Mikayla Braun is beaming.
It is not because her band, local funk-pop group the Crooked Vines, is playing to a large and enthralled crowd at Tipitina’s (which they are). Nor is it because the singer/keyboardist clearly has the audience on a string, captivating them with her smoky, soulful voice (she does). No, she is watching her bandmates with genuine pride as keyboardist/saxophonist Stephen Schwartz, saxophonist Lori LaPatka, trombonist James Keene and drummer Woody Hill take solos throughout the set, each getting his or her moment to shine.
Considering the Crooked Vines’ gigging history, Braun has a lot of experience seeing her bandmates hone their craft on stage. “I had never played with any of these guys before, and being onstage for three-hour gigs multiple times a month lets you hear different nuances in ideas and different sounds,” says Braun, “especially when it comes to improvisation and solos. We all have completely different musical influences, and I think it’s really cool to be able to understand and then play off of it.”
The band’s sound was forged in those grueling marathon gigs at Balcony Music Club and at venues on Frenchmen Street. While the band started off playing covers ranging from Elvis Presley to Stevie Wonder to Amy Winehouse to Bruno Mars, the Crooked Vines quickly began incorporating Schwartz’s original compositions into their sets. As the band began debuting their own material, the members were shocked to discover the audience did not drift to the bathroom or bar whenever an original song started. “It was cool to realize that people were coming out to see us and getting into the music,” says Keene, “it wasn’t just the noise that’s happening around alcoholism.”
The band recorded a self-titled debut album of Schwartz’s material in 2015 as a vehicle to get gigs. More gigs came, and the band became a tighter unit with three-hour set after three-hour set. As trust was built between the members, collaboration opened up. “The first album was definitely Steve’s vision,” says LaPatka, “but for this new album, we were really writing and arranging stuff in the studio. We would present our own ideas and then go with it. It wasn’t finished when we went into the studio. We were still working off of each other when recording.”
As LaPatka suggests, that new album—the forthcoming Alive—took some doing to complete. While the band’s newfound collaboration took them to exciting new musical landscapes, it came with some pressure. In 2016, the band launched a Kickstarter campaign to help finance the recording of their second album. The band promoted the campaign with its first tour. There was just one problem: The campaign was too successful. “The goal of the Kickstarter was to fund the recording of this new album, but at that time we only had six songs, so we had to basically double that,” recalls Hill.
“At the end of that first tour, James, Woody, Steve and I stayed in Gulfport for a few days after our last gig in Ocean Springs,” recalls Braun. “We just woke up and wrote all day.” Luckily for the Crooked Vines and their Kickstarter backers, the strategy worked. Alive takes dramatic musical risks and detours while remaining cohesive. The band’s self-affixed “funk-pop” is merely the sonic jumping-off point, allowing the Crooked Vines to plunge into prog rock, hip-hop, jazz and soul with ease, even grace. If the sky is the ceiling, then a deep groove is the floor, a foot-tapping thread to guide the listener through the musical odyssey.
Such a varied sound could only be pulled off with confidence and self-assurance, both of which the band developed at those Frenchmen Street gigs. “I think a lot of this new album stemmed from the kinds of gigs we had been playing downtown on Frenchmen Street where the energy cycles between the audience and us,” says Braun. “We love that energy and we love to make people dance.”
Alive not only shows greater musical confidence, but also lyrical depth and maturity. The record is centered on looking back at past trials with a more nuanced perspective. “This new record is more realized in its messages, even when there are similar situations,” says Schwartz. “The first one was just thinking about these topics. The new one is about internalizing something and learning from it, and learning from the experience is much more important.”
This openness and acceptance comes from the deepening friendship among the members of the Crooked Vines. Between the long gigs, touring, and collaborative writing, their personal bond is evident in both recorded and live performance. The sheer joy the members display being onstage together makes this obvious. “When I went into the studio and sang all these lyrics, the beautiful thing was that none of these are fiction,” says Braun. “I know the stories behind the lyrics my bandmates write. But the great thing about music is that the audience—who has no idea what the song is actually about—can relate to it with whatever they’re going through in their life. It’s amazing being able to do that with my friends.”