As the Noise Pop fest came to a close in SF last weekend, Houston-based gulf coast soul band The Suffers made a theater full of new fans on Saturday night. They’ve played SF 3 times over the past year, with the size of the venue increasingly mirroring the band’s growing popularity. This time, it was a sold-out show at the recently-renovated Nob Hill Masonic Theater with Boston-based outfit Lake Street Dive, and the stakes were a bit higher. Not only did they just release their excellent eponymous debut LP, they’re coming fresh off an appearance on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and also for the first time in SF, they were opening the show.
Full disclosure: I’m not shy about my love for this band’s live show. The 10-piece ensemble start their shows with a battle cry worthy of a group of charging soldiers. Facing each other in a circle, arms raised to the sky in solidarity, they yell at the top of their lungs for 10 seconds before playing the first note. It’s a striking ritual that gets your attention whether you’re front-and-center or at the back bar grabbing a drink. Now that you’re listening, they take you on a musical journey through a myriad of influences including, soul, R&B, and more. Their arsenal runs deep; traditional rock instruments, extended percussion, soaring vocals, and a screaming brass section belting multi-part harmonies. If you’ve never heard the band before, check out our previous coverage here for a primer.
And yeeaahhhh, about that whole “opening band” thing: this did not sound or feel like an opening set. After starting off with the previously released ode to blossoming love “Make Some Room”, singer Kam Franklin engages the crowd with the carefree composure of an old friend. The sandwich question is back, and it’s just as funny this time around. There’s a genuine element of storytelling and comedy in The Suffers’ set, adding to their appeal. After she pokes fun at us for being shy about wanting sandwiches, they crank the music and stage presence to 11 and roar through album highlights “Dutch” and “Midtown”. The slippery tempo and sudden key change as the former morphs into the latter is a sonic curveball. Just as the bobbing horns and ska-punk drum assault of “Dutch” reach a crescendo, with the band firing on all cylinders, they pull the rug, the beat slips from under your feet, and in instant you’re forced to regain your footing knee-deep in the first verse of “Midtown”, a silkier, skittering jam lying squarely on Adam Castaneda’s perforated bass line. It’s a bit of sonic trickery that translates well to the live setting and has the crowd applauding the ‘gotcha’ moment.
In a quieter moment, Franklin is suggestive in the slowly unfurling sensuality of “Giver” (let me just massage your back / and run my fingers through your hair / cause I’m a giver / I’ll be your giver). You hear impassioned hollering from all corners of the nearly-full theater. The middle of the floor. Then the balcony. Then the bar. Ladies everywhere whooping in solidarity. Maybe I’ve been drinking too much kombucha and attending too many freeform dance improv sessions (this is San Francisco, after all), but this moment felt particularly full of empowering feminine energy. Which was interesting, considering the lyrical content has Franklin clearly playing the supporting role to her partner. It was a stunningly candid moment, performed with conviction. The slow-burning trumpet and sax solos toward the end of the song (with Jon Durbin on trumpet, and Cory Wilson on Sax) showcased the acoustics at the Masonic, each note bouncing crisply off the walls and reverberating freely throughout the hall.
The Suffers – “Giver” (Live)
At multiple points, Franklin both expressed heartfelt thanks to the crowd for their support and offered encouragement, acknowledging everyone who arrived early to see a band they didn’t know, and explaining that they all left “grown-up” jobs to do this full time after a successful crowdfunding campaign helped them make their record. “If anyone ever tells you it’s too late, I’ve got 9 friends up here with me who can prove that’s not true”. It was inspiring, and looking across the band members’ faces, you could feel their genuine gratitude for the opportunity. They ripped through a few more tracks, made absolute sure the audience knew the name of the band and where they were from, and off they went with a bow.
The Suffers are a hard act to follow, and Lake Street Dive did an admirable job. Led by talented jazz singer Rachael Price, they play a pleasing blend of jazz, folk, and blues-inspired Americana music that I’m sure my mom would be happy I enjoyed, not to mention my friends from jam-band magnet Cape Cod. If you like Grace Potter, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, or Fitz & The Tantrums, you’ll probably enjoy Lake Street Dive. A couple highlights were the surprisingly powerful group vocal harmonies on the anthemic “Stop Your Crying” and the deliberately off-beat slow burn of jazz-pop ditty “Better Than”. Also, there’s something inherently Billy Joel-esque about their bright-eyed, quirky, genre-hopping arrangements… alternately building infectious earworms around a trumpet, a guitar, a whistle, upright bass, whatever seems to suit the song. They somehow come across as both calculated and a little hokey, which is weirdly endearing. Like The Suffers, humor isn’t lost on them. While explaining the meaning behind the name of their newest LP Side Pony (simply put, something quirky that makes you unique), drummer/vocalist Mike Calabrese told a pretty funny story about how he likes to mess with his grandma by dislocating knick-knacks in her bathroom when he visits, but knows she can’t say anything cause she’ll seem crazy to the family. Comedy aside, they’re extremely proficient musicians, all with extensive training and musical backgrounds, hailing from the prestigious New England Conservatory. They have a knack for making complex musical arrangements sound simple, catchy, and accessible. Price’s unbelievable voice is a gift from the heavens, and their vocal harmonies are tighter than Rick Snyder’s wallet. I enjoy their records and I really wanted to love them live. I did. And in the right environment, I surely would.
Such as on a sidewalk in Boston:
Here’s the thing though. Unless you’re in a prog-metal band (and even then sometimes), passion trumps precision. Especially live. And when you take a band as dynamic and genuinely explosive as The Suffers on tour with you, you damn better be prepared to make a spectacle of yourselves to keep the energy alive if you’re going to follow them. There was plenty of cheering and the expected to-and-fro swaying to the easily digestible rock and jazz numbers. The crowd seemed to really enjoy LSD (I’ll never get tired of saying that) but at no point did their set reach the feverish “oh fuck, what am I watching here? Is this a star being born?” reactions elicited by The Suffers’ set. It was the difference between watching your best friend set a tree on fire with a flamethrower, and watching an acquaintance carefully ignite the kindling in their own fireplace. If Lake Street Dive didn’t already have such a loyal following from years of touring and multiple albums, and this crowd was hearing both bands for the first time, I suspect the script might be flipped on the bill.
Oh, and today, The Suffers announced they’ll continue their late-night dominance on Thurs, March 10 with a performance on Jimmy Kimmel live.