This funk juggernaut is coming to London, so take note. It’s novel and much needed in these times of tumult and was nectar for the ears, and its inaugural gig at the NYU campus in Abu Dhabi hinted at great things to come. But the evening began quietly. Seated backstage before the gig, they were two men who appeared somewhat bowed by the weight of years, but age becomes them. Few fingers and lips are as practised as theirs, the musical innovation for which they have become world-renowned etched deep in the grooves of records almost too numerous to number.
It was backstage around a long table that they rested, players coiled, energy astutely conserved, enjoying a postprandial hiatus. I watched them stand, then sit and wait, so easy of gait they appeared more ready for an evening of studied relaxation rather than one that soon became seared with the heat of their well-honed funk.
Between them, this mighty duo has racked up eight years leading Soul Brother No.1 James Brown’s bands between 1965 and 1975. They are James Brown’s most trusted sidemen, Fred Wesley & Pee Wee Ellis, and they remain true originals in a music world that has been steadily depleted of their kind. As innovators who wear their genius with insouciance, Fred and Pee Wee find no need to crow about their achievements. Each musical moment provides adequate proof of what they can still do after all that they have achieved. Their currency is funk, that African-American musical expression that has informed every musical genre across the globe. Elemental and primal, it has coursed through popular music since the early days of New Orleans and James Brown, transforming the pop idiom for all time.
And backstage at NYU on a balmy Abu Dhabi night, the wide smiles of these fathers of invention told of a pride in their vaulted appointments in the musical firmament. Around the table with them sat sidemen and women, young and old, all plugged into the moment and the new project at hand, namely ‘Funk: Evolution of a Revolution’. Conceived as an appraisal of the musical revolution that was pioneered by James Brown and his contemporaries, who better then to play those licks than the men who were there at its birth, with a modern band assembled to assist.
There was master guitarist Tony Remy, at one with his thoughts at the back of the room, while Fred Ross sank deep in hushed conversation with the rapper Add-2; and across from trombonist Chad Bernstein sat Carleen Anderson in pleasant susurration with Hamdan Al-Abri. It had been almost two weeks of intense rehearsal to get to this point, with Pee Wee’s sax sitting in the corner on its stand, just so he could keep an eye on it.
They had just finished eating and various musicians quietly came and went, readying themselves in their own ways. Rapper Add-2 walked through the room and then out into the corridor, seemingly pacing rhythm into his being, while Chad Bernstein quietly took to the hall to warm up with trombone in hand. But Fred, he just sat and digested. He knew what he had to do. “It’s an honour to meet a musical hero,” I hear myself telling him, and he laughs. “I keep hearing that from people,” he says, “but I don’t know why.” But really he does, the ensuing gig – played by a nine-piece band before a rapt audience that thronged the campus’s East Plaza – was a masterclass of musicianship welded to a historical narrative which dealt with the transformative power of this unique musical genre. To hear Fred and Pee Wee play ‘Cold Sweat’ and ‘Doing It To Death’ would have been enough for this fan, but there was more to come.
A video screen as wide as the stage served the purpose of laying bare the history of funk, as images of its purveyors from The Meters through to Isaac Hayes and even David Bowie reared behind the band as it motored through their classic songs and those of Manu Dibango, Sly Stone, Cameo, The Ohio Players, War, Stevie, Marvin, Herbie Hancock and Funkadelic. The list was endless, and even to the initiated, the sheer weight of historical evidence on show gave pause for thought as Brooklynite DJ Nickodemus allowed the band (and vocalists Fred Ross and Carleen Anderson) to take a much-needed break as he took the crowd through an eight-minute multi-media run through of funk’s effect on world music, from Brazil and Ethiopia to Thailand and India and beyond.
It was an evening of educational indulgence, serving as a reminder that even the ultra-modern purveyors of pop like Bruno Mars owe funk and its innovators a huge debt. With initiatives such as this, contemporary popular music can be appreciated in a broader context, whereby its cultural loam and deep roots can be celebrated. And that’s no bad thing. And with plans to take this show on the global road – with a changing line up to fit each given country’s funk flavour – academe is assuming a compelling role in helping the public get reacquainted with the musical bedrock of popular music with which, indubitably, we are all still in love.
But the evening’s simple, beguiling gift was to witness two elderly funk masters play with a vigour that defied their years. It brought on a cold sweat, indeed, and afforded a salutary reminder of the heights that great music can attain.