The usual pleasantries open the interview with Lake Street Dive’s singer extraordinaire, a mention of a shared acquaintance and a nod to the band’s previous appearances in town, the first before a tiny crowd at Ghent’s Taphouse in 2011.
“Oh, I recall,” Rachael Price says. “That was a very memorable show.”
I push the comment aside, deciding to return to it at the end of the interview.
It’s been a memorable year since Lake Street Dive played Norfolk in the 80/20 Burger Bar last June.
“I’ve been in the band for ten years and it seems like it’s all become reality in the last year or so,” Price says. “It’s been exciting.”
That reality, that hard-won reality after a decade of playing before dozens, means the band, thanks to some sensational Youtube videos and one of the best albums of the year, “Bad Self Portraits,” has played to 30 consecutive sellouts in mid-sized venues.
On July 22, they will headline The NorVa.
They’ve been on Colbert, Letterman, and Ellen. At the Coen brothers “Inside Llewyn Davis” concert in New York, they were the unknowns who wowed the crowd and fellow performers, including Elvis Costello.
It all started with a 2012 tweet from Kevin Bacon gushing “this is amazing. Gives me chills!” Chills watching the band’s sultry, jazzy cover of Michael Jackson’s “I Want You Back” recorded with one microphone on a Boston sidewalk to promote their EP of covers. It quickly became a Youtube sensation with nearly two million views.
“We”ve been making Youtube videos like that one for years,” Price explains, adding that they have been a gateway to the group’s original tunes. “It’s a great tool and always brought us exposure and success, helping people find our music. It’s always been good to us. But never that good.”
They recorded a version of George Michael’s “Faith” in a kitchen. They did “”Dedicated to the One I Love” in a living room. And ABBA’s “Take a Chance” recorded in black and white in the corner of a room.
The timing for “I Want You Back’s” breakthrough proved perfect. With an album ready for release and three others in circulation, the band had an appealing catalog. “It was good because if that had happened ten years ago, they (viewers) wouldn’t have had all this original music to find. We’ve been a band so long there was a depth of material to discover.”
The Llewyn Davis concert was another instance of right time, right place, right kind of friends. One of their buddies from the Punch Brothers worked with T Bone Burnett, who was assembling the lineup, and played him their music. Next thing they knew they were in a concert with Marcus Mumford, Joan Baez, Gillian Welch and Dvid Rawlings, Justin Timberlake, Jack White, Elvis Costello and Patti Smith. “No one knew who we were,” Price says. “We felt out of our league.”
Soon enough, they knew, and bookers from shows like Letterman started calling.
While their live performances have been memorable for years, the new album, which debuted in Billboard’s Top 20, showcases a more muscular, accessible pop sound. Oh, don’t think that kind of pop. Lake Street Dive brings all the best of pop and jazz to the bar, everything from Ella and Billie to girl groups to the Beatles (all the members are fans) to Motown, swing, and rock and roll. They defy genre labeling. Drummer Mike Calabrese has a good a description as any. “We’re ear-worm-dance music,” he says.
“You Go Down Smooth” with Price’s stunning vocal theatrics — there is no voice in popular music as powerful, soulful, or supple as hers — made a splash at the Llewyn Davis concert. But “Bad Self Protraits” has one stunningly framed tune after another from the mid-temp title track opener through the girl-group harmonies of “Stop Your Crying” on to the sly bass line of “Use Me Up” and the slow burn of “Just Ask.”
Price’s vocals are stunning, but so is the playing by Kearney on bass and piano, Mike “McDuck” Olson on guitar and trumpet, and Calabrese on drums. The songs are witty, fun, and, yes, catchy enough to drive you to dance. Everyone, she says, writes songs separately, then brings them to the band for consideration.
“We wanted it to be a big-sounding album,” Price says. “We wanted to create sounds we could not necessarily do live, but we also wanted to do it with just the four of us. How many different sounds could we create with guitar? What could we do with background vocals? Things like that. “
Price says the bigger sound has her reworking her singing. “The shows have gotten more energetic. The band is rocking out more so I’ve sort of had to reapproach singing,” she says. “It’s really exciting for me. I feel like it’s an evolution that excites me.”
The album was recorded, then in limbo as Price dealt with a delicate contract situation. Price has been a jazz fan since she was five, enjoying Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and the big band sounds of Judy garland and Doris Day. When she met the others as a freshman in Boston, she was already appearing around town as a vocalist.
She’d been signed and released music on a jazz label funded by her father and a partner. And the partner wanted to be bought out of the contract to recoup his investment after she decided to abandon jazz and concentrate solely on Lake Street Dive. So the disc was delayed while that settlement was negotiated.
The waiting was the hardest part. “We were pumped about the album,” Price says. “We all feel like it’s our best recorded project to date. We were super ready to get it out to people.”
In all, they sat on the album for about a year, but Price again says the timing worked in their favor. The disc came out after “I Want You Back” went viral and after the Llewyn Davis concert. “It was a complete blessing because the band’s popularity was in a completely different place after that year,” she adds. “It has done much better than it would have done.”
The band, named after a street in Olson’s hometown of Minneapolis known for its dive bars, is touring in a van these days, but Price expects to upgrade to a bus for the next leg. In the early days, she said, they traveled in her Subaru.
“When we formed ten years ago, everybody wanted to be part of a band, not a band that had one leader, a four-piece classic, democratic rock band, ” she says. “That’s true today. That’s the most consistent thing about the band. Soundwise, we were awkward. We had no conclusion on what style we were playing. If people heard the recording of the first gig we ever played, I don’t think they would even recognize us.”
So what about that first gig in Norfolk at the Taphouse in May of 2011?
There were maybe 20 people in the audience, Price says, and early in the set a woman in front became more and more excited. Before Price knew what was happening, the woman came on stage, planted her face in Price’s chest and motor-boated her. Then she shouted, “Motorboat, y’all” and jumped off the stage.
“It was an infamous night. I don’t think any of us have ever forgotten it. It fit our mood for every time we’ve subsequently returned to Norfolk. We’ve always loved it for that reason. That night was a doozy.”