Sonny Knight & the Lakers bring world-class soul/R&B/funk party to First Ave

Sonny Knight and the Lakers at SXSW 2014 (Photo: Tony Nelson)

Sonny Knight and the Lakers at SXSW 2014 (Photo: Tony Nelson) Dml - Tony Nelson

If you noticed a slight downtick, like a disturbance in the Force, in the amount of soul, funk, and R&B in your world on Saturday night, there is a simple reason:

It was all at First Avenue.

The evening began with a strong set from Duluth’s Big Wave Dave and the Ripples. Dave breathed energetic life into R&B standards like “Hard to Handle” and “Just Dropped In," and the Ripples pushed him along for the whole set.

Nooky Jones is another animal altogether -- slow, slinky soul to get the crowd, shall we say, in the mood? With a name like Nooky Jones, we really shouldn’t be that surprised. When they played “People Get Ready," everyone in the crowd was on board.

The night obviously belonged to Sonny Knight and the Lakers, though, and rightfully so. They have a new album, Sooner or Later, due out October 14. Four horns, two drummers (who even offered a dueling drum solo), two dancers, keys, guitar, bass, Sonny, and a partridge named James Grear and Company in a pear tree. Christmas came early to the big crowd at First Avenue.

The Lakers were clad in smart, matching suits, and Sonny wore a deep purple leisure suit, a look perfectly suited for playing late-night shuffle board with the devil on the purgatory cruise. Opening with a couple of well-received new songs, the party was on. The momentum was driven by the two dancers and psychedelic screen projections reminiscent of the opening of MTV News from back in the day. It was great.

“Sonny’s Boogaloo” was tight, tight, tight, and Sonny asked the crowd, “Do you want some saxophone?" The rest of the horn section hammed it up, toasting each other with beer during the hot saxophone solo, adding to the loose vibe. The crowd really exploded during I’m Still Here favorite “Juicy Lucy." 

Sonny growled through “Do the Caveman," and playfully interacted with the dancers, but the band is clearly nuanced all-pros. They know that you can’t just be a freight train pinning the crowd to the back bar. All but the guitarist, bass player, and Sonny left the stage for an intimate reading of “It’s You for Me”. Sonny’s voice was gravelly, but clear, and massive when it needed to be.

New song “How Long ‘Til Someday” was a highlight of the evening. It’s a tale of marriage proposal, and qualified rejections. As Sonny sang, “’I don’t know’ is a hell of an answer”. 2014 song “Hey Girl became a showcase for almost all of the Lakers. One of the drummers, Secret Stash Records label head Eric Foss, jumped up with an excited dance during his band members' extended jams.

The band went full noir on the one-two punch of new song “Why?" and the well-known “Sugar Man." It was shadowy and slinky, and a perfect extended moment in the evening seeing Sonny prowling the stage hitting all the right notes in the darkness.

“Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” saw the appearance of the vocal ensemble James Grear and Company. It was one of those (capital M) Moments that you talk about years later.  Foss told us last week that the interaction between Sonny and James Grear and Company will make “your hair stand on end." 

Too true. It was breathtaking, and when they all came back out for “Help Me” it was gospel hour in a sticky revival tent.

“You guys know how to make a party work," Sonny exclaimed. 

Ending with a beefed up “Sooner or Later," Sonny Knight, his Lakers, and James Grear and Company took the First Avenue crowd straight to church, and the crowd bore witness to the testimonial.

The crowd on stage: More suits than a secret service convention.

Overheard in the crowd: [about Nooky Jones singer, Cameron Kinghorn] "THAT guy has no trouble getting laid."

Random notebook dump: It’s cool that Sonny Knight and the Lakers shared the evening with People Serving People; doing good work on behalf of homeless folks. 

It Had to Change
Stronger in the End
Sonny’s Boogaloo
The Cry
Juicy Lucy
I Could Never Get Tired
It’s You For Me
How Long ‘Til Someday
Hey Girl, Why?
Sugar Man
Sock A Poo Poo
Through with You
Oh Mary Don’t You Weep
Help Me
It’s Over
Sooner or Later