It’s both hilarious and ridiculous that Cory Wong’s March 2 show at the Sylvee opens with the main theme of the “Halo” video-game soundtrack, an artifact of meme culture that’s circulated around so ironically that it was the last thing I expected to hear in a packed concert venue. Somebody standing behind me asked, “Is that what I think it is?”
Yes. I know. Hard for me to believe, too.
Only seconds later, the chorale blares into the 20th Century Fox opening fanfare with Wong at the helm of his band, gesturing like a conductor of an orchestra.
Except this isn’t an orchestra. The band members are all wearing varsity jackets and dressed like frat house raiders. And Wong himself, who’s holding a kind of victory pose, seems fully aware that parody entertains self-awareness. The fanfare is a suggestion, an ostensible prelude to a night of fun.
This is the memo I imagine Wong and his band assume as their central philosophy: “We’re here to put on a show.” As I’m stupidly waving around my bandana half-way through their first set.
I’m having fun.
The Grammy-nominated guitarist and songwriter from Minneapolis performed in Madison on Thursday night as part of his Power Station tour, bringing on guest bassist Victor Wooten in the latter half of the show to an audience already well-acquainted with his prominence in the jazz and funk sphere.
On this tour, though, Wooten’s association with Wong brings him into the limelight of an eclectic musical melding of funk, bluegrass, pop, R&B and rock. “Assassin,” the opening song of their set list, sees Wong squatting like Chuck Berry at his brass section’s jolting hits. Los Angeles pop-folk band and opening act Trousdale rejoins Wong and his band on their song “Golden,” a kind of feel-good pop tune redolent of an 1980s boy-band.
Then there’s a song like “Meditation,” an interpolation of Jeff Beck’s “Too Much to Lose” which feels like a sun-streaked road trip across the pastoral, fielding a simultaneously reminiscent and bittersweet soundscape. It’s in these moments that Wong seems most poised to indulge in our sentimentalities as music-lovers, unveiling the veneer of plain fun to speak to us as traveling musicians.
“We have a blast doing what we do,” he says to the audience. “We had two broken down buses that tried to prevent us from being here but we flew last minute [to Madison].”
The audience cheers.
“But there are a couple times in the year that what we do feels like work,” Wong continues. “We’ve found the main culprit: the days where we are going through airports or trying to get on airplanes with all our gear.”
“So I’ve been kind of workshopping some ideas on how we can make less days of the year feel like work,” Wong declares to an amused audience. “Carry-ons only. That’s it.”
The band members come out with miniature saxophones and a drum kit barely big enough to fit into a suitcase. Wong himself displays his small guitar the size of a lap child. They look like giants playing with tin cans.
If Wong’s discography seems like it’s merely a collection of fun, danceable funk tracks, then his live performances testify much more visibly to his showmanship. His stage becomes a pulpit for humor and delight, occupying the space through gags and stand up-like routines. His shows feel like utterances against banality, dancing and laughing it away in the embrace of fun.
Kai W. Li is an Arts Editor at The Daily Cardinal covering music, visual arts, and film. Follow him on Twitter at @kaijuneli.