Vulfpeck Lives Up To The Hype At SummerStage: Review, Photos & Videos
Words by: Scott Bernstein
Images by: Jeremy Gordon
Vulfpeck :: 9.7.16 :: Central Park SummerStage :: NYC
Michigan funk act Vulfpeck just made their New York City debut this past November, but they have already been through a number of stages most buzz bands go through. There was discovery when Aaron Fortin wrote “Why You Should Be Listening To Vulfpeck” for Live Music Blog in 2014, there was the build up of hype when the band released the electrifying Thrill Of The Arts in 2015, then the foursome seemed to be booked at every major festival in 2016 which led to the other end of the buzz band roller coaster as all the buildup led to lofty expectations that Vulfpeck at times failed to live up to on the stage.
The Ann Arbor band was at first embraced by the jam scene and then came the disappointing feat of repeating songs from one day to the next at Lockn’ which is considered a crime by live improv fans. As I wrote about their Friday Lockn’ set, “Vulfpeck is one of the most buzzed about jam scene bands in recent memory. The question is: Does the live show reach the heights of their recorded output? My answer is, ‘not quite.'” So I went in to the band’s SummerStage appearance on Wednesday night with no expectations figuring I’d see a set similar to those played at Lockn’. Boy was I surprised when what seemed like a different band held the crowd in the palm of their hands throughout the night, brought out a bevy of guests and showed off exciting new material.
Vulfpeck set the tone for the evening with a “Welcome To Vulf Records” opener featuring guests both announced (Joey Dosik) and of the surprise variety (Cory Wong, Eddie Barbash, Richie Rodriguez and Mark Dover). Wong stuck around for the entire set and was a revelation on guitar. He added upbeat rhythms and impressive harmonies to the Vulfpeck mix, a big reason they sounded so different on Wednesday than they did at Lockn’. Another standout was the percussion work of Rodriguez, a second guest that augmented Vulfpeck throughout the evening and helped fill out the band’s sound.
Next month Vulfpeck will release a new album titled The Beautiful Game and on Wednesday they showed off some of the tunes from the LP which continues the band’s stated goal in 2011 of providing music “in the same vein as the Funk Brothers or the German Wrecking Crew.” Lettuce/Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno, who performed with his self-titled band ahead of Vulfpeck, joined in the action for “Rango II” providing a three-guitar attack along with Wong and Theo Katzman. Kraz was given ample time to shred, but the best part of the tune came when Cory, Eric and Theo harmonized with each other. The axemens’ creativity in coming up with killer harmonies on the spot was impressive to say the least. Katzman also utilized a talkbox, Peter Frampton style, to great effect.
While Joey Dosik played sax on “Welcome To Vulf Records,” he came out a few songs later and sat at the electric piano. Dosik led Vulfpeck on two of his originals which sounded like R&B/soul stunners straight out of the ’70s. From there it was time for a very special moment for the crowd and band alike as Vulfpeck welcomed legendary drummer Bernard Purdie to the stage. Multi-instrumentalist Jack Stratton, who acts as MC for the band, a role that turns some potential fans off but is crucial to the group’s live shows, talked about practicing drums to “O-o-h Child,” “Kid Charlemagne” and “MMMBop” in his parents’ basement as a kid. Purdie contributed to each of those songs and Stratton couldn’t believe he was about to share the stage with his hero, a drummer whom he honored with a tribute video just two years ago:
It was impossible not to have goosebumps as each member of Vulfpeck sported huge smiles as their hero took the stage. Bernard and the Ann Arbor quartet then kicked into the Vulfpeck debut of “Kid Charlemagne.” You’d never know it was a debut from how well they played the Steely Dan smash. Katzman did an admirable job with the vocals and the cover thrived from the insane talents of bassist Joe Dart, the guy even haters can’t hate on because he’s so good. At multiple points Theo and Cory engaged in draw-dropping harmonizing sessions during “Kid Charlemagne.” Vulfpeck needs to sign Wong up for good.
Purdie stuck around for a run that included Vulfpeck originals “Backpocket” and “Beastly” as well as a cover of The Beatles’ “Something” in which Bernard showed off his famed “Purdie Shuffle.” Another memorable moment came when Kraz heard the sounds of “Something” coming from the stage and decided he needed to get in on that action. He beautifully harmonized the solo with Wong and Katzman. At one point during “Beastly” all of the musicians dropped out leaving just Joe Dart and Bernard Purdie to play off each other, a jaw-dropping meeting of rhythmic masters. What was so remarkable about “Backpocket” was how many in the crowd sang along to every single word. Again, this band first visited the Big Apple less than a year prior and they drew an audience of devotees hanging on each lyric. For comparison’s sake, it took jam acts moe. and Umphrey’s McGee seven years of playing NYC to reach SummerStage status.
Vocalist Antwaun Stanley isn’t a permanent member of Vulfpeck, but it’s hard to tell as much considering he has joined the band at nearly every show they’ve played outside of their home state. Stanley has incredibly strong pipes and is capable of hitting multiple octaves with ease. As per usual, he crushed his role on “1612” and did so again on “Funky Duck.” Stratton welcomed his mom Alice to display the “Funky Duck” dance and the elder Stratton defied her age with the moves she pulled off to the delight of the crowd and Stanley. Up next was a spot-on cover of the Rufus classic “Tell Me Something Good” that featured the handiwork Allen Stone keyboardist Steve Watkins. Watkins had a talkbox of his own and the cover climaxed with double talkbox action featuring Steve and Theo. Antwaun then finished his work for the night with “Wait For The Moment.
“It Gets Funkier” is Vulfpeck’s traditional set closer as it gives Stratton a chance to chat with the crowd and get the audience involved in the wild time signatures that are part of the tune. “It” served its role well on Wednesday night. With the venue’s hard 10 p.m. curfew approaching Vulfpeck pulled off a quick and dynamic version of “Christmas In L.A.” to end the evening. The Michigan band’s 16-song set was a winner on every level and showed the future is bright for a group I thought last week might never get over the “incredible studio band, but not the best live band” stage. Don’t pay attention to the hype and don’t pay attention to the inevitable criticism that follows the hype. Go see Vulfpeck live and judge yourself. Hopefully you’ll get a show more like Wednesday’s masterpiece than the Lockn’ appearances.
Photos by Jeremy Gordon
Videos (Captured by Linusj)
Vulfpeck at Central Park SummerStage
- Welcome to Vulf Records
- Cory Wong
- Rango II
- My First Car
- Running Away
- Game Winner
- Kid Charlemagne
- Back Pocket
- Funky Duck
- Tell Me Something Good
- Wait for the Moment
- It Gets Funkier
- Christmas in L.A.