Vitality is defined as the power to live or grow, and perseverance pertains to the qualities of moving forward when an obstacle stands in your way. The music of soul man Sonny Knight brims with these essential life traits because he exudes them. Along with his 7-piece powerhouse band, The Lakers, the 68 year-old retired truck driver has created a sound that extends much deeper than throwback soul.
After the band's 2014 debut album, I'm Still Here, which came to fruition much sooner than anyone expected, Sonny Knight and The Lakers released a live double album the following year. Now, the band’s sophomore studio set, Sooner Or Later, explores themes of overcoming adversity, love found, love lost, and societal observation. Where their debut might be likened to steering a bike before turning the pedals, considering how they wrote and recorded it before road testing their songs and individual strengths, their latest effort sees the wheels fully in motion.
With performances across the US and Europe in theaters, performing arts centers, festivals and night clubs, Sonny and the band have tightened their unity and discovered what each member brings to the table that can further the collective’s playing. By doing so, the group was able to gain a greater understanding of what their best material was through performing it on the road night after night. What results on Sooner Or Later is a rarity by today’s recording standards. Of the 10 songs that were taken into Secret Stash’s brand new studio, all made the final cut. Rather than track a bunch of material and pick out the best parts later, Sonny and the band hit the studio knowing exactly what the record would be, perfectly encapsulating a snapshot in time for the artist.
By focusing less on so-called groove makers and more on the songwriting process, Knight and company harnessed the power of the different genres that came together to shape what we have come to know as soul music over the last 50+ years. Gospel, country, and blues were all melded into a record that takes you on a journey through life’s questions and emotions via nine originals and a cover of Lonnie Mack’s “Why.”
From the opening wail of Cole Pulice’s sax to Eric Foss’ syncopated drums, the title track is a pure party jam. Sonny Knight soon owns the stage, however, with his trademark guttural punches that land somewhere just this side of a Wilson Pickett shouter. Knight’s vocal abilities to command a track extend to more plaintive numbers like “Stronger In The End” as well. Singing with a much more tender tone early in the song before exploding midway, the recording also possesses the backing of a band that effortlessly combines elements of the Muscle Shoals Horns with the sound of 1960s gospel music to further advance its message. The Muscle Shoals influence is even more prevalent on keyboardist Sam Harvey-Carlson’s penned “The Cry” with its triplet-laden guitar and understated but beautifully arranged horns.
Expanding their palette, the Lakers enter a blues-oriented R&B with “Why” that showcases a brooding, stirring sentiment thanks to Knight’s loose jazz-like phrasing on the verses and forlorn howl on the choruses. It also serves as a platform for the best individual instrumental performance in the band’s catalog thus far with Blair Krivanek’s passionate guitar solo drenched in a mournful, heartbroken tone.
Album closer “Oh, Mary” recalls the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep” that has morphed into a gospel standard throughout the years. What starts as a simmer increasingly builds as a reverb-soaked horn section masterfully release a reflective cry that soon leads to an emotional boil of expelled tension, creating the perfect backdrop for Knight’s poignant vocal which is undoubtedly the linchpin of the song. While not intended to be an overt political statement, he instead wrote “Oh, Mary” to focus on the human emotions connected to unnecessary violence.
When asked about the murder ballad written from the perspective of the victim, Knight responds, “It’s in your face right now. All you gotta do is turn on the TV, and there it is. All this killing needs to stop.” In the wake of recent events, the song has forged a powerful connection with many of those who have seen its performance live. During one performance in a New England bar, the band watched two young women in the front row with tears streaming down their faces as they worked their way through the heart-wrenching song.
Knight’s vast array of life experiences inform a worldview that give him a unique perspective on the song writing, expressive, and storytelling process. While he was enamored with gospel music during his youth, which eventually led him to recording his first single in 1965, he soon found himself exploring other opportunities. From a deployment in Vietnam to a job as a long haul trucker, that it hasn’t been a linear path has made him a more attuned performer. Combining this hard-earned experience with a vivacious band whose members are half his age, the songs and performances are a perfect blending of observation, promise, and energy, thanks in some part to their collective globetrotting adventures playing for audiences of many different backgrounds.
Sure to grab a hold of a public yearning for a deeply riveting musical experience, Sooner Or Later releases on October 14, 2016. To help commemorate the occasion, Sonny Knight And The Lakers will take over First Avenue’s Mainroom on October 8. Duluth-based Big Wave Dave And The Ripples, a hard hitting 8 piece R&B/Rock/Soul band, will get the party started, followed by rising neo-soul stars, Nooky Jones. Knight will take the stage with an expanded version of his fabulous Lakers that will create an experience unique to this event, making it one not to be missed.