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Lake Street Dive takes the long road to overnight success

Having met as New England Conservatory undergrads, (from left) Mike Calabrese, Mike Olson, Rachael Price, and Bridget Kearney formed Lake Street Dive.

JOE GIBLIN

Having met as New England Conservatory undergrads, (from left) Mike Calabrese, Mike Olson, Rachael Price, and Bridget Kearney formed Lake Street Dive.

Lake Street Dive is blowing up. The Boston-born pop quartet will release its new “Bad Self Portraits” on the Northampton-based Signature Sounds label on
Feb. 18, and will then play a sold-out show at the Sinclair in Cambridge on Feb. 21. This all follows the group’s TV debut this month on “The Colbert Report” and, back in September, a critically lauded performance in the “Another Day, Another Time” concert at The Town Hall in New York to promote the Coen Brothers’ new film, “Inside Llewyn Davis.” A film of the concert is now playing on the Showtime cable network.

But the biggest spur to the 10-year-old band’s current surge — including all of the above and more sold-out shows that extend into the next three months, with another in Boston, at Royale, on April 6 — has been a YouTube video of Lake Street Dive’s on-the-street performance of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” The clip has gone viral, with more than 1.4 million views.

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Like every “overnight success,” this one has been slow in coming. They convened as undergraduates at New England Conservatory in spring 2004, knowing they wanted to make music together but not quite sure what that should be. Earnest jazz students wanting to push the envelope, they considered combining country music and free improvisation. Eventually, traveling on the road together, they gravitated toward the music of artists they all enjoyed listening to — Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan. Perhaps this accounts for their singular blend of Motown, British Invasion, and other strands of pop, jazz, and R&B.

It’s not hard to see Lake Street Dive’s appeal in that “I Want You Back” video. Shot on a street in Brighton, bathed in white-hot sunlight, the band takes a slow turn through the Jackson 5 hit — Bridget Kearney laying down a languid statement of the melody on her stand-up bass; drummer Mike Calabrese keeping the beat with brushes, snare, and cymbal; Mike “McDuck” Olson playing soft trumpet obligattos. It’s breezy and casual — shot with a handheld camera by their friend Greg Liszt (of the Deadly Gentlemen and Crooked Still) on the sidewalk outside his house. At the center is lead singer Rachael Price’s rich alto and charismatic delivery, with a touch of luscious vibrato, supported by Kearney and
Calabrese’s spot-on backing harmonies.

Boston jazz fans have been aware of Price’s singing for a while. She’s recorded with a trio, and at clubs like Scullers you could always sense the ease with which she tore through standards, her eagerness to accelerate into the curve of the next tricky harmony or lyric.

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The singer and songwriter Miss Tess has often sung with Price in the vintage swing band the Sweet and Lowdown. The two have been friends since a Craigslist ad made them roommates in 2005, when Tess moved to Boston to attend Berklee. “I’ve always known Rachael was a world-class singer,” says Tess, citing her friend’s technique and the “velvety depth” of her voice. Upon hearing her new roommate sing, Tess says, her first thought was “Oh, I just moved in with Sarah Vaughan.”

Moving out of the shadow of NEC, the band flexed their muscles as songwriters with a talent for original hooks and sharp, funny lyrics. In 2005, Kearney (who until recently also played in the neo-bluegrass band Joy Kills Sorrow), won a $5,000 John Lennon Songwriting Contest award, which also included the manufacturing cost of 1,000 CDs. That bankrolled their first album, “. . . in this episode,” which featured Kearney’s prize-winning song “Sometimes When I’m Drunk and You’re Wearing My Favorite Shirt.”

Over the first few albums (including 2007’s “Promises, Promises” and their 2011 self-titled Signature Sounds debut) the band stuck mostly with the spare instrumentation of voice, trumpet, acoustic bass, and drums, with a few bits of guitar or piano. They built a loyal Boston audience at clubs like Toad and the Lizard Lounge. (All but Olson have since moved to Brooklyn, N.Y.)

Then came “I Want You Back.” Originally posted in spring 2012 as a promotional video for the band’s six-song covers EP “Fun Machine,” the clip was getting respectable if not outrageous traffic. But in October, while the band was in the studio recording “Bad Self Portraits,” “some nameless, faceless champion of the band,” as Kearney says, posted the video on Reddit. Literally overnight it scored hundreds of thousands of views. The video led to gigs.

“We spent all of 2013 hitting the road super hard,” says Kearney, “playing in front of a bunch of people. One of those people in particular told T Bone Burnett.” Burnett, the music producer for “Inside Llewyn Davis,” booked them for “Another Day, Another Time.”

On “Bad Self Portraits” you could say the Lake Street Dive’s songs and sound are the same, only bigger. There’s more guitar (thanks to Olson’s late adoption of the instrument), piano, and some overdubbed horns. And the group vocals in particular pop, with a diverse range of perfectly deployed “Woo-ooh!’’s.

“I remember on our first albums, thinking why don’t these background vocals sound good?” says Kearney. “After some time, I realized it was that we weren’t singing them well.” The band buckled down, working on dynamics and articulation. They also benefited from the coaching of “Bad Self Portraits” producer Sam Kassirer (“our first full-on producer,” says Kearney).

For his part, Kassirer says the band surprised him with its range of reference — everything from the expected jazz and soul to Beck and the Beatles. As an example he points to “Rental Love,” the Beatles-esque ballad from the new album, which includes two piano tracks and two drum tracks.

“Often there’s a give-and-take in bands between raw talent and trained musicianship,” says Kassirer. “This is the first band I’ve worked with who have 100 percent of both. That allows for a lot of things in terms of exploring musical ideas and executing them.”

For now, the band is working it. A couple of nights after Colbert, they play the sold-out Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River. They come out with all four voices blasting a five-note “ah-ah-ah-ah-ah!,” setting up Price’s tear through the opening verse of Calabrese’s girl-group-style “Stop Your Crying.” Throughout the set, the Motown influence is evident. At times the band sounds like a soul revue, with its own built-in backing chorus. And there again is that knack for the offbeat cover arrangement, in this case George Michael’s “Faith,” set to a New Orleans second-line groove.

Lake Street Dive seem to be on their way. They signed their first manager in 2012 as well as a tour manger. “We’ve got a sound man, a nice van,” says Kearney. “Things are looking up.”

Jon Garelick can be reached at
jon.garelick4@gmail.com.
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