Wesley/Worrell and a Few Lessons from a Friday Night

Bernie Worrell with SociaLibrium at the Porgy & Bess in Vienna

A week ago I was on my way to Cabaret du Mile End to see two geriatric funk legends perform as part of Pop Montreal. I was supposed to write a review of the show. Seemed straightforward enough at the time; go to show, go back home and then, naturally enough, sleep and awake fresh as flowers ready to write up one blistering concert review.

Except…

What I wasn’t aware of at the time was a variety of microscopic germs and bacteria and god-knows-what-else swimming around deep inside my lungs that would soon lay me out horizontal-like for the better part of last week, a problem exacerbated by my less-than-enlightened decision to walk all the way back to Saint Henri from Parc Avenue when the show let out at around one in the morning. I felt it would be tonic, invigorating, an opportunity to get some fresh air and exercise. This is standard operating procedure for yours truly, for better for or for worse. I’ll think better of it the next time around as seasonal night-time lows dip closer to the freezing point.

The Cabaret du Mile End was warm and welcoming. I got in a bit late because, like a tool, when I saw people running for a bus at Parc Station I decided to follow the crowd instead of taking a minute to remember I had been there before. Also of note, it would’ve been better simply to get off at Outremont Station but I digress, the Blue Line will be the end of me.

First group I saw was a local ensemble billing itself as Pyongyang. The term ‘dystopian funk’ ought to be coined to describe them – dissonant yet rhythmic enough you could dance to them, the lead vocalist generally incomprehensible yet nailing the James Brown scream. Interesting side note: I asked him how the band came together and he asked me if I had ever heard of a survey firm named Consumer Contact. Apparently this one survey firm has served as a meeting place for members from The Stills, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and a host of other local bands.

Anyways, on to the main event: Bernie Worrell, keyboard master extraordinaire, childhood piano prodigy and iconic member of Parliament-Funkadelic and the Talking Heads. The Bernie Worrell Orchestra features the seventy-year-old Worrell fronting a quartet of New Jersey suburbanites, children likely conceived during the Talking Heads’ high-water mark in the mid-1980s. What can I say – it worked. Though I’m no fan of Worrell’s raspy voice and hippie-simplistic lyrics, it was a well-conceived and expertly delivered performance. The funk was masterful, as one might expect from such a talented and practiced performer. People were up on their feet, dancing, thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Fred Wesley came out after a few songs to join Worrell, his former Parliament-Funkadelic band mate. The differences between these two men couldn’t be any starker. Credit where credit is due, Wesley tried his damndest, but seemed out of breath the minute he hit the stage, hardly inspiring to say the least. Whereas Worrell is clearly a space cadet, skinny, wry, a convert to the ways of the Mothership Connection, I doubt Wesley ever bought in 100%. He looks and acts like a somewhat haggard veteran performer, aware of the gimmick people pay money to see. Ergo, while Worrell’s trains of thought were occasionally difficult to follow, Wesley stuck to the showmanship traditions whipped into him after so many years leading James Brown’s backing brass. They did an abridged version of Pass the Peas and he warbled through much of House Party, but at one point basically gave up, sat down and mimicked playing the trombone. A bit of a disappointment, honestly. Made me wonder if he figured we couldn’t tell the difference.

Roomful of young white hipster scum, what do we know about the funk, right?

Worrell had the presence of mind to suggest Wesley take an early and longer-than-expected five, and resumed working his way through new material, which at some points was so political and driving it reminded me of Rage Against the Machine, albeit in a more musically enjoyable way. Closing it out Wesley came back and though he still wasn’t quite hitting the notes (and spent far too much time nodding his agreement to what was being performed), he nonetheless contributed something and rounded out the sound. The world can always use more brass.

I left as soon as the encore was over, making a fateful decision to hoof it back to Saint Hank. The next five days were spent getting acquainted with my bedroom ceiling and an unending cavalcade of fever-induced hallucinations.

Would definitely see Worrell again, no question. I think Fred Wesley needs to be paid more to really strut his stuff.

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