Lettuce / The Dirty Dozen Brass Band Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto ON, June 25

Lettuce / The Dirty Dozen Brass Band Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto ON, June 25
Photo: Kevin Jones
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At first glance, the billing order for this Toronto Jazz Festival main stage show seemed dubious. Why would revered veterans the Dirty Dozen Brass Band be relegated to opening for Brooklyn-based, Berklee-spawned Lettuce? New Orleans musical heroes placed behind a hipster jazz-funk band?

Turns out the order was spot on. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band proved a serious disappointment, while Lettuce were highly pleasing. The former's hour-long set started off promisingly. The brassy frontline of two trumpets, two saxes and tuba were augmented by guitar and drums. Initially, trumpets and saxes alternated solos atop a consistently strong groove and crisp guitar, the results being tighter than a Republican's wallet; the 15-minute opener, "Talk About It Do It," even featured a little vocal scatting from trumpeter Gregory Davis.

Things then slowed down with a sunny soca meets Mardi Gras tune suggestive of Sonny Rollins. It was enlivened by a baritone sax solo from Roger Lewis and a guitar solo featuring some teeth picking. That old trick got the crowd going, but sadly, the set then badly lapsed into crowd-pandering gimmicks. On an extended take on old chestnut "Little Liza Jane," three attractive women were invited onstage to shake their booties, with the audience urged to chant their names. Proceedings improved a little on a James Brown-style funky jam, featuring some gritty sax skronking before again unravelling with the crowd being urged to chant "Toronto" and "Party," a major letdown.

Thankfully, the night was rescued by Lettuce. They've ascended to the status of fest headliners based on their rep as an entertaining live band, and this gig confirmed that. With 20 years under their collective belt, they may be novices compared to the 37 years logged by DDBB, but the dues paying has paid off in a rock solid sound. They kept the groove going enough to keep most of the crowd on their feet throughout, but the funk was paired with a jazzy sensibility in the horn playing. The band showed a refreshing sonic diversity, with one set highlight having a real dub feel. Trumpet and sax featured on solos that were never too extended, while animated keyboardist Neal Evans contributed bass sounds, too. Frequently stealing the show was guitarist Adam "Shmeeans" Smirnoff, reeling off impressive licks with ease.

Unlike the show openers, Lettuce didn't overdo the crowd participation stuff. "We're just having some fun up here. It's an honour and pleasure to play for you," said Smirnoff at one point. Adding to the variety was the introduction of a female singer halfway into the show. Unglamorously attired in black shorts and a denim shirt, she wailed impressively on a new song, "Don't Be Afraid Of The Water," letting out some roof-raising yells at the end that drowned out the pounding rain outside. "Do It Like You Do" from their latest album, 2012's Fly, featured more upbeat and funky rhythms, and a frenetic sax solo that had the trumpeter making "too hot" gestures. Another new song then brought things down to a slow and soulful vibe, confirming that this band have multiple weapons in their musical arsenal. Lettuce impressed.