It feels a bit surreal to be writing a story about living live music after all that’s transpired in this confounding year, ever since our musical lives as we knew them came to an abrupt halt. For the preceding two decades, live concerts were a part of the rhythm of my life; between pleasure, passion, and profession my show routine had swelled into nearly an every-third-night situation, if not more frequently or multiple gigs in the same evening. No matter what city or town I called home at the time, there were always shows to hit, bands to discover, and dancefloors to torch. Like so many who read this site, I truly live for live music.
Eleven months ago, Lettuce themselves experienced the particularly jolting mid-jaunt cancellation of their European tour. After two rollicking weeks overseas, and with another one to go, the band was summarily sent home to the U.S. after COVID-19 exploded around the world. When all inbound flights from Europe to the States were temporarily suspended, the band’s hand was forced following a show in Denmark on March 11th.
Reeling, the boys headed back to their respective homes, strewn about the United States, and settled in for an unprecedented spell of uncertainty. Up until last weekend’s engagement at Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom in Denver CO, Lettuce had not played together as a complete unit ever since their truncated Europe run.
Since 2008, the band has been steadily making records and relentlessly touring, beginning to really get some momentum on the heels of shapeshifting sophomore album, Rage. A few lineup changes notwithstanding, Lettuce hadn’t really come up for air ever since, not until coronavirus changed the game for everybody. This devastating time in the music industry would turn out to be the band’s longest period of inactivity in over a dozen years.
They spent the time differently, wisely, and each in their own way. Keyboardist/vocalist Nigel Hall holed up in New Orleans, LA, putting the finishing touches on his latest solo offering, Spiritual, due out on May 14th. Saxophonist Ryan Zoidis spent time with his daughter in Portland, Maine and dug deeper into his ambitious, ambient arkaeological explorations. Bassist Erick “Jesus” Coomes unplugged and chilled out in Long Beach, CA, lending hands and vibes to brother Tycoon’s forthcoming debut album.
Drummer Adam Deitch, guitarist Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff, and trumpet maestro Eric “Benny” Bloom all decamped to Denver, CO, though they each had decidedly different experiences during this epic pandemic pause. Deitch buried himself in his studio lair, focusing on the release of his solo electronic record, The Age of Imperfection. He spent several nights performing live streams with various outfits, from his future-electro duo, Break Science, to a jazz quintet with Big Gigantic’s Dominic Lalli, Break Science counterpart Borahm Lee, Hunter Roberts, and Bloom.
Deitch and Smirnoff also linked up with members of The Motet for a Front Range funk squad, while Shmeeans briefly hosted a social media talkshow, “Dabs With Shmeeans”, then bought a pickup truck and trailer to hit the open roads with his beautiful young family. The ever-hilarious Bloom focused on his popular Colorado wine distribution business with Zoidis (Benny and Zoid Selections); meanwhile he continued to shed his razor sharp jazz chops and comedy bits per usual.
Early in the pandemic experience, Lettuce did put together a digital jam sesh, “Funkin’ From Home,” recorded individually at the aforementioned scattered locales and produced by Smirnoff in his home studio. In May, Lettuce released Resonate, their sixth full-length LP, a phenomenal Russ Elevado-helmed follow up to 2019’s Grammy-nominated Elevate. Then, over the holidays, the krewe surprised hardcore heads with a limited-edition, vinyl-only 47-minute intergalactic improv session, titled Vibe.
The live music experience can be an addiction, an essential part of the elixir that makes up our DNA and gives us the fuel, the joy, and the armor to make our way through the days, doldrums, trials and tribulations. Yet for nearly a year, there was no Lettucefunk to be had nor heard; for both the band and this writer, the silence was nothing short of deafening.
Enter Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom in Denver, in partnership with Live for Live Music and the streaming site Mandolin, who teamed up to bring together four sets of Lettuce, live onstage for the first time in almost a year. The safety-minded, socially-distanced shows, an early set and a late set each night, were like manna from heaven for funk freaks around the world—and, rather cosmically, were scheduled on my birthday. Fans streaming from home could purchase the sets individually or as a four-pack, while less than 100 humans were granted entry into the 1000-capacity venue to take in the sets live and direct.
Lettuce converged on Denver for a week leading up to the February 18th–19th Cervantes engagement and immediately ducked into Colorado Sound Studios for five days of focused recording sessions. Getting familiar with one another after so many moons, the boys dug into a series of new grooves, ideas, and concepts almost around the clock. They dialed in at least fifteen brand-new cuts, and the fresh fruits of these labors will be heard on multiple forthcoming releases, though they did treat us to two future-funk bangers from the Colorado Sound sessions at the shows.
As for the Cervantes’ safety measures, they were numerous and serious, and the venue’s staff did their very best to thoroughly enforce them. A strongly-worded email accompanied the ticket purchase for the select few lucky enough to get through, as the venue was sold at less than 15% capacity. The protocols were clearly stated, often in bold font, with no grey areas, and receiving that email served to calm our nerves going in.
Fans were grouped into tables of four and six, and you were responsible for bringing your own safe, healthy pod. Upon arrival before each set, fans were given temperature checks at the door before being promptly ushered into the ballroom in individual groups. Masks were required at all times unless you were with your group and at your table, you could only stand up and dance within arm’s length of said table, and only in the company of your established party. Socializing was strictly prohibited, refreshments and merch were ordered digitally, and both were delivered directly to the tables. Fans were escorted out of the venue within five minutes of the house lights coming on post-performance.
Restrictive, but reasonable. Expensive, but understandable. There is no foolproof way to do this, and these rooms have been dark and quiet for long enough. With regard to hosting live music events in the age of COVID-19, there are established, responsible protocols to achieve the safest outcome. It starts with the fans buying in, literally and figuratively. Our behavior is what dictates whether or not we can safely do this moving forward. For the most part, what I saw in Denver were people understanding both the severity and the reality of this situation, and acting accordingly. I can only hope this was indeed the rule, and not merely an exception, but the jury remains long in deliberation there.
Cervantes is leading the way in developing a blueprint to bring live music back—both in the traditional sense and in service of the burgeoning livestream space. There was no way anybody was making a real profit here, yet everybody involved—the band, management, the venue, promoters, streaming service, and the fans—all recognized that there were sacrifices to be made, financial or otherwise, to get the live concert engine turned over and running again.
There was no bar at which to hang nor any co-mingling on the dancefloor. The ballroom was pretty empty, with a smattering of tables spaced out throughout the room—picture something between a soundcheck and a local opening band at the stroke of 8pm. But once Lettuce took the stage, all the energy changed, and an intoxicating euphoria filled the air as each band member stepped into their respective spot. At long last, it was once again time to Lett the music play.
About that music? Predictably, Lettuce showed up at Cervantes red-hot from five days in the studio making magic together as a complete unit for the first time in a year, with all the emotions and energies of these transformative times in tow. The boys were carrying a ten-ton boulder on their collective shoulder, with a bazooka cocked and loaded on the other, but you’d have never known it, just by how cool they carried it. Over the course of four 90-minute sets, with no song repeats and numerous exploratory jams, the veteran future-funk cosmonauts delivered a typically-astonishing display of their limitless powers and primordial prowess.
The musical highlights over the course of the two nights/four sets were numerous and nuanced, so much detail and adventure that I could write three paragraphs on each song. Lettuce touched on every album and era of their career, refreshing, remixing, and occasionally reinventing their classics for this strange, sharp, and shocking new reality. As is the norm, the six mixed a few covers and some subtle homages to their heroes, always paying tribute to those who laid the foundation for their funk kingdom.
Lettuce delivered much more bounce to the ounce than could have ever been expected from a band that had laid dormant for nearly an entire revolution around the sun. Sonically, they sounded phenomenal, thanks to sound engineer Whit Hawkins, who’s worked with STS9 and Pretty Lights for the past decade. He’s also responsible for the live collection Whit’s Picks and has a keen ear for how this band should sound in a room. His work at the Cervantes mixing board paid certifiable dividends across the four performances.
An exhaustive blow-by-blow recounting of the rage would be a rather arduous task, so here’s a smattering of various reflections on band members’ individual contributions, and musings on the group on the whole, in the aftermath of their long-awaited return to the stage at Cervantes in Denver.
“We believe in love. We believe in you. We believe in the future.”
That priestly benediction from Jesus Coomes kicked things off, before the band chose a spacey, triumphant opening salvo in “The Force” as their first song back in action. The Crush cut was a lush launching pad for the ensemble to quickly find their footing. A revamped “Reunion”, from their 2002 debut Outta Here, saw them reach back to the humble beginnings whilst keeping things funky fresh here in the now frontier. The beloved song was appropriate and invigorating, punctuated by a theme from the title track to 2019’s Resonate, a veritable bookending of their career within an inspired reading of a timeless track. Guitarist Smirnoff was visibly moved by the quickly-heightening vibes in Cervantes, the co-founder getting choked up when thanking the fans for their support at the conclusion of the massive “Reunion”.
Each individual player found their time and space to shine bright like a diamond; as esteemed ATLlien Jake Funkmayor likes to say, there is no “I” in Lettuce. That said, these cats all found their spots. Shmeeans was on fire the whole time Lettuce was onstage. The guitarist was guilty of whipping the sparse crowd into a veritable frenzy during several blistering solos, including a fiery “Chief it Up” and an updated reading of “Lett Bobby” that saw him channeling Jerry Garcia in more ways than one.
Amid the b-boy breakbeat bouillabaisse of scintillating “Krewe”, Smirnoff toyed with the inimitable Q-tron’s disco-funk tones before letting off a catatonic explosion that prompted the biggest crowd eruption of the weekend. The raucous rare-groove rumble “Pocket Change” saw the SMZA enter the dab chamber again, once upon a time in Shaolin. When not burning the house down with searing Les Paul solo action dripping in juicy terp tones, Smirnoff downshifted and laid back in the cut with the best of ‘em, his 8-cylinder comp-chops still set to gangsta lean.
Nigel Hall went hard in the paint with authority, driving the lane early and often, and Herbie Hathaway had arrived; the talented singer flexing some choice, churchy Hammond B3 skills to go along with his well-established Fender Rhodes wizardry. Spirited vocal numbers included the East Bay-greasy “Ready to Live”, the gregarious “Sounds Like a Party”, and a reimagined, Native Tongues-styled “Do It Like You Do”. He took the lead on Lettuce’s stirring arrangement of Tears For Fears mid-’80s mega-hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. Hall led the charge through Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Remember the Children”, the boys bringin’ the noise and the funk behind him with a reckless abandon that served to further fuel the gusto. He uncorked a massive “Don’t Change For Me” (from solo debut LP Ladies & Gentleman) complete with the mighty “Message From the Meters” stuffed inside. Nigel spent some time channeling his hero, the late George Duke, piloting his ARP Odyssey into outer-spacial realms on some of the more psychedelic jams. Nigel was nothing if not emotional, pouring his sleeve-worn heart into belting out songs, at one point getting up from the keyboard cavalry to give a round of support hugs to his bandmates after “Royal Highness” delivered a series of excessive, wanton haymakers.
The band chemistry was on fleek for the duration, and they consistently nodded to various inspirations and influences that ran the gamut. On “Squadlive”, Nigel quoted the Sanford & Son theme song, while Deitch and Coomes answered with Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” on the same joint. K-OS‘ “Superstar Pt.Zero” also made an appearance tucked into the sensual Chicago housequake that pulsates “House of LETT”. Hall subtly teased Bob James‘ “Nautilus” as an opiate elixir, medicating the sinister, Squarepusher-like transition between the G-funk of “Trillogy” and the J Dilla-fied vibes of “Phyllis” (a combo now known as “Tryllis”). This recipe was a gangsta gumbo of absolutely furious styles.
Hall’s always emotional take on “Move on Up” saw the Curtis Mayfield classic emboldened by a detour into Maze’s heart-filling “Happy Feelings”, with just Hall crooning atop slender Rhodes voicings. On the front end of “Sounds Like a Party”, Nigel riffed on Jimi Hendrix‘s “Voodoo Chile”. Between “Yakitori” and “Gang Ten”, Hall even snuck in a snippet of “Spain”, in memory of the dearly departed Chick Corea. There were numerous other subtle tributes home-baked into Lettuce’s performances in Denver, be they tangible, obvious or otherwise,
Erick “Jesus” Coomes really leveled up in a major way at Cervs, proving to be the essential glue in fashions both familiar and brand new. For four consecutive sets, the dude was rock-solid and riveting, employing an arsenal of swaggy styles, warm, bulbous tones, electrifying effects, and spiritualized vibrations. His sturdy contributions acted as an unfukwittable foundation upon which his brothers could lean back and levitate. E. Danger’s show highlights are far too numerous to list; he’s such a selfless player who serves the song without condition, literally every single number was punctuated by his criminally-underrated subsonic mastery.
Coomes wielded nearly every tool in his voluminous shed, yet never gratuitously nor exploitatively. With military precision he caught wreck, explored slivers of the sound spectrum, and effectively used space and ghost-notes to find his way into funkadelic lockstep with Deitch. I’ve caught this space vessel in flight many more times than I can count, and these performances were likely the most impressive and invigorating that I’ve ever witnessed from the mystery man they call Jesus. A second coming if there ever was one.
The idiosyncratic pairing of saxophonist Ryan Zoidis and Eric Benny Bloom on trumpet has worked wonders for nearly a decade. Entering the Zoid void like only he can, Ryan was nothing short of a tone-scientist—in the Sun Ra sense—across all four fabulous frames. He painted prismatic canvases with his saxophones, using physical sounds to create something of a sacred geometry in the ether. Zoidis engaged his Korg synth and various effects processors to concoct a unicorn siren wholly his own, a transcendental horn in mellifluous meditation.
Zoidis got his Maceo on tearing up old-school hard-funk LETT chestnuts like “Sam Huff”, “Salute”, and “Squadlive”, or the more recent Minneapolis melange of “Royal Highness”. He was equally comfortable charming the serpents on lysergic safari “Gang Ten” or freebasing 5-MEO DMT through a rastaman’s chalice on the galaxy-trodding “Trapezoid”. Zoidis was a madman on a mystical pilgrimage, searching for new landscapes in the spirit of Scratch, Sonny, and Trane while stoically embracing dope encounters with the third kind.
Eric “Benny” Bloom flies high on the wing, stage right, he’s a runaway freight train of joyous energy, and can blow that horn like a motherf*cker, as Miles would say. Bloom’s jazz vocabulary is unparalleled in a band full of literate players steeped in tradition, evidenced on the brief, blustery run through Davis’s “Black Satin”. Benny can manifest a melody out of thin air, then put his own spit, spin, and swagger on it with a certain wicked-hawt panache. He’s a throwback to the bandstands of yore, and brought an element of candor and humor to these performances, something that audiences missed dearly from the comedic and musical genius.
Bloom soared on the brand new “RVA Dance”, where he took to the clouds atop a hard Marvin Gaye-esque groove, and on the scintillating “Larimar”, the latter with a decidedly neo-soul steez. Benny’s trumpet work was on brilliant display all over Harlem on “116th Street” and “Yakitori”, among other cuts. The dude even jumped up and joined Nigel Hall on the keys for a portion of “Chief it Up”. When he wasn’t scorching a trumpet solo, cheesin’ for the homies, making a funny or actin’ the fool, Bloom could be counted on for choice percussion contributions and boisterous backup vocals brimming with mojo throughout the weekend.
Then there was the captain of this trip, the boy wonder on the drum kit steering the ship, the living legend himself, Mr. Adam Deitch, doin’ the damn thang like only he can. What can be said about this cat that hasn’t been already shouted into the sky? The hardest-working man in the game, an endless well of inspiration, focus, ingenuity, and artistic excellence, all of which were on display in abundance across the four bombastic Lettuce sets. A metronomic presence like few others, a hip-hop groove machine, Deitch fearlessly drove a funkadelic freight train in and out of Lettuce’s kaleidoscopic catalog of bangers. As the funky drummer of Lettuce, he operates on multiple levels: writer, arranger, conductor, and de-facto leader—onstage and off.
It was an absolute joy to witness Deitch shine with a gigantic smile, take control of this band for the first time in a long time, and lead them to the proverbial promised land. Akin to Coomes’ steady contributions, Deitch was a highlight reel on every damn jam. He brought a Clyde-like, heavy-lead right foot, a lyrical flourish or syncopated shuffle, whatever and whenever the song called for it. On “Silence is Golden”, the wunderkind sketches a serendipitous story that cuts into your emotions no matter how stoic or steely your skin or resolve. Deitch could instantly uncork a diesel-powered thunderclap of organic 808s when it was time to bring the pain, and always set his bredren up for success. Adam Deitch is the centrifugal surge of electric energy that acts as the unwavering battery in the back of this musical Voltron, and at this long-awaited and much needed Cervantes two-night stand, he would undoubtedly be our Superman.
But the magic and majesty of Lettuce lies in the fact that the sum is far greater than it’s virtuosic parts, as evidenced by the uncanny full-band creative collaborations that defined their performances in Denver. The sets seemed to get stronger as they went on, and the band bolder and more confident by the moment. Lettuce was dedicated to continuing to develop their creations into more expansive artistic expressions. They reinvented aspects of older numbers like “Reunion”, “Breakout”, “Blast Off” and “Lett Bobby”, yet stayed true school to deep cuts like the ancient “Nyack”. On the first encore of the final set, the boys felt comfortable enough to trot out a brand-new composition, “The Lock”, a throwback carnival groove that is a sonic tribute to longtime Sensei Jeff Lockhart, and Boston jazz club Wally’s, their old stomping grounds in the Berklee days. In 2021, the group’s songbook has developed into a collection so wide-ranging that their sound, long-since impossible to define, can now be classified as simply defiant.
Look no further than the ethereal, improvisational hoo-rides meticulously stitched into masterworks like “Purple Cabbage” and “Gang Ten”, as each possessed a harrowing excursion into the netherworlds of psychedelia that called to the RZA, Pete Rock, and Flying Lotus, but also King Tubby and Ornette Coleman. But for this writer, the standout performances in this regard were the terrific, somewhat terrifying trifecta of “Trapezoid”, “Madison Square”, and “Mr. Yancey.”
All three cataclysmic concoctions boasted Type II adventures in sound, each reading could be confidently called an instant classic, and immediately injected into the conversation for all time versions performed. Yet the latter, the band’s OG homage to the late J Dilla birthed on 2008’s Rage, hit just a wee bit different this time around, fifteen years since the legend departed this rock. “Mr. Yancey” didn’t merely scratch the surface, nor nostalgically remind us of what used to be, but instead leapt into the future with the promise of a better tomorrow, and still gave us directions home.
LETT managed to infuse some kind of unspeakable mystical energy into song, nevermind unplanned and totally of the moment. A psychedelic, philosophic, spiritual lineage cross-pollinated and embedded into a passage of celestial sound art, co-created by a band of brothers reunited and excited. This fearless approach to hip-hop future-jazz as a mind-expanding sacrament is what first hooked me on this group and their mission, and chasing this particular dragon soon became my religion. Their passionate, peculiar modus operandi has maybe never been more fully realized than within this magnificent take on “Mr. Yancey”, unleashed deep into Cervantes fourth and final set— front-to-back, for my money, some the finest Lettuce ever laid down.
Shoutout to Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom for safely and responsibly leading the way back to the dancefloor. Give thanks for live music!
Welcome back Lettuce. The bar has officially been raised. A deep bow of gratitude to the band for this ceremonious return to the stage.
Setlists courtesy of Funk It
February 18, 2021
Denver, CO @ Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom
Reunion (inc. Resonate)
Ready To Live
Sam Huff’s Flying Raging Machine
Move On Up (inc. Happy Feelings [Maze]) [Curtis Mayfield]
Let It GOGO > Making My Way Back Home
Shmink Dabby Kane
Everybody Wants To Rule The World [Tears For Fears]
House of Lett
Remember The Children [EWF]
Squadlive (inc. Sanford & Son Theme & Poison teases)
February 19, 2021
Larimar Coda Jam
Do It Like You Do
Black Satin [Miles Davis] >
Silence Is Golden
Don’t Change For Me >
A Message From The Meters [The Meters]
(Voodoo Chile intro) Sounds Like A Party
The Lock (new song, just recorded)