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Lake Street Dive Modernize the Spirit of Motown

Aug. 16, 2016
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Photo by Danny Clinch

Lake Street Dive bassist Bridget Kearney doesn’t mind the idea that the band’s live shows sometimes seem like they could run off the rails at any point. It’s one reason the four-person group has never added musicians to its touring lineup, even though it’s sometimes challenging to cover some of the instrumental parts from the studio recordings of the songs.

“Sometimes because of our limited instrumentation, being basically three instrumentalists, forces each one of us, like [drummer] Mike Calabrese to sometimes be shaking a tambourine at the same time as he’s using all three of his other limbs to play the drums as well as singing a background harmony at the same time,” Kearney said. “It’s kind of almost a thing where you’re watching someone almost fall off the cliff and they just make it. It’s exciting in that way.” 

Besides, staying a four piece live also meets another goal: giving audiences something different from what they hear on Lake Street Dive’s albums. “As a listener, I really love going to live shows where the performances are different from the record,” Kearney said. “So that’s one thing that touring as a quartet allows us to do, is differentiate it from the studio versions of the songs.”

The willingness to take risks doesn’t just show up in Lake Street Dive’s live shows. It was also a characteristic the Boston-based band embraced in making its new album Side Pony. 

After spending the first eight-plus years of their career essentially in obscurity, Lake Street Dive had started getting national attention in 2013 when a video of the group doing an acoustic version of Michael Jackson’s “I Want You Back” became a YouTube hit. Two-plus years of touring behind their fourth album Bad Self Portraits only amplified the buzz surrounding the band, and it also created something the group had never encountered: expectations for its next album. 

This is where the group’s willingness to take risks helped combat the pressure to overcome the so-called “sophomore slump.” And Lake Street Dive took plenty of chances with Side Pony, beginning with putting no stylistic limits on the music they were creating, and working with a new producer in Dave Cobb, who also challenged the band, which includes Kearney, Calabrese, singer Rachael Price and trumpet player/guitarist Mike “McDuck” Olson, in a number of ways.

First and foremost, Cobb changed the group’s songwriting methods. In the past, the band members wrote individually and usually made pretty complete demos with most of the instrumentation in place before presenting the songs to their bandmates. Often recording was a question of the four band members replicating the demos. For Side Pony, Cobb had the group members bring their songs in when they were still at an early, skeletal stage.

The songs on Side Pony certainly suggest that the group members played to their strengths. Like Bad Self Portraits, the new album is plenty eclectic, seamlessly blending rock and soul on the frisky “Godawful Things” and the standout rocker “Spectacular Failure,” drawing on ’70s Philadelphia soul and a bit of Motown on “Call Off Your Dogs,” displaying a bit of classic rock on “Close to Me” (which even mimics a bit of Jimi Hendrix in its opening guitar part), bringing some blues to the table on “I Don’t Care About You,” and mixing perky pop, folk and soul on the title song. 

Fans can expect Lake Street Dive to showcase a good number of the new songs on tour this summer, while retaining a long-standing trademark of its concerts. “(We) like to incorporate some covers into our set just as a way of inviting in some listeners that may be new to our sound,” Kearney says.

Lake Street Dive plays Turner Hall Ballroom with Darlingside on Tuesday, Aug. 23 at 8 p.m.

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