Out by Midnight: Live at the Iridium [MP3 Download]
In guitar lingo, a dazzling sequence of notes is often referred to as a “lick.” While for most musicians weaving their lives across a six-string loom, that term might feel idiomatic at best, one can’t help but take it literally in the hands of Mark Lettieri. This isn’t to say the instrument becomes something else entirely by force of sonic transubstantiation—rather, that his music is, quite simply, all about flavor. And in this massive 14-track collection, recorded live over the first two nights of March 2023 at the legendary Iridium, Lettieri and his eponymous band activate a tongue’s worth of taste buds in the very space graced by so many of his heroes. Joined by longtime cohorts Jason “JT” Thomas (drums) and Wes Stephenson (bass), alongside fresher recruit Daniel Porter (keyboards), he associates a chain of original tunes. Featuring nods to six of his seven albums as leader, he labors for these moments shared with his bandmates—and us, by fortunate extension.
While there’s plenty to sink one’s teeth into, few tracks are as meaty as Catboy. This groovy morsel is a masterclass in atmosphere, of which we get a substantial variety that is airy enough to let us pass through unscratched. If anything, this is Lettieri’s modus operandi: surrounding us with hooks to hold on to without so much as a burr in our socks to show for it by journey’s end. Like Big Duck and Little Minx, both newly revived for his live repertoire, this tune gives Lettieri plenty of room to roam the ever-expanding landscape of his fretboard with superior textural authority, at once extroverted and controlled.
The guitarist expands on why he opted for a live album this late in the game:
“Though I’m getting busier every year, you could say I’m still fairly new as a touring solo artist. Many fans haven’t seen or heard the live show yet, so I’m very excited to showcase the band this way. If all you’ve heard are the studio albums (or haven’t heard of me at all to begin with), this will be a solid introduction to the catalog and what we do. I’ve been wanting to capture the live sound of this ensemble, as we’ve been playing together for several years now. It’s an incredibly tight, grooving unit that can take the music in all sorts of ways while still staying true to the compositions.”
Of those compositions, we get a broad selection, including in-person staples like Futurefun and Spark and Echo, both of which surround nostalgic centers with crunchy outer layers. The latter tune is also the album’s most anthemic. With a melody that oozes finality yet leaves enough doors open for future revisits, it achieves ecstatic levels of playing from the full band. Lettieri expounds on working with such a talented crew:
“After countless shows together, we’ve developed almost a ‘sixth sense’ of communication on stage. We’re playing the songs as they were written, but certain sections (like solos and various vamps and grooves) are left open to interpretation and improvisation. Everyone has such big ears that we’re all constantly aware of what each other is playing. I think it helps that we’re all good friends, road buddies, and just general fans of one another.”
Despite being an artist of great power and electricity, Lettieri eases the listener into frame with the relatively laid-back Extraspecial. Groovy without being overbearing, it offers just the right amount of spice and cream to whet our appetites. It also sets the tone for the album’s organic seesawing between contraction and expansion. Even the seemingly gentler tunes like Summer Salt have fire in their bellies, as does Lotus, which starts out lyrically, building into powerhouses like the concluding Naptime. From the slack-jawed surrealism of Seuss Pants to the jazzier Point Iz, we are treated to a smorgasbord of sounds. In the middle of all this is Voyager One, a surprisingly earthbound number that kicks off a tuneful trinity featuring Lettieri on baritone guitar, rounded out by Gigantactis, which seems to crawl from the ground, dust itself off, and dance its way onto center stage, and the epic Supernova, which like its namesake is just as gorgeous for its colorful plumes as for the darkness of space between them. Violinist Zach Brock of Snarky Puppy makes a surprising guest appearance here, one of many discoveries awaiting the repeat listener.
Out By Midnight is more than a filler album between studio sets. It’s a consummate portrait of an artist, composer, and performer whose volcano is far from dormant. There’s something for everyone in this spread, so pull up a seat, tuck in your napkin, and dig in.