Rocking A Side Pony With Lake Street Dive

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Lake Street Dive members Mike Olson, Rachael Price, Bridget Kearney and Mike Calabrese. (Photo by Danny Clinch)

For the uninitiated, a side pony is an unconventional version of a pony tail that comes off the side of the wearer’s head versus the back. It reflects a spirit of individuality not unlike what you’d encounter when you listen to what Lake Street Dive (LSD) has to offer musically.

A four-piece band consisting of alumni from the New England Conservatory of Music (where they all met), LSD has been plying its jazz-influenced style of blue-eyed soul for the past 17 years. Consisting of Rachael Price, Mike “McDuck” Olson, Bridget Kearney and Mike Calabrese, the once-Boston-based quartet are out in support of the aforementioned Side Pony, the group’s fifth studio album and first for Nonesuch Records, which was released early last year.

For Olson, this latest chapter in the band’s journey is an extension of the foursome’s initial intention to play music with like-minded folk who gibe on and off the stage.

“The first time we got together was relatively inauspicious. We played for probably about a half hour tops and jammed on basic song forms that we knew as jazz students. There wasn’t necessarily a spark that went off in all four of our heads where we thought we were going to be doing this for 10-plus years. It was more like we felt it was fun and maybe we could [play together] again,” he recalled. “We were Lake Street Dive from the beginning. There was a concept behind this group of four people because we were all jazz students and at this warm, inviting yet somewhat buttoned-up conservatory atmosphere, the impetus was for the band to be less formally jazz-centric. The sort of tongue-in-cheek reference in the name is of sort of being a dive bar band versus the hallowed halls of jazz studies. That was the concept that informed us from very early on and still does in a lot of ways.”

This spark of inspiration continues full throttle on Side Pony, which found them joining forces with Nashville-based producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson), a like-minded soul who encouraged LSD’s blend of soul, jazz, blues and rock. Far from just being some kind of imitation game, these songs find the foursome being inspired by something old and transforming these ideas into new and catchy tunes that become irresistible. It ranges from “How Good It Feels,” which captures a Muscle Shoals vibe in a bar at closing time punctuated by call-and-response vocals and Olson’s liberal Mellotron runs, to the thumping “Hell Yeah,” which simultaneously takes the listener back to Rascals-flavored pop while jump-starting a desire to do the Frug. Further stoking the urge for anyone within hearing distance to move their feet is “Can’t Stop,” which has a serious groove embedded in it thanks to an abundance of sweet harmonies, syncopated rhythms and a sample from the 1978 Major Lance earworm “Love Pains.” Olson credits the outcome on working with Cobb, whose unconventionality in the studio was something LSD wound up adapting to and embracing.

“I think our very formal training gives a certain sort of methodology when we work together, arrange and write music together. And it can be very nit-picky and I don’t mean that to be disparaging. We try things over and over and over again until it really feels like it works. Not just whether the chorus or the verse come here. What I’m talking about is form, like who is singing which note? We try each and every permutation of vocal harmonies and we see what pops the best,” he explained. “Then we go into the studio with Dave, he’ll say what a song needs and then hum it out and we don’t actually know what he’s getting at. So we had to learn how to speak Dave Cobb and it was a completely different language. It was so intuitive and visceral and that was sort of wonderful for us too. That was giving ourselves up to the process.”

The band has come quite a way since perking ears up back in 2013 via a YouTube clip of them performing the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” on a Brighton, MA, street corner. Between this exposure and constant gigging, a chain reaction ensued in which one fan of the band, Gabe Witcher of the Punch Brothers, hipped T-Bone Burnett to them. Burnett invited LSD to participate in the Another Day, Another Time event, a December 2013 show curated by him in New York City featuring music from and inspired by the Coen Brothers film Inside LLewyn Davis. The up-and-coming Beantown outfit appeared on that bill and the subsequent documentary. It was a surreal experience Olson still marvels at nearly five years later.

“It was unbelievable. We spent a lot of time backstage with wide eyes seeing Joan Baez, Gillian Welch and Elvis Costello wandering by and hobnobbing with one another and feeling like we had snuck backstage. You know how after Little League games both teams line up and give each other high fives? It was like that backstage,” he recalled. “We later realized how many people of significance were in the audience. Then we got a write-up from Rolling Stone and television appearances from the people in the audience, so that is still kind of paying dividends in a lot of ways that we didn’t realize.”

Lake Street Dive will appear on July 12 at The Space at Westbury, 250 Post Ave. 8 p.m.; 800-745-3000. For more information, visit www.thespaceatwestbury.com.

Check out our record review of Side Pony

Lake Street Dive: Rocking A Side Pony And Major Musical Range

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In addition to being editor of Garden City Life and Syosset-Jericho Tribune, Dave Gil de Rubio is a regular contributor to Long Island Weekly, specializing in music and sports features. He has won several awards for writing from Press Club of Long Island (PCLI).

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