Sonny Knight & The Lakers at First Avenue, 5/3/14
Sonny Knight & The Lakers
with The Honeydogs and Southside Desire
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Saturday, May 3, 2014
While it's hard to believe it now, only a few short years ago, interest in locally made soul and R&B music was mostly relegated to few particularly dedicated record collectors and DJs around town. Groups like Dave Brady & the Stars or the Valdons may have popped up on mix tapes from crate-digging collectives like Hotpants/Hipshaker, but the vast majority of Twin Cities music fans were still in the dark.
Secret Stash Records changed all that in 2012 with the release of their Twin Cities Funk & Soul compilation, sparking enough interest to bring pioneers like Sonny Knight and his contemporaries out of retirement for a series of shows. For other entertainers, that brief return to the stage could have been the end of it. But for Knight, it was just the beginning.
Twin Cities Funk & Soul was a runaway success, and before long Secret Stash began devising ways to bring more locally grown grooves to the burgeoning niche their compilation had created. Rather than reissuing more vintage material, the label took a bold step into writing and recording their own compositions. Sonny's strength as an entertainer and drive to continue performing made him the perfect catalyst for the formation of a Secret Stash house band, a crack team of instrumentalists dubbed "The Lakers," and his undeniable talent gave that combo the star frontman they needed.
Fast forward to 2014, and Sonny Knight & the Lakers have already become well-loved performers on the local circuit, opening for touring Daptone acts and rocking festivals to enthusiastic receptions. Once again, Sonny had a choice to remain at this plateau, but at 66 years old, the Vietnam veteran with 50 years in the industry decided to record an album and celebrate its release in the Mainroom. The results were truly spectacular, and a testament to both the drive of Secret Stash, and to the heroic abilities of the man himself.
Beginning with an old school voice-over introduction, the curtain lifted on an expanded version of The Lakers, specially picked for this show only. Guests for the evening included Pavielle French and Sarah Witte, two immensly gifted background singers, as well as percussionist Tony Schreiner and even two go-go dancers. Clad in dashing new suits, the men of the Lakers sounded tighter than they ever have on their instrumental intro vamp, before trumpet player Bryan Highhill gave an adorably goofy take on the classic soul-man call up to bring Sonny to the stage. Seamlessly transitioning into their funky smash "Jucy Lucy," the band kicked the energy into high gear and the show was underway.
From the get-go, Knight's enthusiasm for playing in front of a packed house in the mailroom was evident. "Damn am I glad to see all of y'all in the house tonight" The singer shouted, grinning ear to ear, "My whole family is here!"
The beginning of the set leaned heavily on Knight's locomotive funky material like "Get up and Dance" and "Sonny's Boogaloo." During the former, the singer employed a well-worn trick from JB's playbook, calling out each one his musicians to build a piece of the song's trademark lick, one-by-one. In any other hands, the technique could have come off as cliche, but Knight and his band know exactly how to sell such maneuvers, namely by relying on whip-tight execution from the band and Sonny's winning charisma.
During the smoky "Through With You" and "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," Sonny ran a warm and funny bit of play-acting with his backing ladies before letting them take some time to shine with a lead vocal run for each. French and Witte really made the most of the opportunity, wowing the crowd into cheers and hollers with a couple of diva-level vocal runs. Not to be outdone, Knight dug down into the pain of both songs, belting out lines like "I tried to please her" with a heart-rending tear that would have made Otis jealous.
As the show rolled on, it became apparent just how well the band and their leader had prepared for this event. Every single song was effortlessly sewn together with an impressive flurry of hits from drummer and label head Eric Foss, or horn stings from Highhill and his partners in crime Cole Pulice and Tony Beaderstadt. Spot-on reinterpretations of songs like "Daytripper" and "Sugarman," were precisely arranged, right down to the footwork between guitarist Blair Krivanek and bassist Casey O'Brien, but despite the obvious preparation that was involved, the performance still felt joyful and spontaneous, largely thanks to Knight's beaming personality. Even after dancing all around the stage in a very dapper (and warm looking) three-piece suit, the frontman's vocal stamina never flagged, showing tender restraint on more mellow sweet-soul material like "It's You for Me" and "When You're Gone."