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The Royal Family Affair

by Jeff Nania on August 17, 2011

STRATTON MOUNTAIN, AUG. 12-14

Soulive has come a long way. They are the epitome of a group that took their sound and made it a brand. Furthermore, their funk, soul, jazz and hip-hop stylings have branched off into a variety of projects, all containing  permutations of the same musicians—hence, their personal label the Royal Family.

The Royal Family Affair, the label’s annual music festival, also featured some unexpected mixes of non-label musicians like Medeski, Deitch and Skerik. The trio opened with a powerful version of  “A Love Supreme” that would’ve made John Coltrane say, “damn, son!”

Saxophonist Skerik’s sound was cutting, powerful, and tastefully effected at times. During his solo on “A Love Supreme,” he used some echo effects to give it the heavenly flutter that was needed. Later in the set, his saxophone would sound so much like a distorted electric guitar that I had to look twice. This became even more ambiguous as Soulive’s Eric Krasno came up to join the trio with an actual effected guitar.

Skerik and Medeski both held clinics earlier that day. Medeski’s was especially relevant, as it was about improvising in the moment, which is what his group was all about. The next day, Krasno also gave a clinic, and he mentioned that Medeski and Skerik actually avoided talking about the music they were about to perform. Apparently they preferred to leave as much to chance as possible, creating intense new landscapes that were fueled by pure improvisational adrenaline.

During his set, Skerik did a kind of improvised jibberish jam where he took the clip-on mic from his sax and vocally freaked out into it. Sometimes it sounded like a DJ skipping vinyl, and other times it sounded almost like words: “a kick in the door, a kick your foot in the door.” He also laughed maniacally, jumped around like a punk rocker, and thrashed his head about while listening to and interacting with the group.

Of course it was really Soulive’s festival, and they took a prime-time slot Saturday night at 10:30.

“Yes indeed, everyone,” drummer Alan Evans said with an overjoyed face, as the group took the stage. “Alaaaaaan!” people screamed out.

They started the set old-school when Alan dropped a hard funk groove that turned into “Uncle Junior.” After getting the crowd sufficiently warmed up, he goes: “Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the first of many Royal Family Affairs. Thanks for coming from . . . everywhere, from what I’ve been hearing.” It was at this moment that the power of this gathering became apparent. This had been many years, many albums, and many tours in the making.

The set featured classic Soulive tunes like “Turn It Out,” as well as a string of Beatles tunes as recorded on the album Rubber Soulive. Royal Family members like the Shady Horns, Shmeeans and Jesus all made appearances throughout the festival. Guests like Jennifer Hartswick, Karl Denson and Chali 2na all popped up too. Hartswick sat in with Soulive, singing Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady.”

The Berklee-sponsored clinics were a big part of the festival.

“I can’t stress the importance of James Brown and really getting into the drummer,” Deitch said as he demonstrated a whole lineage of drumming styles from NOLA to Idris Muhammed.

Neal Evans’ songwriting clinic was ear-opening. “Music can start riots, it can stop wars. It has that power,” Neal said. “The most valuable asset to a composer is being in touch with your emotions.” Neal followed his clinic with a fresh set of compositions on the main stage. Overall, this festival is for musicians by musicians as well as listeners who know how to listen.