Fred Wesley at the Hi-Fi Bar on the 8th of August, 2009

7 out of 10: Professional, stylish, jazzy; but not old school funky

All forms of music have their golden ages. Undisputably, funk’s was in the 70s when James Brown honed in on the hips and cast melody aside while his on-the-one groove was laid out as the foundation for George Clinton’s extended space jams.

Blowing his trombone alongside the godfather of funk and his other-worldly offspring was Fred Wesley. In the countless samples that pepper the tracks of today’s musical luminaries, you can still hear Wesley and his trombone from those halcyon days preserved, albeit reshaped and repackaged to suit the times.

Melbourne has seen a revival of interest in the funky sound of the 70s, so it came as no surprise that Fred Wesley and his band hit the stage to the rapturous applause of a well-informed audience. The crowd knew what they were there for – but it wasn’t for the muzak in the guise of Chick Corea’s Spain that first greeted them. Matters improved markedly, though, when the unmistakable bassline of Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon was heard next, and the choice of song proved indicative of a show that was more jazz fusion than pure funk.

Wesley wasn’t reliving the 70s. Unlike the offerings of funk recreationists – the Dap-Kings, for instance –, that warm hum of analog equipment which so shapes the musical form and makes funksters the most zealous of vinyl hunters was absent. Instead, the clean, precise and polished sound of modern equipment filled the Hi-Fi Bar, and the material Wesley and his band played for the first part of the set was devoted to jazz and fusion, which better suits such production values.

The second half of show saw the band playing more funk from the days of yore, and the crowd lapped up hits such as Pass the Peas and Same Beat. The contrived onstage banter and his less distinguished solo work suggested that Wesley was well-served by his more famous frontmen of the past, yet the band’s tight professionalism won over the crowd despite a certain lack of funky grit.

Gary Winter on trumpet and Melbourne’s own Barney McAll, who stunningly channelled Bernie Worrell on the keys, were especially good. And Wesley, as was to be expected, again demonstrated that the trombone need not be considered a daggy or inferior wind instrument. Musicianship of the highest order was certainly in the house, yet the dirty funk that a sizeable portion of the audience were hoping for had long since hit it and quit.

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