If you play it, they will come
Staying up late with the Lee Simpson Band
There’s a vicious circle in the live gig world that goes something like this: The band won’t start till the people show up and the people won’t show up till the band starts playing. It’s essentially a no-win proposition for everyone except ambulatory insomniacs, but it does explain why I was sitting on a barstool in LaSalles at 10 o’clock on a Wednesday night wondering if the opening band was going to start playing anytime soon.
Being as the only people in the place were a few band members, a few pool shooters, a bartender and myself, I didn’t have high hopes for the evening’s entertainment getting on stage anytime soon. But eventually four or five back-slapping pals of the musicians showed up and 60 or 70 percent of the people at the bar meandered onto the stage and installed themselves within the impressive thicket of amps, mics, drums and guitars that covered the stage.
Things started to look up when an insidiously moody bass line highlighted by elongated steel guitar notes and accented by some very crisp drumming swelled on top of the synchronized guitar strums coming from Lee Simpson and Chris Schadt. It wasn’t till I recognized the lyrics of the chorus that I realized I was hearing an extremely rearranged version of Traffic’s classic “Low Spark of High-heeled Boys.” The song kept exploring a vast, mid-tempo groove that allowed plenty of room for improvisation by steel player Bruce Macmillan and a nice, somewhat angular solo by Simpson.
Schadt, leader of local jammers Jack Shat and the Know-it-alls, and bass player Johnny did a credible opening set of hippie funk jams, highlighted by a Grateful Dead-inflected “Come Down From Your Mountain,” which built to a great steel crescendo from Macmillan.
Talking with Simpson and drummer Zack Bowden between sets, I learned that the opening act was a hybrid of Simpson and Schadt’s bands, and that Bowden, who also drums for local rockers Chingus, had never played most of the songs. The musicians’ finesse, professionalism and derring-do had given the set such a sense of comfortable familiarity that I doubt anyone hearing it would have guessed that the whole thing was basically improvised.
After the break, during which the LaSalles crowd grew significantly, Simpson, Macmillan (who also picks with bluegrass rockers Gumboots), Bowden and bassist Dave Elke took the stage as the Lee Simpson Band. Simpson, a big personable guy with a ready grin and a trucker cap, jokingly asked the audience for name suggestions for the band and let us know that the current lineup is still pretty fresh: “We’ve only been a band for a couple of weeks, or months, or something like that.”
The band may be relatively new, but when you collect players with this much talent, experience and empathic awareness of each others’ playing, the music comes out fresh and electrifying and dynamic. Just the sort of thing to attract an audience, which continued to grow and send up enthusiastic cheers for the smooth “Beautiful Stranger,” before getting downright excited when Simpson blazed through a song from his former band, Blue Dye Fire, “Send Me,”