photo: Sam Silkworth
On a glorious midsummer evening in Morrison, CO, future-funk-hop collective Lettuce and pioneering East Bay funk/soul icons Tower of Power took over the palatial Red Rocks Amphitheatre, both bands augmented by the 60-piece Colorado Symphony Orchestra. ‘Twas a night on the Rocks to remember, an empyrean escapade that delivered both the goods and the feels in abundance. Thousands of dedicated funkateers bore witness to a ceremonial torch-passing, cinematic sound art cementing an inter-generational lineage in celestial fashion.
No matter how many times one has trekked out to the resplendent Red Rocks, the live music experience there never becomes old hat. With towering boulders forming organic art installations, the natural amphitheater is acoustically impeccable; it provides a mystical atmosphere for ambitious, ornate, moving musical performances. Fans occasionally lament that the sound at Red Rocks isn’t “loud enough,” but for a night of nuanced electric instrumentation complemented by a sprawling symphony, I cannot dream up environs more idyllic than this magnificent marvel of ochre sandstone.
Lettuce’s annual Red Rocks throwdown is traditionally titled “Rage Rocks,” a play on the name of 2008’s beloved sophomore LP. It often features opening sets from peers, contemporaries, and artists on the come up, plus band members’ favorite flavors du jour. However, this year’s date welcomed seminal superheroes Tower of Power to their stage; thus the engagement was respectfully billed simply by the band names on the marquee.
This change subtly denoted a different vibe, cultivating a classy, more mature scene and energy—think “grown n’ sexy” in lieu of the somewhat unhinged party concert that Rage Rocks typically provides. Despite any expectations, unspoken hopes held, or pre-show social media hype, few in attendance were adequately prepared for the majesty of the musical experience that awaited them on the Front Range this evening.
The aforementioned musical lineage was not lost on most in attendance, certainly not the members of Lettuce, many of whom spent countless hours shedding Tower of Power tunes in their youth. Notably, LETT co-founder and virtuosic drummer Adam Deitch attended a drum class with ToP’s renowned skinsman David Garibaldi when he was merely a pre-teen. To reconnect with his childhood idol by sharing a stage at Red Rocks was nothing short of a dream come true, not only for Deitch, but for all of Lettuce.
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For both bands, this potent pairing felt like a special event, an apex mountain, a career triumph, and that was well before the first beat even dropped.
As the hordes scaled the steep ramps and climbed the steps skyward to file into the extraordinary cathedral, I noticed a sizable swath of Tower of Power t-shirts dotting the entrance lines, most of them on bodies that appeared older than the average Lettuce fan. It was soon crystal clear that numerous funk vets who made their show bones in a different era had embarked on a pilgrimage to this sacred space specifically to see the very cats who helped build the garden—Tower of Power, also in concert with the elegance of an orchestra.
In 54 years as a band, this gig—along with one in San Diego earlier this month—were the very first Tower of Power shows with a symphony accompanying the group.
Among the fans I spied representing the East Bay grease was Jake Funkmayor, the main man at FunkCity.net and a venerable authority of the genre, past and present. A dedicated, passionate, lifelong fan of Tower of Power, Jake was making his first journey to Red Rocks. Who better to describe their monumental performance than the mayor himself? Please allow me to throw it to FunkCity for a few reflections on the Oakland institution’s opening slate:
OG funk and soul band Tower of Power opened the festivities just before 8 p.m. with a sparkling, nonstop hit parade accompanied in full by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Including two medleys, TOP were able to pack 13 hits into a one-hour set drawing heavily on the golden era albums of the eponymous Tower of Power (1973) and Back to Oakland (1974).
The opening run was a spirited blend of “I Like Your Style” and “Soul With a Capital ‘S'” that segued into “You Oughta Be Having Fun” from 1976’s Ain’t Nothin’ Stoppin’ Us Now—all hard-driving, straight-ahead tunes highlighting the legendary TOP horn section, who have played on dozens of albums ranging from Little Feat to Elton John and many more. It also introduced much of the crowd to Tower’s newest member, lead singer, Mike Jerel. He joined the band earlier this year after appearing on The Voice and auditioning with James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World”. He’s got the chops to pull off everything in the band’s repertoire, from sultry soul ballads to fantastic funk flights.
Tower of Power With Colorado Symphony Orchestra – “What is Hip” – Red Rocks Amphitheatre – 7/20/22
The set continued with vintage tunes “Don’t Change Horses in the Middle of a Stream” (Back to Oakland, 1974) and “Soul Vaccination” (Tower of Power, 1973). “Horses” is particularly unique, with the horns simulating horse whinnying along the way—very well suited for the orchestral arrangement.
The surprise of the set was the ballad “Time Will Tell”, from Back to Oakland. Back in the day, the band often had string arrangements on their studio albums; “Time” was one of those tracks that was rarely performed live because it needed that orchestral sound. Red Rocks with the symphony was an ideal setting to bring it out, and it hit my heart very personally with the astounding arrangement and vocals.
“This Time It’s Real”, a big band horn-led tune, picked up the tempo; Jerel’s vocals and the extra punch from the orchestra delivered in a big way. Tower of Power’s James Brown medley followed and showcased the band’s founder Emilio Castillo on vocals along with Jerel. The medley is an outgrowth of the hit “Diggin’ on James Brown” from the Souled Out album (1995) but with JB’s “Mother Popcorn” and “I Got The Feeling” mixed in.
The final three songs were Tower of Power mainstays; no set is complete without them. “So Very Hard To Go” is probably the band’s most famous ballad. It rose to #11 on the R&B charts in 1973. Next they asked the eternal question, “What Is Hip?”—still a fiery mantra that many long-time Tower fans easily and frequently can relate to.
Tower of Power With Colorado Symphony Orchestra – “You’re Still a Young Man” – Red Rocks Amphitheatre – 7/20/22
Naturally, the set ended where it all began—”You’re Still a Young Man”, the first song band founders Emilio Castillo and Stephen “Doc” Kupka ever wrote together. It has one of the greatest horn opening and closing lines ever laid down. The band was tight as a drum; they left the stage to a standing ovation as the set ended. In addition to their own trailblazing history, the legacy of Tower of Power is inspiration for today’s great funk bands, not the least of which Lettuce, who took over and lit up the rest of the evening.
If we’re keeping it a buck—as the kids say—Lettuce has lit up the past few years. The band is riding an amazing artistic ascent, in spite of the pandemic pause and the resulting industry-wide reverberations. The sextet is celebrating its 30th year as a collective, prolific to the tune of three full-length records inside of four years, plus a vinyl-only improv release; debut album Outta Here remastered and finally available on vinyl; hot ticket tours from coast to coast, multiple jaunts overseas, bold font festival bookings, collaborating with icons like Bootsy Collins, and landing their first ever Grammy nomination for 2019’s Elevate.
In November 2018, the band undertook an enormous challenge: performing with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra at Denver’s Boettcher Concert Hall, a then-exclusive engagement that raised the bar for what was conceivable within original Lettuce compositions. On that groundbreaking evening, the seeds were sown for what would go down nearly four years later, at one of the most breathtaking venues in the world, on the heels of their proverbial heroes.
Other artists have mined orchestral/electric territory at Red Rocks before, including longtime LETT comrades Pretty Lights Live, as well as New Zealand electronic producer Opiuo, and folk songstress Brandi Carlile. Nonetheless, this presentation of Lettuce music is relatively uncharted topography in the modern funk realm. Along with the 2018 orchestral debut in Denver and a recent performance with the San Diego Symphony, the collaboration with a symphony orchestra represents a supreme new chapter for the band, a direction and intention with sizable potential.
For the Red Rocks recital, Lettuce would be joined once again by the Colorado Symphony, 60 members deep, helmed by the same conductor, the aptly-named Christopher Dragon. Lettuce again asked Tom Hagerman, of Colorado band Devotchka, to craft custom classical accompaniment and arrangements for original Lettuce compositions to, in essence, symphonize the band’s music.
The LETT bredren took their spaces at the front of the stage, with the sprawling orchestra surrounding them to the rear. The boys were aligned in a semi-circle, sort of “in the round,” with keyboardist/vocalist Nigel Hall and drummer Deitch in the center. Guitarist Adam Shmeeans Smirnoff and bassist Erick Jesus Coomes flanked Deitch stage left, with Ryan Zoidis (saxophones/synth) and Eric Benny Bloom (trumpet) holding it down stage right. Lettuce’s front-of-house engineer, Scorpion (Steel Pulse), was at the dials. On this night, the band would be lit up at Red Rocks by the great Tiberius Benson, the lightning designer on loan from pals STS9.
Appropriate for the symphony, Deitch, Shmeeans, and Jesus donned black suits and black ball caps, while Zoidis eschewed the hat to let his locks blow in the wind. Nigel Hall went his own way with a lighter, contrasting ‘fit that made for a sweet centerpiece to the black tie attire of his bandmates and the orchestra at large, particularly when a lone spotlight would focus on just him. Bloom was rocking a bedazzled, festive evening coat with a long tail; he would serve as resident cheerleader and hype man for the night, and also briefly sat in with the Colorado Symphony during Tower of Power’s set. Benny was often the most animated cat onstage—save for the conductor, Mr. Dragon, who remained true to his name, a whirling dervish throughout.
Lettuce With Colorado Symphony Orchestra – “Larimar” – Red Rocks Amphitheatre – 7/20/22
Hall offered brief opening remarks with a focus on gratitude before the squad dove headfirst into “The Force”, a driving midtempo banger from 2015’s Crush. The opener was unleashed with panache, slowed just a bit to allow for the orchestra to stay with the groove. “The Force” featured a patient, scorching Ryan Zoidis alto solo to set it off. The band displayed a decided focus on brevity, a certain discipline in “staying home” and performing the songs as they were written/recorded. I surmise as to not lose the symphony in LETT’s oft-diabolical improv tangents, for they were relying on detailed charts, sheet music, and the dogged efforts of Mr. Dragon to stay aboard what is normally a runaway freight train.
From 2019’s Elevate, Lettuce offered up “Larimar” complete with an intro break that nodded to Clipse/Cash Money/Neptunes 2002 collab “What Happened To That Boy”. Bloom’s brilliant trumpet soared through the mountain sky on “Larimar”; this song was a particularly choice selection for orchestral accompaniment, taking a scintillating number and adding cinematic elements to enhance things exponentially. That equation would in essence be the playbook for this sensational symphonic LETT experience.
The ominous sounds of Zoidis’ Korg X911 synth tones announced “Trapezoid”, also culled from Elevate. The song’s arrival was punctuated by Deitch’s titanic trap drums and sizzling hihats, Hall’s swirling Hammond B3 chords, Coomes’ thunderous bass bombs, and an exalted horn head riding the tidal wave. All of these parts coalesced in a promethazine potion, further exacerbated by symphonic swells that added to the oceanic drama. “Ghosts of Jupiter”, a deep cut found on 2012’s Fly, was yet another brilliant selection for Hagerman to touch. This rarely played joint saw the Colorado Symphony continue to level up Lettuce’s creations in subtly sublime style.
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Nigel Hall took command with “Move On Up”, a cherished Curtis Mayfield classic that was the vehicle through which many Lettuce fans first heard Hall sing when he first cliqued-up with LETT in the Rage-era. Though it’s a cover, “Move on Up” is an essential song in Lettuce history. To hear it fleshed out with strings, horns, and orchestral vibes lent a certain authenticity and gravity to the rendition. After Shmeeans electrified the entire amphitheater with an absolutely stunning Strat solo, Hall steered a mid-song detour into “Be A Lion” from The Wiz. He held every last beating heart in the palm of his hand, total silence except vocals and Fender Rhodes, leaving nary a dry eye in the house, Nigel included.
In the set’s biggest surprise, Benny told Red Rocks to “turn up!” and the squad uncorked “Vámonos”, the crowning jewel of their latest LP, Unify, released in early June. The song has only been performed a few times as the band seeks to find its footing with “Vámonos” in the live setting. At Red Rocks with the symphony at their backs, the composition came alive in kaleidoscopic fashion, with the strings enhancing Nigel’s dalliances on organ, percussion handcrafting a jungleland, the battery of horns emboldening Zoidis and Bloom and elucidating the euphoric triumph. At one point during the song’s phantasmagorical middle section, the Red Rocks jumbotron caught Deitch sheepishly grinning, disarmed in awe of his collaborators and their incandescent collective creation.
Lettuce With Colorado Symphony Orchestra – “Vámonos” – Red Rocks Amphitheatre – 7/20/22
We crossed the 50-minute threshold with another rarity in the brief, blissful “Elephant Walk”, from 2016’s Mt. Crushmore EP—a staccato shimmy that washed over the masses after the whirlwind run of mammoth songs that preceded. The band and symphony paused to gather themselves before rounding the final turn. Then the orchestral intro to “Madison Square” began in all its cherubic glory. Many of us knew it was coming, but nobody was really ready for it, resulting in more leaky eyes and deep swaying as the introduction rose to a crescendo and the Lettuce boys joined in.
The unofficial LETT anthem—found on 2012’s Fly but really dating back to Bear Creek 2011—”Madison Square” is a quintessential Lettuce tune. Co-written by Smirnoff and Deitch, it’s maybe the song, depending on who you ask. Deitch’s father Bobby recently told me that his son wrote the new intro to this beloved chestnut in tribute to his Grandma Betty, Bobby’s mother. As a youngster, Adam used to spend time with her in Syosset, NY, sharing lunch while watching daytime soap operas on television. The song “Madison Square” is an instrumental score brimming with drama, life’s twists and turns, and ultimately its triumphs, not unlike say Days of Our Lives was to the thousands who tuned in every day, like Grandma Betty.
Composer Tom Hagerman’s work on “Madison Square” was spectacular, taking an already brilliant piece of music and somehow enhancing it tenfold. The Colorado Symphony once again garnished the song with a certain pizzazz and electricity that took it to another plateau entirely. Lettuce met them there, delivering a distilled, focused, and enveloping version of their magnum opus that left no doubt as to whether or not this collaboration was a success.
Lettuce With Colorado Symphony Orchestra – “Madison Square” – Red Rocks Amphitheatre – 7/20/22
From conception to execution, Lettuce and the Colorado Symphony proved a magnificent match for one another. As Nigel Hall thanked the members of the symphony and conductor Christopher Dragon, it was difficult to tell which contingent was floating higher, the band or the members of the orchestra.
Really, it could have concluded right there, but Lettuce was not done just yet. After a very brief pause—hardly an intermission—the boys stormed back onstage, sans symphony, and tore through a truncated set in their usual, hyphy-crunk funk, psychedelic improvisational style.
Turns out, we would get a mini-Rage Rocks after all, beginning in the now frontier with a rollicking, rotund “RVA Dance” from Unify, then hopping in the wayback machine to “Squadlive”, performed in the OG arrangement including the bridge only heard on Outta Here from 2002. They segued straight into a housequake, in the form of “House of LETT” from 2020’s Resonate. A four-on-the-four firestorm ensued before the boys detoured into the loop from “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’”, from 1991’s Native Tongues classic De La Soul is Dead by De La Soul.
Also culled from Unify, the angular funk of “The Lock” was next, an homage to Boston-era mentor Jeffrey Lockhart and one of the stronger new cuts in the live rotation. Jesus drove the the groove with determination, while his older brother Ty Coomes (aka Tycoon) appeared next to Bloom on the wing and began to add percussion flourishes to the soundscapes. Nigel once again commandeered our attention and hearts with his treasured take on “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, a global hit by ’80s radio rockers Tears for Fears that has taken on an entirely new life with Lettuce’s Soulquarian-infused arrangement. Like “Move on Up”, Hall’s rendition of “Rule the World” never fails to hit you in the feels, and on this night it would be no different as the band wove in D’Angelo’s grooves just because they could.
Lettuce – “Everybody Wants To Rule the World” (Tears for Fears) – Red Rocks Amphitheatre – 7/20/22
Another Unify track, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” features Nigel’s own lyrics and vocals on top of a fiery gospel funk number penned by the legendary Clark Sisters. Lettuce dropped a buoyant version of this single, and it spilled out into a proper Rage Rocks dance party one last time. We got a fleeting glimpse of Smirnoff’s young daughter glowing on the jumbotron, while her dad did his thing for the throngs. As Shmeeans began to work in the instantly recognizable guitar phrasing from “Phyllis”, an audible roar came over the remaining crowd; the band dove into their biggest song with resolve and aplomb.
Found on 2015’s Crush, this particular version of “Phyllis” was notable because for the first time it segued into a loop from Quincy Jones‘ “Summer in the City”, best known as part of Pharcyde’s 1992 era-defining hip-hop love song “Passin’ Me By”. Fans belted the timeless chorus into the Rocky Mountain night, making for an ecstatic conclusion to an epic endeavor. The band played the “Phyllis” head over the Quincy loop—one more time with feeling—creating an amalgamation of style, geography, and generation, par for the course and the cherry on top of an illustrious evening. Then, to bring it on home, LETT flipped “Phyllis” double-time, a latin rhythm punctuated by bubonic 808 blasts, sending the throaty remaining revelers off with appropriate verve and gusto.
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The results of this colossal collaborative event were nothing short of otherworldly. I’ve had the privilege to enjoy Lettuce concerts all over this country, in rooms and festivals large and small, including several times at Red Rocks. But it’s never sounded—or felt—quite like this. From beginning to end, the collective was locked and loaded, with individual performances positively masterful, and the emotional quotient simply incalculable. Add in the pomp and circumstance of hosting their heroes Tower of Power, reuniting with the Colorado Symphony, and the thousands of hardcore fans who’d made the trek from all over the country, and Red Rocks 2022 will go down in the annals of LETT history.
Unforgettable, in every way.
Listen to Tower of Power’s Performance with the Colorado Symphony via Funk It Blog HERE
Listen to Lettuce’s performance with the Colorado Symphony via Funk It Blog HERE