Lake Street Dive’s “I Want You Back”

My greatest joy in music comes from arranging and orchestration. Arranging is taking an existing song and coming up with a new approach to how it should be scored and performed.  For those readers uncertain of what I mean, a great example of taking a song, turning it on its ear, and delivering a truly brilliant arrangement may be found in Earth Wind and Fire’s version of “Got to Get You into My Life.”

I’m always on the lookout for creative re-renderings, and one of my bandmates told me recently of a novel cover of The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back.” I have to agree that this slowed-down, acoustic, and sparsely-produced recording by Lake Street Dive is terrific.  BTW, you’ll notice that they keep the Wilton Felder bass line from the original version (and the bass line is one of the best parts of the song.)

Okay, raise your hand if you listened to this a second time (one, two,… yeah, lots of hands.)

While The Top Shelf may not perform this particular song on a given night, when you come out to see us perform you will hear novel arrangements of one or more songs, guaranteed.

An Appreciation of Booker T and the MGs

The Top Shelf has a fun show coming up on February 7 at DROM called From Booker T to Beyoncé: 50 Years of Motown, Soul, and R&B.  We will be performing songs that span five decades including songs from Booker T and the MGs and Beyoncé:

Widely popular in the 1960s, Booker T and the MGs were the Stax Records house band that played on hundreds of recordings by great soul artists including Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Eddie Floyd.  The group also released a number of instrumental albums under its own name and had a huge hit in 1962 with “Green Onions.”

They were also one of the first racially-integrated groups — and they were based in the Deep South!

Here’s a clip of the group performing in 1966 on the show Shindig!  The clip starts with the group playing “My Babe” but then switches to “Green Onions”.

You’ll also note Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass.  The original recording featured Lewie Steinberg on bass; Dunn took over in 1965.

The Top Shelf plans to perform our own take on this tune, but we’ll of course do our best to be true to the source material.

Seal’s version of “Knock on Wood”

So, I was really looking forward to NOT writing any new arrangements and NOT transcribing any horn parts / rhythm parts for our upcoming performance at DROM on January 10.

Then I made the mistake of listening to Seal’s cover of “Knock on Wood” and I simply *had* to have it, as it were.

Realize that we already have an an arrangement of the song in our book that is faithful to Eddie Floyd’s recording  — and I really like Eddie Floyd’s recording!  — oh, and Wilson Pickett’s, too.

So, why add more to my workload?  Because this version is both faithful to the idiom and at the same time fresh and playful.

In particular, keep an ear out for the following:

  • The horn / snare “dat-at, dat-ats” starting around 0:51.
  • The tension-creating bar of rest around 1:42.
  • The chromatic 13th chords and syncopation in the brass around 1:58
  • The Robert Palmer-like vocal harmonies at 2:06
  • The horns from 2:30 to the end.


French Horns, Octaves, and Marvin Gaye

As I continue working on The Top Shelf’s upcoming spotlight on Marvin Gaye and Tina Turner, I find myself thinking about French Horns, and in particular, dramatic octave leaps by a section of French Horns.

I love writing for the French Horn.  It’s capable of such plaintive beauty as well as intense excitement … especially when octaves are involved.

Theme from Peter Gunn

Consider these two snippets from the Theme from Peter Gunn

Now that’s cool!  I bet the players on the session (from 1958) weren’t expecting to get to play *that* when they arrived at the studio.

Les Misérables

I had the very good fortune of seeing Les Miz opening night on Broadway.  I remember thinking, as I was listening to a killer ballad in the first act, that I really wanted to hear a French Horn play an octave leap.  Yes, really.  That’s what happens when I listen to music.  In any case, the composer and orchestrator did not disappoint, as evidenced here.

I Heard it Through the Grapevine

So, what does all this have to do with Marvin Gaye and Tina Turner?

Well, it has a lot to do with trying to get Marvin Gaye “right”.  As with What’s Going On it’s essential to have a great lead singer and a great rhythm section, but to really do the arrangement justice you need those elements that take the performance to the next level, and one of those critical things is  — you guessed it — a French Horn octave leap.

Doesn’t that just kick ass?

So, are we going to have a French Horn section at our January 10th performance at DROM?  Well, we already have 12 people in the band so the answer is “No,” but I promise we’ll get this ever-so-cool lick into the live performance.

I hope you will swing by on January 10 and see (and hear) for yourself.

Have a “Top Shelf” when you hear The Top Shelf

We officially launched the signature “Top Shelf” cocktail at our performance at DROM last week and it was a huge success.

Congratulations to 12 Grapes bartender Maria Andrea Prando Barrutia for her amazing Van Gogh Blue Vodka-based creation.  We received more than 40 cocktail recipes from which we selected five finalists.  We then posted a poll on FaceBook and Andrea’s submission took top honors.

Here’s a video of Andrea making a “Top Shelf”.

3 basil leaves
3 wedges of lime
1 oz. St. Germain
1 oz. Orange Juice
2 oz. Orange Vodka
Splash Club Soda


Place the basil leaves with the lime wedges and St Germain into a glass. Using a muddler, crush the basil and lime to release the flavor. Pour into a mixer glass with ice and add orange juice, vodka, and a small splash of club soda. Shake the mix with ice and strain into a Martini glass. Garnish with a small basil leaves and a lime wedge.

The “Secret Sauce” for Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”

I don’t know anybody steeped in Soul and R&B that isn’t enthralled when they hear Marvin Gaye’s rendition of this song.

Just what is it that makes the recording so special, and why is it so hard to reach that level of transcendence when bands attempt to perform this live?

Let’s look at some of the components that make up this truly special sauce…

Marvin and James
A crucial component of what makes this song “feel” so good is James Jamerson’s perfect bass line. It’s relaxed yet it propels the song forward.  Here’s a wonderful YouTube clip of Gaye’s vocals with Jamerson’s isolated bass line.

There are two guitar parts on the recording.  Here’s one of them and it, too, drives the song forward.

There are three string tracks on the original recording.  Here’s the track that’s panned in the center.  Note that the strings don’t come in until a little more than a minute into the song.

When I play this isolated track for my keyboard-playing friends they are usually surprised as how sparse the part is.  Indeed, it’s this simple part (which doubles the vibraphone) that adds nuance to the song.

Many more ingredients
There are many more parts that go into the mix (e.g., saxophone, finger snaps, background vocals, and so on).  Separately, some of them don’t sound particularly good, but when combined with the other parts they all sound amazing together.

Performing this live
So, just how does one perform this live and create something that is, well, special?

First and foremost you need a great band and a great lead vocalist, but how do you add those critical pieces that make the sauce so special  — and how do you do it live, and without hiring 30 musicians?

Come see Steve Wexler and The Top Shelf at DROM on January 10 and we’ll show you.

An Appreciation of 21st Century Soul

If I had to choose only one decade from which I could listen to music it would be the 1960s.  Indeed, I challenge anyone to find a decade that was more tumultuous — or that had a better soundtrack — than the 1960s.  Especially with respect to Soul and R&B.

That said, over the last ten years there’s been a wondrous renaissance of new artists that are producing truly world-class R&B and soul.

On December 6th Steve Wexler and The Top Shelf will pay tribute to some of these stellar artists when we perform at DROM in NYC.

In the meantime, here’s a taste from three of the performers that we plan to salute.

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Jones, the Dap-Kings (including one of my heroes, bass player and music director Bosco Mann), and the Dapettes earlier this month.  Here they are performing “100 Days, 100 Nights”

Eli “Paperboy” Reed

Here’s Neo-Motown wunderkind Eli “Paperboy” Reed performing “Doin’ the Boom Boom”.


Shemekia Copeland

The Top Shelf has been performing this one for a couple of years now.  Here Ms. Copeland tears it up on the Steve Cropper-produced “Who Stole My Radio”.