By LAURA DAPOLITO
ALBANY — It has been a year since Jim and I have wandered around Albany seeking coffee, music, and food. Like everyone else in the country, we’ve been sequestered home resigned to entertain ourselves with books, home cooking, live streams, and for me, time with dogs and chickens (yes, chickens…that’s a story for another day). COVID-19 frightened me just enough to give me pause, holding those I love most dearly from me, including the musicians and artists of Albany.
So it was with some excitement that Jim and I planned a night out this weekend. Victory Soul Orchestra hosted by Lark Hall was the centerpiece of the night, the reason for the work date. But we decided to make a whole event of it, starting with a stroll around the park, coffee at Stacks Espresso Bar, and dinner at Savoy Taproom.
A bit drizzly, the Saturday afternoon still held promise for us. We wandered around Washington Park’s Moses fountain praising budding tulips, encouraging them to keep growing. Jim photographed the tiny promises of color and we guessed what would burst forth in coming weeks, stopping only to admire dogs walking owners around the lush green lawns.
My head was hammering a bit (most likely due to allergies, don’t worry, not COVID), so we decided caffeine would be a solution next. Stacks fit the bill, although the server at the counter seemed to struggle a bit to understand us under our masks; we both had coffee and shared a kitchen sink cookie. We sat outside on busy Lark Street watching people far younger than us laugh, stroll and breathe in life. People were together in small groups, but the energy was familiar and upbeat, hopeful about the future.
After a walk to reflect on the architecture on Lark and surrounding side streets, we settled into Savoy Tap room for food and drinks. We’ve been on an empanada hunt lately, including trying to cook them at home with mixed results as I refuse to fry things. Savoy’s beef and cheese empanadas were neither greasy or heavy, but instead were the right mix of flavor and texture. Covered with a sprinkling of semolina flour, they won our fast approval. Dinner followed with Jim enjoying the Mississippi Chicken sandwich, a spicy mix of fried chicken and peppers. I ordered a filet with asparagus; a bit too rare for me, I ate some of it but devoured the grilled greens.
We could barely wait for the doors to open at historic Lark Hall and were among the first patrons to arrive. Staff politely asked about our health, following the Department of Health’s scripted questions, before taking our temperatures. Then we went upstairs to the Hall’s open and colorfully lit space. With hushed voices usually reserved for church, Jim and I shared musings about our return to normal, still sated from the afternoon of activities but somehow giddy for what remained on our agenda: live music.
Victory Soul Orchestra filed on stage a bit after 8 pm, and the full stage of 11 performers filled every cranny of stage space with talent. If you haven’t heard the group, think Chicago but more contemporary to today’s pop in vibe. Lead singer “JB” John Brown raps along with baritone and alto saxes who are matched with a trombone and trumpet. Round out the full wall of sound with two percussionists, a keys player, bassist and guitarist, and you have the orchestra. On their website they refer to themselves as “a hometown horn funk favorite,” and it is clear their brass section is a highlight of their band. Joined by Dali Solo, their female vocalist, the band pulls off a jazz and rap show that clearly could only emerge today. It reminds me of the sound pop musicians want to create, but are limited by their studio sizes.
Set one was marked by all original songs by the group. Dali struggled to be heard amongst the strong talent, but in the moments she peaked through it was like sunshine bursting from behind heavy cloud cover. Bright, sweet and smooth, her voice has a female quality that complements the orchestra. She requested more volume throughout set one, but even when added she seemed limited by her own breathe; listening, I wished her greater confidence in her diaphragm.
By set two, though, she seemed to have found her groove, and the rest of the orchestra returned also in a more savvy, funky groove. Patrons danced, staying in their own designated areas, arms up, heads swaying like heavy flower buds pulled by gravity. The band’s return after their set break was like a whole new game, with performances highlighting their bass and percussionists too.
JB has a commanding presence that is matched in confidence by band leader/trumpet player Joel Yannuzzi. When talking with the crowd of 60, it felt more like we were in a venue for 500; the shouts of excitement and exuberance were so familiar and yet different. This is more than your average local band that is invited to play at weddings; original songs performed by local musicians, Victory Soul Orchestra has a sound that is unique to them, a sound that people were clearly hungry to experience through the collective unity of concert.
The band’s interactions with one another were fun to watch. My personal favorite as an old high school band student was watching the brass dance together, but JB and Dali also have a lovely energy that passes between them. And the energy between the musicians and their fans is simply irreplaceable, clearly feeding one another in perfect symbiosis.
At one point, JB reminisced, “There was a time when we could experience live music, shared smiles, shared drinks, hugs.” We had returned to it for a brief moment in time with them, masked and screened, and also marked off into safe pods as required by the state. But it was there, unmistakable even when covered with rules and regulations: joy. Pure, unadulterated joy celebrated in song.
Lark Hall’s sold out venue is already planning the next event, CK and The Rising Tide, for Saturday 4/23/2021. There are limited tickets on sale now, so if you are considering catching up with this gritty Americana group, don’t wait. Masks, temperature taking, and strict DOH rules are followed at the show for everyone’s safety. CK is offering a live interview with Jim on Nippertown’s facebook this Tuesday, 4/20 at 8 pm to promote the event.