Friday, 18 October 2013

Bernie Worrell and Fred Wesley pop 2013

Bernie Worrell + Fred Wesley  |  POP 2013

                            PHOTOS  |  EVAN CRANDELL

September 27, 2013 - There is a famous line from George Clinton, the founder of Parliament Funkadelic, that goes, “It would be ludicrous to think that we are new to this. We do this; this is what we do.” Two of Clinton’s longtime running mates, keyboardist Bernie Worrell and trombonist Fred Wesley, though now parted from the P-Funk tribe, continue to encapsulate this credo. The two funk masters, supported by Worrell’s Orchestra, brought their expertise to Cabaret du Mile End and an adoring crowd. It seems Pop Montreal 2013 was due for a little fonk.

Witnessing these men make music in 2013 was a treat. Both played integral roles in the creation of the funk genre, Worrell with Clinton and Wesley with Clinton as well as James Brown - Wesley was Brown’s musical director for a time. These men certainly knew what they were doing onstage. That’s not to say that there were not any surprises or spontaneity, though.

Worrell and his Orchestra started the show with a batch of original songs from their recently released EP “BWO is Landing.” The new material is markedly different from the music of Worrell’s P-Funk days but that is not surprising given that the man has never been very predictable. He is a classically trained pianist and toured with the Talking Heads at one point. Even during his time with Clinton, the spacey, laser-like sounds that would come out of his instrument were always slightly outside the lines of expectations. One constant from the old days, though, was the swaggering attitude, which is almost a prerequisite for playing this music.

The tracks from the new EP were hard-hitting, head-nodding, and heavy-handed affairs. Although the orchestra sounded like a band still getting to know each other and working out some kinks, their energy and distinct style made it a fun show.

Some of the tunes such as “Get Your Hands Off” had words that Worrell would yell out over the noise. Some of the lyrics were party-raisers that got everyone going. There were also some head-scratching lyrics. On “Thug,” a heavy, guitar-driven groove with a James Bond-like synth line, the main vocal line, which is repeated, is, “Thug. Put it in the Trunk. Stash it.” Huh? Being clueless of what he was talking about didn’t stop anyone from getting down, though. It wasn’t really the point.

In between songs, too, Worrell would go on short eccentric rants, orally and on his keyboards. Sometimes they would accentuate a point in the music, such as the spiel before “Get Your Hands Off” in which he talked about the problems of bullying in the school yard, in college, in the workplace, and worst of all, in the government. Other times he would play Classically tinged interludes on the synth. They were mostly cute, consonant excerpts and then he would intentionally throw a dark, dissonant wrench in to the works, accompanied by a grimace or sly grin. There was something theatrical and always humorous about the interludes, which was another reverberation of the P-Funk days. After all these years, Worrell is still a mad scientist, experimenting in his workshop of keys, trying to find the perfect musical elixir to power the mother ship.

Fred Wesley brought a different brand of showmanship but no less of the theatrics. The focus of the show changed when the man and his horn entered the stage. One could feel the audience shift its attention and even physical position to watch Wesley play.

Worrell graciously gave the spotlight to Wesley who took it and ran. He led the band on some of his classics including “Pass the Peas” and “House Party.” It was a bit disheartening to hear Wesley have to yell out the sections of “Pass the Peas” to the band members who were lost at times, but his trombone playing carried the performance. And even though every Fred Wesley fan has probably seen countless videos and recordings of him performing “House Party,” it was another thing to see it live. Somehow, despite performing it similarly every time, down to the licks in his trombone solos, the song is still irresistible.

Wesley performed with a charisma that was undeniable. His endearing stage presence and punchy, sassy (not to mention technically impressive) trombone solos made everyone in the room smile and beg for more.

At the end of the night the two funk titans embraced in what felt like a historic moment. They have said their piece, they have nothing more to prove and yet they keep going. Those are signs of true artists. The future of music will always owe them a great debt. 

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