The sadness, stress, and silence of 2020 left artists the world over with plenty of time and energy to spend spinning new works and honing their respective crafts. Perhaps no one made more prolific use of that time than Cory Wong. The Grammy-nominated guitarist and bassist, bandleader, and longtime Vulfpeck collaborator dropped nine albums in 2020 (three of them live) before releasing four more, including Cory Wong & The Wongnotes, in 2021.
Along the way, Cory collected a cadre of collaborators. There was The Late Show with Stephen Colbert bandleader Jon Batiste joining smooth movements on 2020’s Meditations. Come 2021, the Minneapolis native joined forces with legendary jazz saxophonist Dave Koz on The Golden Hour and Swedish jazz fusion outfit Dirty Loops on Turbo.
And then there were the cameos from Kimbra, Joe Satriani, David T. Walker, and Mr. Talk Box on The Striped Album, as well as appearances from Cody Fry, Eddie Barbash, and fellow Vulfer Antwaun Stanley on the Wongnotes’ eponymous debut album.
Sidekicks aside, Cory Wong has come a long way as a marquee musician—and an almost purely instrumental one, at that—in a relatively short span.
When last Cory performed in Los Angeles pre-pandemic, he staged his own tongue-in-cheek Tony Robbins-on-guitar seminar at The Troubadour in West Hollywood on 10/26/19. There were slides and little lectures, all done in a silly spirit, that punctuated his band’s rhythmic jams.
This time around, at The Fonda Theatre in Hollywood on a mid-November Saturday night, Cory channeled that goofy charm into his facial expressions while leaving the music to breathe almost exclusively.
And breathe, it did.
From the funky, strumming flex of “Lunchtime” and the pluckily fun picking of “Bluebird”, to the deep bass of “Gumshü” and the downbeats of “Smooth Move”, Cory and the Wongnotes brought some 20 months-worth of creative energy to bear across two distinctly delightful sets.
The first was almost purely instrumental, punctuated only by occasional chit-chats from the frontman. Those aside, it was a smooth ride through corners of Cory’s quickly expanding catalog. The band’s recently released live album, The Paisley Park Session, got a nice nod with “Welcome 2 Minneapolis”. Dave Koz emerged from his side-stage hiding spot to help close out the opening set with “Feed The Id” and “Getaway Car”.
Following a brief set break, the band returned for a pair of jams before welcoming the inimitable Antwaun Stanley to the stage. Though best known for his vocal excellence with Vulfpeck, and despite not dabbling in “Funky Duck” even a little bit, the Flint, MI native didn’t disappoint one bit during his second-set appearance. Antwaun brought the crowd to Funky Town with “Work It Out”, brought some of his own pop sensibility to bear on “Lost In Translation”, and perfectly played the part of fellow Michigander Stevie Wonder during an uplifting medley of the music legend’s classics.
In the end, Cory brought the show full circle with Antwaun filling the role of Cody Fry on the disco-dancy “Coming Back Around” before closing with an encore of the bass-bedazzled Vulfpeck standard “Dean Town”—backed up, as always, by a chanting crowd.
For a show fashioned upon a firm foundation of funk instrumentals, Cory and the Wongnotes managed to touch many a far corner of the musical spectrum, with aplomb in every case. They engaged the audience without antics fit for “Jimmy Kimmel does jazz.” They were simply a terrific band, led by a charismatic and expressive guitarist and joined by other guests stars whose orbits have crossed through the wide world of Vulf.
Whatever the future may hold for that almost mythically mysterious group of brilliantly nerdy musicians, Cory Wong is clearly capable of carving out his own niche in the music world.
In that regard, he’s far from alone among Vulfpeck alums. Antwaun now has his own album of original songs, titled Ascension, just as Theo Katzman and Joey Dosik before him.
Cory’s voice, on the other hand, is best expressed through, well, his hands on guitar. What he’s sacrificed in affable sarcasm onstage since the pandemic, he’s more than made up for with a driving, energetic style that keeps people moving and grooving from end to end.
Next, Cory Wong and the Wongnotes head to the Crescent Ballroom in Pheonix, AZ on November 16th. For tickets and a full list of tour dates visit his website.