Keyboardist and vocalist Akie Bermiss had already been onstage with New York’s Lake Street Dive plenty of times. Serving as a sideman on tour for the popular Boston quartet’s 2016 album “Side Pony,” Bermiss had toured the country with the blue-eyed-soul-rock-pop group for months at a time. But the first time he stepped onstage with Lake Street Dive as a full-fledged member of the group, as he did when they began touring to support their 2018 album “Free Yourself Up,” Bermiss found himself getting more than a little nervous.
“It’s always scary to step into something like that, because their fans love what they’re doing,” Bermiss says. “They’re successful, they have a record deal, and I know from them that they thought I would be able to add a new texture, but you sort of have to run that by the fans. The first year for me was a little tense; here I am changing the sound people have come to find familiar.”
It’s hard to imagine the fans being TOO hard on Bermiss, though, because his incredible skills both behind the keys and on vocals are hard to dislike. On “Free Yourself Up,” his playing is so perfectly in the pocket that he practically turned Lake Street Dive into a funk band.
Bermiss gradually became indispensable to the band as they toured behind “Side Pony,” their biggest hit to date, and it happened so gradually that he didn’t even realize it.
“I’d come out and do a month with them and then go back home to New York,” he says, “and then they’d say, ‘How about another month?’ And then it was another month. And another. And then we’d finished touring for that year, but they said, ‘What are you doing in October? Because we’re thinking about making a record.’ The ball kept rolling, but I never really expected to be in the band. But the relationship kept growing. You develop a camaraderie through the crucible of traveling constantly.”
Before joining up with Lake Street Dive in 2017, Bermiss spent years as an in-demand freelancer on the New York music scene, playing with everyone from violinist Miri Ben-Ari to funk band Aabaraki to the jazz-rock group Screaming Headless Torsos, in addition to helming his own solo career. In his view, though, he was just trading one hectic schedule for another.
“It’s still a sort of whirlwind,” he says with a laugh. “I went from doing the New York freelance sideman, jack-of-all-trades thing, which is a frenzied, rewarding, and exhausting job, to working with Lake Street Dive, which is rewarding because you’re playing for great crowds. For me, it went from a hardscrabble journeyman existence to a more VAST, hardscrabble touring-musician existence.”
Bermiss’ solo career, and sideman schedule, are largely on hold right now as he learns to be part of a band, which will include writing songs with them for their next album.
“I’m more involved and connected in what’s happening day-to-day,” he says of his role in Lake Street Dive, “so the excitement is grander. As a sideman, you’re kind of along for the ride, and someone else is directing. As a member of the band, you’re part of the bridge crew; you’re helping to steer the ship.”
There’s a lot to do when you’re in a popular band, so the occasional solo show, like the one Bermiss will be playing at Joe’s Place Bookstore on Williams Street in Greenville on Friday, allows him to play in a more experimental, free-flowing manner.
“It feels like the stakes are high because I haven’t done a solo show for so long,” he says with a laugh. “But usually it all comes flooding back as soon as I get back up there. It’s very exciting because I don’t know what’s going to happen exactly. It’s as liberating as it is dangerous. There’s no one there with you to help you in case you falter, but at the same time I can dwell in a space that I wouldn’t with a band, or something new might occur, and I can go with it. It’s kind of tightrope act, and that’s the thrill of it.”
What: Akie Bermiss
When: 7 p.m. Friday, March 15
Where: Joe’s Place Bookstore, 2 Williams St., Greenville
Tickets/Info: $10 suggested donation, (864) 558-0828