More than anything, I love to “discover” bands I have never seen before who simply blow me away. That was certainly the case when I first saw Justino and the Difference this summer, as I attempted to pick my jaw up off the floor at the Blueberry Patch. Also why I have seen them a half dozen times since. There might not be a better band in Florida.
And it happened again Monday night (November 23rd) at the Florida Avenue Brewing Company. I received a notice from Juan Santana, bassist for Justino and the Difference, announcing that they would be opening for Us Four. Us Four? Who the heck is that? Nobody seemed to know. Apparently, they released an album last year but have not played much since.
And I’m going to say that was a mistake, because they were out-and-out fabulous. Incredible. Fill in your own superlatives; they’ll be accurate. These guys were truly brilliant. And this was a perfect pairing of groups as well, such a good fit.
Let’s do this in chronological order. After another superb dinner at The Front Porch up the street, we made it mid-set for Justino. They finished up that tune and blasted into “Led Boots,” the Jeff Beck gem from Wired. This band throws the ‘70s jazz-fusion down harder than anybody I know. Justino Lee Walker was bending strings, and Jonathan Richardson was channeling Max Middleton on keyboards.
Next was the band’s fine arrangement of “Hoedown,” the Emerson, Lake and Palmer rendition of the tune by Aaron Copeland, followed by a beautiful original titled “Somewhere I Feel .” Then Justino called Jason Carron to take the drum kit for “Contusion,” the monster fusion tune from Stevie’s Songs in the Key of Life. WOW!
Next was the tune available on video (recorded at the Springs Theatre), “The Ever Receding Hairline of Dunjavich Adams.” Jonathan Thomas was back on the kit now, locked in with Santana on bass.
“Black Hole Sun,” the Soundgarden tune, emerged next. I’ve seen them play this perhaps four times or so, but they never stretched it out before. Midway through the tune, Richardson simply took off on synthesizer, and you could feel the energy in the room. When Justino matched him with a guitar solo, it became more frenzied, and then they played in tandem, and that just killed it!
“Pop Song,” a Justino original, has so many amazing changes it’s hard to keep up. Thomas was wailing on the drums. Then it was Santana’s turn to shine on another original, “Signals,” to close the set. Best I’ve ever heard from them.
A number of musicians were in the room, including Josh Formanek and Jordan Garno. Both asked whether I’d seen Us Four yet. When I replied NO, they both heaped praise on bassist Daniel Navarro. Santana and Justino did as well.
I understood the moment Us Four began: Navarro is a monster on bass. But his bandmates matched him all night. This was a delightfully unexpected pleasure, a brilliant set of originals and covers. But a word about the covers — they were all wonderfully reinterpreted, some so much that it wasn’t immediately apparent what the tune was, except for the lyrics. They truly make the songs their own.
Us Four opened with a jazz gentle “Hey Jude,” which drifted into an equally soulful “Boogie On Reggae Woman.” You would almost — but not quite — regard this as smooth jazz, in the very best sense of that genre. Will Scencina handled most of the vocals and played guitar; his voice was tailor-made for this approach to the music. A nice original, “The American Dream,” followed. Steven Dornfield’s keyboards washed over every song with beautiful accents and colors.
Next up was a medley that began with a Snarky Puppy tune, which segued into an awesome lounge-type take on MJ’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and that ended up as Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Now that’s a medley for you!
“Soulsong” was a beautiful original ballad, followed by a great reworking of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Dave Hamar was having a great night on drums. Their all-too-short set closed with another fine original, “Keep Your Head up Joolsey.”
It was PK’s birthday, so we jetted out to the car and across the bridge to The Amsterdam for the Dam Family Funk Jam, a Monday night fixture in St. Pete. This particular edition featured Christian Ryan (Holey Miss Moley, Leisure Chief) on all of his saxophones and flute, Rick Krasowski (Ancient Sun) on guitar and vocals, Kenny Harvey (Holey Miss Moley) on bass, and Dillon R (Green Sunshine) on drums. This was a superb collective. I have contended all along that you could mix and match players from most of the bands here, and they would be perfect together. They all “get it.”
At some point, Taylor Gilchrist sat in on bass, and photographic evidence suggests Dani Jaye did as well, and there were likely many more. It is truly a funk jam.
The house was packed with well-wishers (hi, Sam!) as PK (Jimi) arrived with Tony and Dani from Come Back Alice. There were lots of other musicians in the house as well. We could only stay for a short time, but they threw down wicked funk jams on “Chameleon,” “Pick Up the Pieces” and “Flashlight,” among others. I need to hit the Funk Jam and Tuesday night jazz at The Dam for certain.
Another great night of music in the books! You can find amazing music in the area every night of the week. And you’ll be glad you did!
[JUSTINO & THE DIFFERENCE: …, Led Boots, Hoedown, Somewhere, Contusion, The Ever Receding Hairline of Dunjavich Adams, Black Hole Sun, Pop Song, Signals]
[US FOUR: Hey Jude > Boogie On Reggae Woman, The American Dream, (Snarky Puppy) > The Way You Make Me Feel > Giant Steps, Soulsong, Ain’t No Sunshine, Keep Your Head Up Joolsey]