Lake Street Dive really took off once its members figured out the band was founded on a bad idea.
The four undergraduates in the jazz program at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music sat in a room and drew up plans to create a new genre -- "free country," an amalgam of Ornette Coleman and Loretta Lynn, as the band's bassist Bridget Kearney has explained.
Once they started gigging together and recording demos, though, it became clear that other musical voices were clamoring to break through.
"We'd done a couple tours out in Iowa and were driving around and realized we all shared a love of a lot of the same pop music. That was also sort of a sign that we should forget the whole free country idea and get moving on some nice little three-minute songs," recalls drummer Mike Calabrese.
The emerging sound was a neo-soul stew with the raw energy of a garage band and plenty of 1960's-era pop inflections, built from Kearney's unflaggingly dexterous touch on acoustic bass, Calabrese's very musical drumming, singer Rachel Price's soulful croon and Mike Olson's bright trumpet lines and grounding guitar parts.
Nine years, three albums, one EP and one immensely popular YouTube clip later, the band might be finding its moment. The video clip, of the band playing a smoky, sexy rendition of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" live on a street in Boston, was posted last May and has logged over half a million views. When it returned to its old, cozy stomping grounds of the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge this month, it did so with a four-night run.
For the first time, the band has signed a manager, and has played tours opening for national acts like the Infamous Stringdusters and Yonder Mountain String Band. (Their set at New York City's Bowery Ballroom in support of the Stringdusters earlier this month earned a favorable notice in the New York Times, within a review of the headliner's performance.)
Lake Street Dive plays Helsinki Hudson in Hudson, N.Y., on Friday, and then a sold-out show the next night under the aegis of Williamstown's Billsville House Concerts at the Vermont Arts Center in North Bennington, Vt.
"You go to jazz school and you take on a persona almost and part of your identity is being super into jazz and talking about it all the time. I think a lot of people are afraid to admit that their musical background is a lot more diverse and rooted in mainstream music, which is totally normal and fine," Calabrese says wryly of the band's early development. "Once we were traveling outside of school and discovering [we like poppier music], we said this is safe ground we can finally admit it."
The 2011 covers CP "Fun Machine" includes Lake Street Dive-ified takes on tunes by George Michael, Hall and Oates and Paul McCartney, among others. There, and on its albums of original material, the band manages to sound like a very effective, small-group spin on the neo-soul movement, but with the low-overhead flexibility and interplay of a string band or jazz combo. As it's proven, it can conjure the romance of a smoky nightclub through four minutes of intense performance out on the sidewalk in mid-afternoon.
"We've been getting a lot more gigs, a lot more press, a lot more attention on social media. It's been super exciting," observes Calabrese. Though the band hones its organic interplay through plenty of solo gigs, the opening slots have demonstrated the band's sound can meld with a variety of other musical styles.
"When we get an opportunity to get in front of a bunch of people who aren't necessarily in our scene but may enjoy it, we've really enjoyed the fruits of doing that."
The hip, candlelit dinner-theater vibe of Helsinki seems an ideal setting for Lake Street Dive. But Saturday's show in Vermont may be a little more off-the cuff. Though it's at more of a proper venue than usual, it's the latest in Doug Hacker's informal concert series. Launched in April 2011, the Billsville House Concerts have featured more than 40 shows, Hacker says.
"One of my favorite musicians in the world was playing for me and all my friends, and I was sitting on the couch four feet away," Hacker recalls wistfully of the debut concert, featuring singer/songwriter Joe Pug.
Typically located at the Hacker family's home in Williamstown, but sometimes at friends' barns or other larger sites, the series has included such rising acts as Sean Rowe, Brown Bird, and many others who'd typically play Helsinki or other, larger venues.
The Hackers can squeeze in about 50 people at their home, and keep in touch with their regulars through email announcements. All of the ticket money goes directly to the artists, who are also fed and housed for the night.
"We're not running a business of any sort; in fact, if we were running a business, we would close it, because we lose money every time we do something," Hacker says. "But at this point we have a pretty stellar reputation, and people will take a risk and pay 10 bucks if they know the money is going straight to the artist."