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100 unsexiest men 2009

Modern vintages

Lake Street Dive and Miss Tess go their own ways
By JON GARELICK  |  March 24, 2009


WFNX Jazz Brunch Top Five
1. John Scofield, Piety Street [Emarcy]
2. The Bad Plus, For All I Care [Heads Up]
3. Southside Johnny, Grapefruit Moon: The Songs of Tom Waits [Redeye]
4. Fareed Haque, Flat Earth [Owl Studios]
5. Dr. Lonnie Smith, Rise Up! [Palmetto]

Bands find their own identities in all kinds of ways. Boston bands Lake Street Dive, and Miss Tess, and the Bon Ton Parade are different, but with a lot in common. They often share a rhythm section. Their singers — Rachael Price and Tess Reitz — are long-time pals, former roommates who’ve just started up their own side project together, the Sweet and Low Down. Each outfit has its own way of featuring vocal music that falls between the cracks of the dominant local club-scene genres: a little bit jazzy, a little bit pop, not quite anything you’ve heard before.

Lake Street Dive met at New England Conservatory, where trumpeter/composer Mike Olson discovered that he liked playing with drummer Mike Calabrese and bassist Bridget Kearney, and where he later became “enamored of” the singing of Rachael Price at a student concert. Ever the conceptually ambitious NEC kid, Olson came up with an idea: “a country band, but, like, a free country band. . . . Which sort of sucks as an idea.”

“Well, it’s not a terrible idea except that none of us knew anything about country music,” says Price.

“And we didn’t know much about free music either,” adds Calabrese. We’re all sitting in the living room of the Jamaica Plain group house where Olson and Calabrese live.

The band eventually discovered that the one vocabulary they all shared was contemporary pop — ’60s British invasion, Motown, Hall & Oates, Paul Simon, the Jackson 5. Covers of these artists might crop up in any of Lake Street Dive’s live sets. (They’re at Lizard Lounge April 9.) But what really sets them apart is their original songwriting and their sound. The songs are fresh-faced pop concoctions laced with sharp, funny lyrics — character portraits (like the one about “Betty the x-ray technician,” or “The Very Special Person Song,” about a college career counselor), or story songs that cast a wry eye on twentysomething romantic entanglements (“Sometimes When I’m Drunk and You’re Wearing My Favorite Shirt”) or the music business (“The Panhandling Song”).

The band also enjoy exquisite chemistry. On a typical night you can find Kearney slapping her bass like a rockabilly hellion or plucking more subtle undulating patterns behind Price and running jazz phrases into the mix. Olson, meanwhile, combines piquant trumpet solos and obbligatos in a warm, rounded tone. Calabrese most often uses brushes to drive the band’s cool grooves with Kearney. He, Olson, and Price might take turns with an electric guitar. And Price is a rising star in her own right — with a solo CD under her belt, she’s become a regular singing straight-ahead jazz at Scullers.

With their occasional group vocal harmonies and shapely tunes, you might not notice that for long stretches you’re hearing nothing but solo voice, bass, and drums. Olson: “The very first show on our very first tour was in Des Moines. It was a rock club. The band before us had an electric guitar and electric bass and the band after us was a metal band. And sonically, we were so different from these other bands, I remember feeling ashamed: ‘Man, we sound so weird! What’s wrong with us!’ ”

Eventually they became confident in their sound, and audiences began to get it too: tight song structures draped on loose arrangements. And the absence of a chording instrument gave Kearney, Price, and Olson plenty of room for improvisation.

Their big break came when Kearney won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest for “Sometimes When I’m Drunk and You’re Wearing My Favorite Shirt” — it paid for their first CD, In this Episode . . . (2006), as well as the first tour and some very nice equipment. The tour also cemented the group bond and led to last year’s Promises, Promises.

Kearney: “Jazz people don’t think we sound jazzy at all, and people who aren’t jazz musicians always think that it sounds jazzy.” The band’s unity, she says, isn’t “a genre or a style, but an æsthetic, shared musical ideals: melodies that are really memorable. That’s why we can do so much with the tunes. We all try to write melodies that exist on their own — independent of production style.”

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