How the hell does a band expect to throwdown at a winter hoedown along the pined shores of Lake Tahoe without the proverbial acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin or fiddle?
When you are dealing Royal Jelly Jive, it’s probably a good idea to leave any and all expectations at the door. In the hands of RJJ, your precious, preconceived notions are likely to end up smashed and broken on the floor, like your mother’s favorite china dishes after you threw a high-school rager that got out of hand.
The San Francisco septet have been defying expectations since the musicians got together in 2014, appropriately blowing up their own expectations after their first chance encounter. It was only supposed to be a friendly, low-stakes, jam session to fill in some holes during a residency in the Boom Boom Room in San Francisco. But as RJJ’s multi-instrumentalist Jesse Adams revealed to Tahoe Onstage, John Lee Hooker’s funky, hole-in-the-wall had something else in mind that fateful night and the world got its first taste of this unique Jelly.
“They called up a bunch of random musicians to see what it would sound like. I joined, the trumpet player was there and another horn player. We felt the crowd’s reaction and it was like, wow, this is the band right here. We were just going to jam and it turned out we found our sound from the people who were available for that gig. It was cool and oriented us to our sound: having horns and keyboards in there, not having a guitar, featuring Lauren (Bjelde) as a frontwoman,” Adams said.
That serendipitous first show planted the musical seeds the band would nurture and harvest its first few years. Adams noted frontwoman Lauren Bjelde was quickly seen as the unifying creative force of the band. She moves like a cabaret dancer, her sultry voice floating along the band’s rhythms and grooves like the smoke from a cigarette dangling out the corner of a spurned lover’s mouth in a dimly lit speakeasy. Her charisma was obvious to the band from the start and they quickly knew her songwriting was just as inspiring.
Where’s the guitar?
“Lauren is such a cool songwriter, with a unique, interesting voice. In the beginning, I would just go to her house and write songs together. I love to hear song ideas and arrange things. When we were looking at our sound, I just loved Lauren’s songwriting and wanted to throw my twists on it,” Adams said.
The rest of the band — Adams, Tyden Binstead (bass), Felix Macnee (drums), Robby Elfman (clarinet/saxophone), Luke Zavala (trombone) and Danny Cao (trumpet) — quickly fell in behind to cement a sound that complemented Bjelde’s musicality and stage presence, while incorporating the eclectic styles and talents of all the members. The end result was something like Cab Calloway leading a juke-joint orchestra through a kaleidoscopic rabbit-hole of modern-influences.
“The big thing in the beginning was trying to play jazz-inspired music with modern hip-hop and pop-crafted twists. We had upright bass, clarinet and trumpet and had some gypsy elements.
Everyone brought a new style and genre. Let’s have a song with a cool Balkan trumpet part, let’s have a song with a laid-back, hip-hop part. I play accordion as well, and it was this element of let’s get these instruments that don’t usually play with each other and use modern ways and see what we can do with it,” Adams said.
It was at this time I first saw them, playing a mesmerizing set in a tent at Lost Sierra Hoedown in 2017. They were unlike anything I’d heard up to that point in my life and, sonically, they stuck out like a fly in a bottle of white lightning at the string band-centric fest. But they had everyone kickin’ up dust, sweating and smiling all the same and there were surely a lot of people who joined the Jive Tribe after that show. They’ve been brought on as the welcomed wild card to the Crystal Bay Casino on Saturday, Feb. 15, to join Lost Sierra brethren Marty O’ Reilly & the Old Soul Orchestra and Willy Tea Taylor at Winter Snowdown II.
“It literally feels like a family throwdown. We are like sister bands, brother bands. We pump off energy. Our musicians are awesome. We’re gonna bring our soulful, jelly funk to it. There’s something about being at Crystal Bay, too. We’re all gonna crash there (because) we don’t have to go out on another gig. It will be as special for us as I think it will be for the audience,” Adams said.
A ‘Stand Up’ debut
Since the first show, the band has only grown more confident and assured of itself, continuing to evolve and surprise its fans. RJJ’s 2016 debut “Stand Up” was heavily steeped in its modern Prohibition-esque sound and a great representation of where the band was at that point in its history: young and coming to terms with their sound. The band was built to wow crowds in a bar of drunken fools with an underappreciated sound and “Stand Up” definitely sounds like that.
While the concept of the “sophomore slump” is certainly subjective in the music world, it’s true that both artists and fans alike hope to see some creative progress on a group’s second album. For those thinking Royal Jelly Jive might continue to operate in the limited sphere of jazz-era sensibilities, 2019’s album “Limited Preserve No. 3” is a triumphant progression. Furthermore, seeing as the band sold its newest album with actual jars of jam, it’s also the sweetest.
It feels as if the band opened up the windows to its stuffy gin-joint to let in a blast of fresh air full of creativity and sound. Its hip-hop influences are more apparent and fluid on this album, in both the flow of MC Ace Diego on “Stand Up” and Bjelde waxing poetic in the confessional delivery of Janelle Monae on the piano-driven “We Can Get Down.” “Tetris” has a carefree, soul-wop bounce to it that demands repeat listens and “Soul Queen” is a slow, late-afternoon acoustic number full of reflective warmth. RJJ still has that speakeasy spunk, most notably on “Boomerang” and “Don’t Lead Me On,” but its overall sound is more colorful and complex.
RJJ’s creative success has only fueled its commercial success. With a more varied sound and years of gelling as a unit on stage, 2019 was the best year yet for the group. The players reached a point where they didn’t have to say “yes” to every gig and major booking agent Madison House.
Bigger crowds, dreams
Presents had helped them reach larger crowds at festivals like Bottlerock Napa and High Sierra. They even had the chance to work with one of the biggest bands in America: The Roots.
“It was super cool, something we had our fingers crossed for. They are such a good example of a band that doesn’t classify in any genre and is unique and has a great live show. The horn players are from Daptone Records. We got to hang with them a little. Hearing them react to our set and giving us compliments, it literally means the world. Other than the crowd you play for, you never really get any response from your heroes and we got some. It gave us a lot of fuel,” Adams said.
The new year will be about more, more, more for Adams and the rest of Royal Jelly Jive. They’ve finalized a personal backyard recording studio, giving them more opportunity to record in the studio without being on the clock. The quick accessibility to recording will free up more time for creating video content of the band, which they’ll use to attract more and more people to their growing audiences. “Everything sort of has greater impact when we do it now,” Adams said.
In its short time as a band, Royal Jelly Jive has proven to be exponentially better than what anyone initially thought they could be. What more could we expect from a band that continues to defy expectations? Honestly, not much, but we’ll have to wait and see what it has in mind for its next batch of Jelly.
— Garrett Bethmann