Have you ever felt like you were in on a big secret? And nobody believed you when you told them this secret? Like the one where one of the most influential bands of the last 40 years staged a reunion in a 1,000 person night club that, somehow, didn’t sell out in 30 seconds? Because on this unseasonably warm November night, the good people of San Francisco got to experience something that we haven’t seen in 13 years. Fred Wesley was James Brown’s trombonist and band leader during the classic 70’s funk era. Although he’s been recording and touring with a band called “Fred Wesley & The New JB’s,” this was the first time in many, many years that he’s played with any of the players that recorded those classic songs with James Brown.
Opening the show was a set by local hip hop legend Lyrics Born. Since he was warming up the crowd for a few of the musicians that basically helped create hip hop as we know it, one would expect him to respect the legends by only playing 90%. This, of course, wasn’t an option. He opted to bring out a full band instead of just a DJ: He had a keyboard, bass, guitar, drums, trombone and sax. He also had his wife, Joyo Velarde, in back up vocals. On back up vocals alone, she could have dominated the whole set. Her powerful lungs and intimidating stage presence seemed to both compliment and, at times, over power her husband, the frontman. This band’s hour long set was a a spirited funk workout with great vocals, and a tight band. The spirit of James Brown definitely was fairly represented in this project, and by the end of the set, every ass in the crowd was shaking.
Fred Wesley & The New JB’s opened up their set the classic track “Monorail.” The band was tight as can be. Fred Wesley is a fine trombonist, but, moreso, a fantastic band leader. He didn’t need to do much- there was no setlist, all Wesley needed to do was look at his band mates in the right way, and they knew what song was next. They knew what they got wrong and what they got right, and not a single word needed to be said.
The band played for about 45 minutes, doing some straight up, classic sounding funk. Wesley was the only James Brown player, but the rest of the band was tight enough to sound like Brown auditioned them single handedly. Keyboardist Barney Mcall was especially mind blowing: he played every one of those classic keyboard lines with great skill. He may have been half the age of every other performer on stage, but he really understood how to funk.
After about an hour of great, mostly instrumental funk music, it came time for the big guns to come out. Yes, Wesley’s band was tight, but they weren’t The JB’s as we knew them 40 years ago. Our first guest was legendary drummer Clyde Stubblefield. This man created the break beat. He is the most sampled drummer and hip hop. He sat down and played “Cold Sweat.” It was good and funky, if a little slower than it was in the 70’s.
The next two guests, however, didn’t sound like they’d slowed down at all: Looking fit and slender was bassist Fred Thomas, and hitting the skins was the “other” funky drummer, John “Jabo” Starks. They pulled out an extended jam on what may be the most famous song that The JB’s did without Brown: “Pass The Peas.” Thomas’ playing was thrilling. The man has a grasp on the electric bass that few others have. He played rhythms and melodies and let his fingers fly like a maniac, without every losing sight of the groove. Starks was doing what James Brown’s drummer always does: keeps the beat steady and holds everything together.
They kept pounding out the classics, all without losing an ounce of momentum. During “I Gotta Feeling,” we experienced Starks and Stubblefield doing a double drum attack. During “Breakin’ Bread Wit My Mama,” we got some hysterical interplay between Wesley and sax player Ernie Fields, Jr: starting with a little silliness about food, and moving onto an entendre that will not be repeated here. Even Lyrics Born dropped in on the action and laid down a few freestyle rhymes during this set.
The whole show was a fun, delirious, dancing frenzy. The crowd, as diverse a group as you could ever find in terms of age and ethnicity, kept dancing, and did not stop dancing for any reason. Even when they slowed it down, it just meant the dancing got a little more “personal.” (Note: Wesley actually called me out on leaving too much space between me and my dancing partner during this song. It seems I’m a little more of a prude than a 70 year old man) This show, which clocked in at nearly three hours, was an amazing set of historic proportions, and I hope we got to see these legends play out again soon.