Episode 46: The Icons of Funk

The Funk Icons — Leo Nocentelli, Bernie Worrell and Fred Wesley — a trio of unsung legends whose playing was a driving force behind three of the most influential bands in the Funkasphere — brought in the New Year with a rousing show at the Howard Theater on Jan. 2 before a small but enthusiastic crowd that braved the snowy, slushy weather.

The first Icon to appear was Leo Nocentelli, the guitarist for the legendary funk-instrumental band, the Meters. Nocentelli opened with one of the slinkiest grooves of all time, “Cissy Strut,” which sounds as cool today as when it came out in 1969. Laying down the rhythm was Bill Dickens on bass and Stanton Moore on drums. The trio then played some free-form funk jams as each instrumentalist took an extended solo showing off his ample chops.

Then Icon No. 2, Bernie Worrell, co-founder of Parliament-Funkadelic, joined the trio and wowed the crowd with his funkafied musings on organ and synthesizer. Worrell is the Phantom of the Funk, whose creeping keyboard intro sets the ominous tone for “Chocolate City” and iconic synthesizer blast ignites “Flashlight.”

Then Icon No. 3 joined the quartet, the funkiest trombonist on Earth, Fred Wesley. “Pass the Peas” and “House Party” inspired the hardy crowd to take to the dance floor and exchange chants of “Party!” with Wesley. The highlight of the entire evening was the quintet’s blazing version of “Red Hot Mama” with Nocentelli doing the late great Eddie Hazel proud with a blistering guitar solo, and Worrell, who co-wrote the song for Funkadelic in 1974, singing a soulful lead, telling the sordid tale of “red hot mamma from Louisiana, thumbin’ her way to Savannah.”

All in all, an enriching concert that traced three distinct roots of the Funk tree. Nocentelli’s slinky N’awlin grooves, Worrell’s funk with a rock kick and Wesley’s JB-grooves, the tap root from which all funk sprouted. It was truly a night of Funk in the First Degree.

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