By Max Stewart
First off, Cory Wong is one of the most impressive and innovative guitarists in recent memory. Just wanted to make that abundantly clear to start. If you are a fan of unique and gifted guitarists, do not miss an opportunity to see him perform live. I came to know Wong due to his collaborations with Vulfpeck, the virtuosic Michigan funk band that clearly has an eye for talent in picking their contributors (also see vocalist Antwaun Stanley). The beauty of what Vulfpeck does, and pardon the cheese here, is that they put the ‘fun’ in funk. The band plays pop-infused funk and are clearly all phenomenal musicians, but do so with smiles and laughter on stage. One of the first musicians I noticed when watching them live was Cory Wong, whose undeniably unique style on the Fender Stratocaster and wide smile immediately stood out.
Cory Wong’s solo outfit includes a band dubbed Cory and the Wongnotes, and he clearly has the same ethos in his solo endeavors: take the music seriously, play with serious musicians, but have fun while doing it. He is most definitely one of the best guitarists on the scene, and he actually has guitar courses available online. But he manages to play these incredibly intricate songs with unique time signatures and complex arrangements with a smile, not an ounce of ego. I think this really draws people in to this live shows, a fanbase I would say is a mix of funk fans, music nerds, jazz vinyl collectors, guitar enthusiasts and all things in between. If you want a full dose of the fun involved, check out ‘WONG ON ICE!’, where the band performs in hockey jerseys on ice. Wong is a native of Minnesota, so this probably comes more naturally to him than others, but damn that performance alone is impressive. In fact, the Wongnotes band has full Minnesota cred in that they feature Sonny T (Thompson) on bass, Michael B. Nelson on trombone and Kenni Holmen on tenor/soprano saxophone, who were all part of Prince‘s New Power Generation (!).
The beauty of the band’s show at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse was the fact that Wong’s guitar style interweaved seamlessly amongst a stellar and large supporting musical cast. The night opened with Sierra Hull, a mind-blowing mandolin player and singer who actually most recently played alongside Sturgill Simpson for his Cuttin’ Grass albums. Her impressive solo set featured a collaboration alongside Wongnotes saxophonist, Eddie Barbash, before she returned to join the Wongnotes for a few masterful displays of mandolin prowess in their first set.
Cory & the Wongnotes two full sets and encore was a masterclass with all top-tier musical hands on deck. The show started off with a mix of Wong’s material including songs from his excellent new release, Wong’s Cafe. If you have not had a chance to dive into his solo stuff, make sure you make a point to do so. Each tune managed to maintain a fresh quality, keeping the musical style of the night somewhat ambiguous and the audience always on their feet. Wong then had some performances alongside the superb Michigan vocalist Antwaun Stanley, including some of his solo tunes “Lost in Translation” and “Where Are We Now?”
At every turn, the set really kept the spirits high and was a purely joyful live music event, something we have all desperately been longing for over the past two years. His band also featured baritone saxophonist Sam Greenfield, trumpeters Jon Lampley and Jay Webb, keyboardist Kevin Gastonguay, percussionist Nêgah Santos, and drummer Petar Janjic.
To cap things off, the band performed Vulfpeck’s “Dean Town,” with fans singing the bass and guitar lines. Fans SINGING bass and guitar riffs!? That is impressive musical dedication and gives you an idea of the musical wizards that captivated the audiences on this tour. By all accounts, the Cory & the Wongnotes tour was wildly successful, and we hope to see this musical outfit on the road again very soon.