Photos by Selkie Winter
A net packed with balloons in every which way hung above us on the eve to New Year’s Eve at the Chapel. 12/30/24 marked the first night of Lee Field’s New Year’s Eve residency at The Chapel in San Francisco, a two-day affair that did not disappoint.
Rich saxophone and booming bass lines echoed from the bathroom of the venue, drawing us out into the crowd. A full nine piece band welcomed the evening in through a bottom heavy groove straight from the guts. Three saxophones: alto, tenor, and baritone, fronted the opening band, Sun Hop Fat, making their way through murky and thick grooves established by the rhythm section. A Bay Area group through and through, family and friends encouraged from the audience, joining in the communal sways; signs of a good time.
They made it known as well, thanking their “Bay Area family.” Inspired by the melodies and harmonies of East Africa, the group covered some Ethiopian jazz, one of my favorite genres and a style I’d never had the pleasure of listening to live. Relatively simple lines repeated, turned, and twisted against motif-like bass and guitar lines that built, separated, and almost became more interlocked as they veered farther away.
A spiritual experience for sure. Minor melodic, toe curling solos that traded, overlapped, and echoed, thanks to the texture of saxophone pedals. New Orleans second line style breakdowns kept for interest, all spearheaded and held together by the drummer, who looked like he was having the time of his life, pushing and pulling the time. There was a refreshing simplicity in the individual parts, yet intense complexity when combined with the larger groove, that succeeded in two things: easy to sing lines that were anything and everything but boring.
Clean cut-offs and timed entrances tied the performance together for Sun Hop Fat, ensuring their solidity as a group as well as individual players. A bit of a funky group of mainly middle aged white men dressed in suits and matching feather fedoras, I was so excited to be introduced to the repertoire of covers and originals of Sun Hop Fat and connect with them after the fact on Instagram!
Following the close of the first set The Expressions came out dressed to the nines in an all black ensemble. A six piece band, most of which were from the original Lee Fields & The Expressions, an unexpected treat! Vamping over a bluesy motif groove, Lee Fields made his way to the front, took the reins and ran with it. From the moment Fields entered the stage, it was clear we were in the presence of a legend. Dubbed “little JB,” for good reason at 73 years old, Fields moved better than most 20 somethings I know!
Performing songs from his recent solo release ‘Sentimental Fool,’ this performance at The Chapel was one of the few examples where I enjoyed the live performance significantly more than the recorded. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate live music, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. However, I do typically appreciate the mixing on recordings and being able to hear the individual instruments just as much as they blend together.
Fields & The Expressions brought such a liveliness to the music. There was a joy and appreciation for the music, people, and moment. Tenor sax and trumpet backgrounds complimented the raspy lines that escaped Field’s mouth so freely. Every chance he got, Fields danced and spun around, almost forcing the audience to see that he still had it! He reached the audience in a very genuine and true way, making eye contact, telling stories and jokes, and even pointing and having conversations with couples about how lucky they were to have the other in their life. The applause felt earned and genuine, there was never a moment that felt forced.
James Brown-esque screams expelled no naturally followed by steady footwork as he asked “are you happy?” There was no doubt in that room that everyone was enjoying themselves. When the performance came to a close and the band left for a first trine, The Expressions entered first, just as before playing as they encouraged a chant of “Hey Lee, I love soul music. Hey Lee, I need more soul.” The king reentered and the final piece concluded.
Reflecting on his life, this sentimental fool called out “you’re testing my heart, my soul, and my spirit” amidst a unison rendition of “Forever.” We sang out: “I wanna hold you forever. I wanna love you forever,” a reassurance that despite everything in the world, circumstance and the such, love will always prevail.