Photo by Dino Perrucci
As the three members of Soulive took to the stage at Brooklyn Bowl, the Williamsburg venue that has for some time now been a kind of second home for the trio, organist Neal Evans diverted from his path to his keyboard to say something to his two bandmates, his brother Alan, who plays drums, and guitarist Eric Krasno. Soon after, Alan explained to the buzzing crowd that “Every year, around this time, we have to remind ourselves—and it’s usually Neal. He came up to us and said ‘sixteen years.’” That’s how long it has been since this funky, jazzy, soul-shaking group first got together and put out their debut in 1999. And they’ve been having a blast ever since.
Thursday night’s show kicked off the sixth incarnation of Soulive’s annual takeover of the Brooklyn Bowl stage, aptly dubbed Bowlive. The two-week run, which has included eight to ten shows with a two-day intermission, features an always impressive and varied lineup of special guests, both announced and unannounced, that the band invites to play with them. Past guests include Derek Trucks, ?uestlove, Robert Randolph, Talib Kweli and Matisyahu, among others.
Never ones to waste too much stage time talking when they could be jamming, the guys quickly jumped out to a strong start, burning through two live staples, “Steppin” and “Uncle Junior,” the latter being, according to Alan, the first song ever written for Soulive, even “before Soulive was Soulive, if that makes any sense.” After sufficiently setting the scene, the band began the night-long rollout of guests. First up were the Shady Horns, the horn section/ sometimes auxiliary percussionists otherwise known as Ryan Zoidis and Eric Bloom, who have for years collectively made up the fourth member of Soulive. And then, following a gradually increasing crowd murmur that grew to a not-so-dull roar when Alan eventually announced his name, came special guest of the night: Charles Bradley.
Whenever a guest comes onstage during a Soulive show, the band tends to lay off a bit and let the newcomer do what he or she does best. It’s a testament to the group’s love of collaboration and commitment to making every show a uniquely enjoyable experience, and it’s part of what has made Bowlive in particular an ever-evolving beast of a live music production. But with Bradley, it was almost as if the rest of the band wasn’t even on the stage. That’s how enchanting he was; at least for the five songs he joined in on, Mr. Bradley cleanly stole the show from his hosts.
With the quintet backing him up, Bradley was free to let his soul soar, preaching his gospel of unconditional love to every corner of the room. From the moment he stepped up to the microphone in his rhinestone jacket and a tank-top that accurately matched the disco ball hovering over the crowd, the expression on his 66-year-young face was one of pure gratitude—the look of a man who, being a survivor of countless hardships—including a stint on the streets of New York—is genuinely thankful for the second chance at life that he has been afforded. “I met some new friends tonight,” Bradley announced to the fully enthralled audience. “And we’re just gonna rock the house.” He wasn’t wrong.
Every time Bradley let out one of his raspy, James Brown-esque screams, the usually reserved Brooklyn Bowl couldn’t help but be electrified, and stoic, bearded hipsters were turned into something like the teenage girls in the Ed Sullivan audience in 1964. There wasn’t an unsmiling face in the house, least of all Krasno, who threw in the occasional lick to complement the singer, but mostly seemed content to stand back and enjoy every moment of Bradley’s stage antics—which included various spins, hip thrusts, and microphone tricks that might just make Bradley heir to the title “Hardest Working Man in Show Business.”
When the soul belter was brought out again for the second set, the band was also joined by Scott Metzger, guitarist of opening band Wolf! (and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead), for a run of “Drop Hop” into “Bewildered” that featured a bluesy solo from Metzger’s Telecaster, providing a dirty counterpoint to Krasno’s smooth, jazzy Ibanez. After Bradley made his exit (to what would have been a true standing ovation, had the crowd not already been standing), Krasno stepped up to the mic to deliver a rare but impressive vocal performance on “Torture,” assuring the audience that the night wasn’t quite over yet.
Despite the soul storm that was Charles Bradley’s performance, the highlight of the night came with the closer of the second set, when Alan welcomed London Souls guitarist and vocalist Tash Neal to the stage. The song was The Beatles’ “Get Back,” a cover that Soulive performs regularly, but slowed down to a swampy, pulsatingly funky tempo. Tash’s vocals and crunchy guitar sound breathed new life into the well-known classic, and he and Krasno traded guitar solos that quickly worked the room into a frenzy. As the band filed out before the encore performance of Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes,” Neal Evans was having so much fun that he almost forgot he had to leave the stage, too. Luckily for him—and most definitely for us—the band has plenty more nights of this jubilation to look forward to.