What if Amy Winehouse’s music had veered more toward shiny Motown than muggy London town, and brought to mind joy more than obsession? These musical questions find an appealing answer in the form of Lake Street Dive, leaders in the soul-revivalist movement and a potent delivery system for Rachael Price, who’s graduated from post-grad jazz student prodigy to, at 30, being one of rock’s most charismatic frontwomen.
A few dates into a tour promoting their new Side Pony album, the band locked in with a sold-out house at L.A.’s Wiltern, where the vocal level of rapture proved that blue-eyed soul works just as well for Lake Street Dive’s mostly young demo as it did for the Hall & Oates generation. “Rich Girl,” not incidentally, was the final encore number, following one other cover, a mid-set rendition of “Walking on Broken Glass.” Covering Annie Lennox takes a certain amount of brass, and not just the trumpet that guitarist Mike “McDuck” Olson busted out on that (and a few other) occasions. But Price doesn’t shrink from inviting those kinds of vocal comparisons, nor does she need to, though her happy stage persona is the opposite of Lennox’s glaring vibe.
Watching Price on stage, it’s a filmic comparison that might come to mind: She’s like a rhythmically hopped-up version of Rita Hayworth in Gilda, curly-tressed and gaily smiling as she sings cheerfully about making mincemeat of lesser-willed men. At least that’s the vibe in some of the songs, like the new album’s “I Don’t Care About You.” On that song, she admits that she would confess her indifference “to your face, if I knew you could take it” against a jangly 6/8 rock guitar riff that leads to an incongruously jubilant R&B chorus, followed by a double-time rave-up coda. “Close to Me” similarly starts off with a guitar figure right out of the Lennon/Harrison handbook as a backdrop for Price to warn a suitor that intimacy will not be in the cards. “Spectacular Failure” proved an even more upbeat knock on a hapless lothario. Getting the bum’s rush never felt so ebullient.
It’s not as if all the band’s songs have Price playing the man-eater, or ignorer. All four members of the group are solo songwriters in their own right, the variety of which allows for some more earnest and even lovelorn numbers to go with the playfully cynical ones. They struck a balance with the song that opened the show, as it does the new album, “Godawful Things,” which has Price “thanking the Lord” for the calamities that led her to a sweet beau. The faux-religiosity of the title results in the joke of a coda where the group indulges in four-part harmonies meant to sound pseudo-churchy. As it turns out, these former New England Conservatory of Music students all sing as well as they play, though the audience could be forgiven for not noticing a single harmony when it’s the Rachael Price Show up front.
For better or worse, Lake Street Dive is still saddled with the “jazzy” tag, which may be why the new album has Olson only picking up the trumpet for one ballad, “Mistakes,” and emphasizing his rock guitar chops more than in the past. In concert, he still played Man With a Horn almost as often as not, thanks to the 21-song set being split about evenly between old and fresh material. “Elijah” came closest to putting the three players in pure rock power trio mode, with bassist Bridget Kearney sounding more like she was playing an electric Hofner than the stand-up bass that towers over her.
Some of the newer stylistic wrinkles from Side Pony didn’t quite make it into the show. Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton) took over the helming duties for the band’s debut on the Nonesuch label, and while that king of alt-country production is hardly known for slicking things up, some of the band’s fans were taken aback by the studio finesse on a few of the new numbers — the single, “Call Off Your Dogs,” in particular. But one man’s overproduction is another man’s savvy stylistic homage, and “Dogs” is clearly meant to recapture a very specific era: the Philly soul that existed right on the eve of disco. Regardless, the version of the song played at the Wiltern sounded less like Gamble and Huff and more like Lake Street Dive, and the band now has a suitable successor to “You Go Down Smooth” as a set climax.
The band’s only real handicap going forward may be the inevitable “retro” tag that not everyone looks so fondly upon. But if the handful of oldsters dotting the Wiltern crowd can refrain from speaking too loudly with their “if you don’t think they make good music anymore…” recommendations, maybe they won’t spoil it for younger fans who don’t know Harold Melvin circa ’75 from The 1975.
I Don’t Care About You
Stop Your Crying
Clear a Space
Saving All My Sinning
Close to Me
Walking on Broken Glass (Annie Lennox cover)
Don’t Make Me Hold Your Hand
You Go Down Smooth
Bad Self Portraits
Call Off Your Dogs
What I’m Doing Here?
Rich Girl (Daryl Hall & John Oates cover)