Cory Wong leads his band in a performance at 9:30 Club on Feb. 22, 2023. (Photo by Casey Vock)
Some musicians can shimmer and strut with such a prestige that their recordings serve as a lure to their live performances and speak to their greater ambitions as an artist.
Anyone can see that Cory Wong has been prolific so far in his career, but a close listen to any of the projects he’s either led or been involved with will ultimately reveal an artist diligently and thoughtfully actualizing his vision for modern day funk music.
And as a thrilling and unpredictable guitar player who’s coming into his own, and as a member of numerous ongoing projects with a vast network of friends in music, Wong is establishing himself as a standalone songwriter and performer who is determined to burst through the speakers and explode on the stage.
Cory made a stop in the nation’s capital on Feb. 22 as part of his current tour, and if a night with Wong alone wasn’t guaranteed to be memorable, the performance at 9:30 Club was made even more commemorative by way of a shared bill featuring the great Victor Wooten, one of world’s best bass players and one of Wong’s favorite collaborators.
Listen to Cory Wong’s 2022 studio album Power Station via Spotify:
Playing to a sold-out audience on Feb. 22, Wong lit up the stage with impressive abilities and an unrelenting style on the electric guitar, with a little mischief too, in leading his big band through a pumping and glistening celebration.
And though only guitar experts could have understood everything that came flying out of Cory’s mouth to start the evening — he made a ranting promise to do every possible this, that and the other thing on his signature Fender Stratocaster — the V Street venue would rejoice with the talented 37-year-old all night long.
Wong was fronting a playful band, but one polished to a shine and it became so clear early in the presentation that he’d assembled a crew with the chops and purview to help him attack immense, bold songs with the ambition to blend rock, soul, and pop into one of the freshest and funkiest showcases in live music.
Convincing, supple and aerobic from the start, a high-speed delivery of “Lunchtime” quickly established the audacious never-ending gameshow mood of this gallant and flashy DC affair. Wong was backed by the fantastic Sonny T Thompson, who supported Prince as a member The New Power Generation and, like Wooten, is one of the most respected bass players around. Along with a five-piece brass section, keyboardist Kevin Gastonguay and drummer Petar Janjic, Wong appeared super-charged to be surrounded by so many skillful players and to have a packed house before him.
“Let’s Go!” was an emphatic and invigorating frolic with fuzz, a fetching loop and layers of keys. Pulled from Cory’s 2022 project Wong’s Cafe co-released with longtime Michigan-based funk partners Vulfpeck, this number saw the whole group finding its rhythm by way of eye contact, non-verbal queues, some verbal ones too and Cory was on his toes as he bounded around center stage in his bright white high tops, driving this engine, his latest configuration.
Watch Cory Wong and Victor Wooten perform “Direct Flyte” via Cory’s official YouTube channel, which is loaded with content:
Though Wooten wouldn’t take the stage until the back half of the set, Wong and his crew dazzled and captivated with their positive energy and the tremendous presence they mustered on the stage. Various members of the woodwind pack would emerge to fire off as these healthy compositions sprinted along, and Wong would engage each member at various points, mouth agape, yanking the strings.
“Smooth Move” from The Striped Album was a classic Cory Wong submission, an unassuming and slick pathway that found luscious vocal harmonies and the distinct clang of his Stratocaster on its way to an assured saunter. At the end, Wong signaled to his brass buddies, and the man at the center, both in his locale and his prowess, Kenni Holmen, sizzled on the flute to close this one out.
“You Got To Be You” from the Wong’s Cafe album was powered with such encouragement, so much upward trajectory, and here the keys helped lift the melody to bliss, even an invincibility as the composition works through twists and turns in style only to rise above it all again as Holmen stepped up to blow a brazen saxophone solo over the mix, and Cory — who’s early work was in the jazz realm — was wide-eyed, clearly exhilarated in the moment.
Wong is said to have been inspired by a wide range of different music in his youth, and though he began on the piano, he’d surrounded himself with instruments by the time he was in high school. Raised in Minneapolis, he put himself alongside musicians who’d worked with not only Prince but other stars, he learned from internationally acclaimed instructors and he’d eventually play with or tour with a variety of veterans from different backgrounds and regions.
A longtime contributor to Vulfpeck and now a member of The Fearless Flyers with several members of that band, Cory’s zest for exciting music manifested on stage last week in a world-class showing that seemed to get better throughout the set.
“We having fun yet?” Wong asked as he went.
He gave the backstory to his discovery of the night’s opening act, Trousdale.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m an internet guy,” he shared. “The thing about the Internet is you can find your new favorite band like that.”
Searching for what he described as the “right act to open for this tour,” a group that he himself “would like to listen to every night,” he said he found one of his “favorite bands.” And he welcomed Trousdale’s three lead vocalists — Georgia Greene, Lauren Jones and Quinn D’Andrea — to the stage for a couple of songs that were brightened by the pitch of this Los Angeles-based pop/folk group, including a scorching take on “Crisis,” a standout single from Wong’s 2022 guest-heavy Power Station.
Listen to Cory Wong’s 2022 album Wong’s Cafe, co-released with Vulfpeck, via Spotify:
“Aren’t they the best?” he said as the trio exited the stage.
Packing so much entertainment into the night, Wong invited the crowd into the world of touring musicians. He’d challenged his bandmates, he explained, to consider completing an upcoming festival run using only TSA-approved, compact instruments that can easily be carried onto a plane — an effort to avoid travel snags. As a test run, the band performed two songs at 9:30 Club using an adorable arsenal of miniature instruments, impressing with their precision but charming too, as this was a band riding high on these uplifting rhythms.
One of the night’s anticipated prizes would arrive in the form of Wooten himself taking the stage, and his big grin and unthinkably dexterous fingers enhanced an already unforgettable show.
Nonchalantly stepping right into “Direct Flyte,” his collaboration with Cory on the Power Station album, Wooten delivered what many had been looking for — a mind-blowing demonstration of slaps and plucks, vigorous and determined to go on forever. The youngest of five brothers, all of them musicians, Victor delighted with confidence and class, moving to the front of the stage and speedily exploring every part and piece of his custom made Fodera bass, drawing cheers as he went.
Though he was a bass player himself at different points, even Wong marveled at his colleague, and later in the set he was sure to heap praise on Sonny T, too, who joined him for his 2021 album The Paisley Park Sessions and other projects.
But as featured on the ticket, the back half of the set was a wild bass ride, and Victor was at the steering wheel for tracks written by Wong but one of his own too — “2 Timers” — and, to close the set, an awesome take on “Stomping Grounds,” written by Béla Fleck and Wooten in his years as a member of The Flecktones.
If anyone in the building didn’t truly grasp how attentive Wong is, and how hard he challenges himself and those around him, the encore would reveal this.
A Cory Wong branded step-and-repeat backdrop was erected at center stage, and a pop-up press conference of sorts was held right there in 9:30 Club, with the band leader first flinging off hilarious constructive criticism about himself and his bandmates, and then asking questions of the “press” — “Relix Magazine, go ahead” … “The Washington Post … thanks for being here.”
As it concluded, Wong — who conducts his own YouTube variety show titled “Cory and the Wongnotes” — asked Trousdale to stay on the stage for “Synchronicity,” and of course Victor wasn’t going anywhere for the finale as they dove into a remarkable “Deantown.” Another tune from the Vulfpeck catalogue, here Wong embraced his own experience as a longtime bass player, grabbing his own and playing the track’s guitar riffs in slapping fashion while the two more-senior bass players showed their stuff in this deep and stimulating groove.
Serving up so much more than a regular concertgoer could ever expect out of a given evening of live music, Cory Wong and his untouchable team of resolute players turned the 9:30 Club stage into a sparkling medallion of sorts. A gifted guitar guru with a sharpness, a wherewithal and a capacity for potent performances, Wong is and will continue to be wildly important as a funk music evangelist. By working with the likes of Wooten and other cutting-edge musicians, he’ll continue to find ways of reaching new listeners and spreading the good word.
You Got To Be You
Crisis (with Trousdale)
Golden (with Trousdale)
Bluebird (played with TSA-approved carry-on-sized instruments)
St. Paul (played with TSA-approved carry-on-sized instruments)
Direct Flyte (with Victor Wooten)
Separado (with Victor Wooten)
Welcome 2 Minneapolis (with Victor Wooten)
2 Timers (Victor Wooten song, with Victor Wooten)
Feed the Id (with Victor Wooten)
Stomping Grounds (Béla Fleck and the Flecktones cover with Victor Wooten)
Press Conference (complete with, along with Victor Wooten and Trousdale)
Synchronicity (with Victor Wooten and Trousdale)
Dean Town (Vulfpeck song with Victor Wooten)
Here are images of Cory Wong (with just a couple shots showing Victor Wooten) along with shots of the night’s opening act, Trousdale, performing at 9:30 Club on Feb. 22, 2023. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.