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January 20, 2014 5:41 pm
Funk bands are rare enough at Ronnie Scott’s and bands of high-school chums rarer still. The US band Lettuce formed in 1992 while its core were 16-year-olds at the same Boston high school. They played their first gigs in 1994 – the band’s name is a twist on “let us play” – have now released four CDs and are very good at what they do.
The eight-piece play an original repertoire rooted in the music of the great instrumental funk bands that sprang up in the late 1960s. Right from the word go, their funky drummer beats, riff and stab horns and nagging rhythm guitars conjured the JBs (James Brown’s backing band), early Kool and the Gang and Alan Toussaint’s house band The Meters – the tune “Ziggerwatt” name-checked the drummer from The Meters, Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste.
This gig, the first of a three-night residency, was Lettuce’s European debut and, guitarist Adam Smirnoff told us mid-set, probably the first time they had played to a sit-down audience. If that made them a little nervous, it didn’t show in the music: Lettuce are a super-efficient rhythm machine, built from the bass up. The three brass were skintight, the two guitars and keyboards locked into the groove and it all sounded punchy and warm.
That on its own is not enough to grip an audience, standing or seated, for a full-length set. But the audience at Ronnie’s was riveted, even though it was an all-original repertoire that few had heard before. The devil, as always, was in the detail. Lettuce’s rhythms ebb and flow, gain intensity and change texture and shape. There were breakdowns and slow burns, repeated riffs that shifted beat for an extra kick and Neal Evans’ Hammond organ swells that raised the roof.
And the band has solo firepower to spare. One of several highlights featured saxophonists Ryan Zoidis and James Casey trading breaks Blue Note style; another culminated with Eric Krasno’s stinging climax on lead guitar. Right through to the encore, they sounded fresh and had new things to say.
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