Graded on a Curve: Sonny Knight and the Lakers, Do It Live

2014’s I’m Still Here advanced Sonny Knight to the venerable ranks of rejuvenated soul belters. He was backed on the LP by the Lakers, a young and energetic gang of Minneapolis-based R&B acolytes, and the pairing has reemerged with a four-sided performance bonanza. Captured during a two-night stand last December in front of a hometown crowd, it provides ample evidence of Knight’s aptitude for vocalizing and showmanship; behind him the Lakers are a tight and relentless sonic machine. Do It Live is currently available from Secret Stash, and the first 300 copies of the 2LP are on orange vinyl.

Sonny Knight’s career began in the mid-‘60s; as a teenager he fronted and cut a 45 as leader of the Cymbols, though his musical pursuits were curbed by subsequent US military service in Korea and Vietnam. Upon returning, he spent time in California before moving back to Minneapolis and hooking up with funk/R&B outfit Haze. Disco’s commercial crash reportedly spelled the end of that act; thereafter Knight took up truck-driving as a vocation.

His reemergence is directly related to a budding relationship with the Minneapolis-based Secret Stash label. Devoted to soul, funk, African, and Latin recordings predominantly of ‘60s and ‘70s vintage, Secret Stash is run by Eric Foss, who also plays in the enterprise’s house band the Lakers. Amongst the imprint’s worthy reissues is 2012’s Twin Cities Funk & Soul: Lost R&B Grooves From Minneapolis/St. Paul 1964-1979, a dilly of a geographical comp offering selections from The Valdons, Wanda Davis, the Prophets of Peace, Morris Wilson, Willie Walker, and more.

Secret Stash additionally booked studio-time for Wanda Davis and The Valdons as assorted gigs were scheduled; amidst the activity the call was made for Knight’s abilities. As the frequency of these assists increased, little time was wasted in devising a scheme to combine vocalist and band, an entity comprised of Foss on drums, Sam Harvey-Carlson on organ, Blair Krivanek on guitar, Casey O’Brien on bass, Bryan Highhill on trumpet, Cole Pulice on sax, and Tony Beaderstadt on trombone.

A single appeared in 2013, “Hey Girl” b/w “Sugar Man” (a Rodriguez cover) and full-length I’m Still Here followed a year ago last April; the LP inspired steady touring that found them home for the winter holiday and playing back-to-back dates at Minneapolis club the Dakota. Delivering two sets a night, everything was recorded direct to two-track tape with the best of the bunch selected for Do It Live.

I’m Still Here benefits from significant studio finesse as it emphasizes vocal potency and the adeptness of the young but highly knowledgeable Lakers. Do It Live is a somewhat different affair, sacrificing technological depth for stripped down punch. It’s a fair trade off, in part because the breadth of the unit remains consistently tangible, though just as important is Knight, who navigates the terrain of a complete performance without a hitch.

A sturdy intro establishes the Lakers’ bona fides and sets the course for the evening, Knight making his entrance to the decidedly rock ‘n’ soul strains of “Whole Lotta Love” (some will recall the version of 1970 by King Curtis and the Kingpins) and barreling into “Jucy Lucy,” a highlight from I’m Still Here (the saucy title refers to a regional hamburger that’s cooked with the cheese inside).

It’s a powerful opening, and “Get Up and Dance” slows the tempo as it undertakes a six minute groove. A sneakily contempo number, Knight shows off his funk chops as the band struts its prowess without faltering into overplaying, an especially welcome factor when considering the presence of organ, an instrument often inappropriately slathered throughout otherwise perfectly fine soul outings.

Do It Live’s songs materialize sans interruption, and the pace quickens with the horn-laden “Through with You.” Alongside top-flight soloing and ensemble play the track doubles as a showcase for Foss’s skills at the kit. And while I can’t deny missing the album version’s female support vox, side one ends on a strong run-through of “Sonny’s Boogaloo.”

Another standout comes through side two’s opener, Knight stepping back and then landing a sustained blow of controlled intensity through “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” It’s impressive how seamlessly this traditional source (aka “In the Pines”) is brought into the soul arena, but the actual scoop reveals it as previously waxed for Secret Stash by Wanda Davis (with the Lakers behind her). In a cool twist, Davis’ support in the ‘70s was the Soul Sensations, a group soon to become Haze (Knight joined them later).

Davis’ reading is indeed special, but I’m even more taken by this interpretation of the chestnut, and the effect on the audience is palpable. A slim breakdown of “Day Tripper” as referenced in Otis’ Dictionary of Soul reinforces the aforementioned rock ‘n’ soul vibes, the piece immediately rolling into instrumental firecracker “Baby, Baby, Baby.”

Expertly bringing it down and ending side two is “It’s You for Me,” a marvelous bout of testifying with southern, Stax-like/Al Green-ish flavor. A savvy nod to hometown predecessors Maurice McKinnes & the Champions commences LP two, and to quote Knight the function of “Sock a Poo Poo” is to “show my band off” soul revue style.

Stretching to ten minutes, they effectively take it over the top and then drop right into “When You’re Gone,” a deep soul killer emanating serious late-‘60s trappings as the emotional verve accentuates the contemporary. Next is “Cave Man,” a nifty dance-craze-inclined tune totally immersed in hyperactive J.B.’s action and brandishing a sense of humor likely to get a smile (or at least a nod of approval) out of the late Lux Interior.

Expanded via Knight’s introductions of his cohorts, it lands like a haymaker and sets up the final side very nicely. On the studio disc, “I’m Still Here Pt 1” features an autobiographical monologue, but in starting the encore as an instrumental it gives the singer a deserved breather, loaded with superb sax and attaining a rousing finale.

“I’m Still Here Pt 2” is a breezy bit of pop-soul holding expert playing by Krivanek and tandem uplift from Knight and the horn section. Fresh takes of the 45 wrap up the record, “Sugar Man” sporting abundant bonesmanship and heavy hitting drums while “Hey Girl” swells to more than twice its original size as the horns step to the fore.

As on nearly any performance document spanning four sides, there’s bound to be spots not wholly translating to home listening. Surprisingly few are detectable herein however, and the whole is accurately assessed as a party starter/extender with added regional flair. By doing it in the club, Sonny Knight & the Lakers easily avoid even a hint of the museum; Do It Live is a major effort.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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