—that kind of precision is rare to find and impressive to witness.

Soulive kept the audience's attention for the duration of the evening without the help of vocals (with one exception) or a specific frontman. They did it by mixing tempos, tones, effects, dynamics, and above all, staying true to an irresistible and impeccable groove that snakecharmed the audience with it’s every maneuver.