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.

See also:
Slideshow: Sonny Knight & the Lakers at First Avenue

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."


The set's centerpiece came in the form of a cover of another TC soul hero's biggest hit, "Sock-a-poo-poo" by Maurice McKinnies, which the Laker's raved up into a full on good-foot drum breakdown. As the audience shook it to the best of their abilities, Sonny, Sarah and Pavielle played "stump the band" by thinking up increasingly tricky sequences of stings. After the relatively simple four-count and seven-count failed to trip up the musicians, Sonny called for two slow hits followed by a lightning-fast 16, and the Lakers brushed off the challenge as if it was child's play.

For the encore, the special nature of the evening became even more apparent. A tuxedo-clad string quartet were the first to appear, plucking up the stately intro to Sonny's most personal song "I'm Still Here." As the rest of the band joined in, the soul man told a bit of his story to the elated audience. Beginning with a rumination on the stagnation of his life prior to returning to music, Knight detailed a bit of history.

"After 12 months of service in Vietnam, I caught a red-tail plane back to Twin Cities. Since I'm from Saint Paul, they dropped me right back on Selby Avenue. When I got back, I couldn't believe how much things had changed since I'd been gone. Some of my folks ended up in Stillwater, some of them even died. I didn't want that, so I packed my bags and split. But I found out that all roads lead back here. I'm not running anymore! I found peace within me. I hope you all find peace within. That's all there is!"

With a heartfelt shoutout to his friends and family assembled in the enraptured crowd, Knight brought it home. "We're all still here!" he cried, clasping hands with the front row as the Lakers played him off one final time, "I'm still here!"

Set List:

Lion of Lyndale (instrumental intro)
Jucy Lucy
Get up and Dance
Sonny's Boogaloo
Through With You
Where Did You Sleep Last Night
Day Tripper (The Beatles)
Baby Baby
It's You for Me
Sock a Poo Poo
Sugar Man (Rodriguez)
Hey Girl
When You're Gone
Cave Man

I'm Still Here Pt. 1 and 2

The Supporting Act:

Adam Levy and his rootsy R&B band the Honeydogs took the second set slot as a chance to show off a whole crop of excellent new songs. As it turns out, a Soul-skewed show was the crowd for Levy to try out his new compositions, which find the songwriter further exploring the Memphis influences of his last few records with excellent results. It's a real testament to Levy's songwriting that he's able to synthesize new genre styles, like a Jimmy-Cliff-esque afrobeat number or an '80s arena-soul stomper, with what he does best: clever wordplay with an inviting, melodic heart.

The Opener:

PiƱata Records has been making waves lately thanks to Black Diet's recent SXSW adventure and stellar new record, but Southside Desire, the band that started the local indie label, should really be next on everyone's radar. Where Diet trades in brisk, bold soulful indie-rock, Southside Desire are more of a low-key, blue-eyed affair. Frontwoman Marvel Devitt's has more in common with Dusty Springfield than Aretha, with a breathy, subdued delivery that's perfect for the band's blend of indie pop and sophist-soul. Look up their tune "Casualty of Love," a pitch-perfect mix of the collegiate twee of groups like Saturday Looks Good to Me and Amy Winehouse.

Critic's Bias: As an unapologetic MN Musichead and nerd for all things R&B, this event was pretty much tailor-made for my tastes.

The Crowd: A really impressive turn-out made things even more electric for Sonny's set, props should definitely be given to everyone involved in spreading the word about this show.

Random Notebook Dump: Eric Foss drummed for at least an hour straight and didn't even pause to loosen his tie. That's show business!

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