Diversions: Lake Street Dive

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To be frank, I don’t listen to a lot of music from young artists these days. My playlist sometimes seems stuck alternating between Chet Baker, Van Morrison, and a lot of British Invasion bands from the mid-1960s. But I will go out of my way to see Lake Street Dive perform, and they are on my summer concert schedule.

This quartet out of New York has been around for about 14 years now, but they hit success with their 2014 album, Bad Self Portraits, which earned them a lot of TV appearances, including one on David Letterman’s Late Show that clearly knocked the socks off Dave as well as Paul Shaffer. The band has just released a new album entitled Free Yourself Up, which includes the song “I Can Change,” visualized in the very compelling video below.

A bare-bones original instrumentation of trumpet, wonderfully-creative percussion by Mike Calabrese (basically anything you can hit with a stick), and Iowa native Bridget Kearney’s string bass was used in some creative covers in their earliest work, such as the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” and Hall and Oates’ “Rich Girl.” This sound was expanded to include a uniquely spare use of lead guitar by  Mike “McDuck” Olson, and even to keyboards in this summer’s tour.

Rachael Price’s lead vocals demonstrate well her formal training and recording experience in Ella Fitzgerald-style jazz singing, which is also powerfully reinterpreted in harder-edged rock numbers. Ms. Price can mix both a light romantic touch with a strong rock vocal in the same song, such as “Good Kisser” on the new release.

I last saw Lake Street Dive in an outdoor venue in Des Moines two summers ago, when a persistent rain forced them back into a tight circle with that original spare instrumentation. They pulled it off with great skill and grace under difficult circumstances, making for a very intimate close-up performance with their loyal audience.

So why does this band reach me when most other new music does not? In a way, their music is a modern interpretation of the old 45 r.p.m. singles that dominated the airwaves in the early 1960s. Each song is a complete story in two-and-a-half minutes. They openly admit that they will start with a single chord progression or harmony line from an old Beatles song, or one lyric line, and create an original tune. The musical roots are well-integrated, but it’s not obvious unless you listen very closely. An favorite example is an early song entitled “Don’t Make Me Hold Your Hand.”

Lake Street Dive’s new release continues with this nice diversity of well-constructed “singles,” for instance “Shame, Shame, Shame,” sounding at the same time contemporary while reflecting hints of the tight pop groups of the past.

And I can’t help but mention the band’s annual Halloween covers. You will have to search for these on YouTube to see them humorously tackle tunes by Abba, the Mamas and Papas, and even Queen.


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