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Published: 2007/03/22
by Eric Podolsky

Going Local with Spiritual Rez and Bernie Worrell

Greetings from Boston! As we plunge into the depths of winter, it seems like the number of touring bands always drops off dramatically. As this occurs, we find ourselves placing an added importance on local shows, where not only can we get our bitter winter angst out dancing our asses off in steamy clubs, but we can do it within a fairly close-knit social web of peers. On a February night in Boston at a packed Paradise, local favorites Spiritual Rez staged one of these community parties, which was elevated into a truly epic event by the appearance of Bernie Worrell, the funkiest keyboardist on the planet. Boston had not seen a local gig of such epic proportions in a while.

Spiritual Rez is a group of seven accomplished Berklee musicians who have strayed from the rigid world of academic jazz to find their own musical path in the simpler grooves of world music, reggae and funk. With their honed musicianship they play a form of timeless, high-energy, afro-groove-reggae complete with soulful vocals, percussion and horn section.

Over the past year or two, Spiritual Rez has built up a substantial following in the New England area. Walking through the crowd before the show, I tried to guess who was there to see the band, and who had showed up because they saw Bernie’s name on the bill, and had no idea who Spiritual Rez was. Surprising to me, much of the crowd had no idea who Bernie Worrell is, which just re-enforced my view that he is one of the most underrated musicians living today.

For those who were both familiar with Bernie and the Rez, the question on everyone’s mind was, “How the hell did those guys get Bernie Worrell?” The band’s lead guitarist Van Martin, explained the story to me backstage before the show: “Melanie West, who’s a friend of Bernie’s and produced a Talking Heads record that Bernie played on, saw me play with this Afro-Pop collective band in Chicago where I was doing a lot of lead guitar work. Bernie’s guitarist couldn’t make it, so I got the call, and Bernie sent me something like 30 P-Funk tunes and live CDs and all sorts of stuff, and I had a week to learn all of it. I got the gig, and it was awesome. From there, I’ve been keeping in touch with him and his manager.” Talking to Van and the rest of the band, there was nothing but humble respect and gratitude for Worrell, who clearly was doing a huge favor for their up-and-coming band. Just the night before, Bernie had played an open jam session at Mexicali Blues in New Jersey with George Porter, Jr, Steve Kimock and Kimock’s son. Hearing this put this night into perspective a little more for me.

In the midst of a loud and youthful backstage scene, there was Bernie, sitting quietly to the side in his purple and gold velvet Admiral’s coat and bandana. Unassuming, yet carrying an air of musical royalty. When I asked him about his friendship with Van, he smiled and gestured with his purple suede-gloved hands. “When my guitarist couldn’t make it, a friend of mine in Chicago [Melanie West] said she knows this person who’s really awesome, so I gave Van a chance. I took her word for it, and he came down and auditioned. He knew all the P-Funk stuff, so it worked out. We took to each other. [laughs.] We took to each other very much. That was before he had the girlfriend. Now I’m pissed at him [laughs]!”

Bernie has been a musical chameleon throughout his entire career, spanning from P-Funk to Talking Heads to Les Claypool to Bill Laswell, and on and on. So playing with reggae-tinged Spiritual Rez posed no problem for him, though they had only collaborated once before. “I play what I hear. I play what I want. No bondage. I be free, man, you know. There’s no synthesizers tonight. There’s just the B3 the clav, and a wah-wah. I’ll be playing different. I deal with sound, so whatever happens happens.”

The band opened the show on their own with a soulful reggae groove, Toft Willingham’s joyous vocals soaring over the band’s snug pocket. After an exchange of solos by the horn section of Robert Vesnaver and Brian Evans to warm the crowd up, Bernie appeared onstage and was met with medium-sized applause, which surprised me a bit. Spiritual Rez’s primary musical goal as a band is to get the audience members’ asses shaking, and that goal was fully realized as the night progressed. It took Bernie a while to get comfortable with his role in the band, and for most of the first part of the show he mainly stuck to fills tonal color on the lower half of his Hammond. His mere presence onstage was more than enough to provide the band with all the adrenaline and energy needed to take their music to new heights.

The band’s energy seemed to be channeled through percussionist Brian Nelson, whose arsenal of hand-drums and traditional African instruments kept the pulse of the night. When the moment was right, Toft Willingham often shed his guitar to lead the crowd in some passionate chanting, channeling the reggae vocal legends with grace. Van Martin periodically switched between restrained rhythm guitar to shredding lead over the band’s groove. Jesse Shaternick, an imposing stage presence on bass at well over 6’, kept things locked in with drummer “Meat” Miller, allowing just enough room to keep the groove interesting.

While Bernie’s was a bit low in the mix at first, he soon loosened up and took some solos on his wah-wah and clav. You could literally see the genius pouring out of him as he phrased his instantly recognizable lines, whimsical and funky at the same time. Unfortunately, he had played extra hard the night before with Kimock and Porter, and his arthritis was acting up throughout the show; not good for a keyboardist. At one point, he opened up and really started to wail on the upper part of the Hammond. Right as he was hitting his peak, he grimaced, stopped and shook his hands out. Laughing it off, he faced the crowd. “It’s hard gettin’ old!”

As the one long set progressed, the band turned the funk up hard. The room got hotter and steamier, bodies moving in a steady pulse. It was one of those nights. With hand drums pounding, horns punching, bass and drums locked in, Van let loose, tearing it up Eddie Hazel-P-Funk style, and Bernie blew a kiss of approval. The funk god soon settled into vamping on his Hammond for the majority of the night, letting the band have the spotlight. As the energy in the room slowly rose to a plateau, the band soon was dancing as hard as the crowd, all flailing limbs and hair and sweat and smiles, a tribal groove party with Mr. Worrell as both Master of Ceremonies and the Guest of Honor. It was one of those nights where the set had a continual build towards an inevitable and cathartic group climax, capped with a huge Bernie solo, classic Worrell with huge organ flourishes and outer-space wah-wah insanity, arms-in-the-air madness and screaming. Then Bernie left the stage, the band closed it out, and it was over, and we flooded out into the streets of Boston, sweaty and buzzing.

Shows like this do not happen too often. When they do, the crowd usually walks away a little happier to live where they do. Something to keep in mind: in a post-Phish world, where the “we’re-all-in-it-together” bliss of a super-concert is becoming rarer and rarer, sometimes it’s best to go local.

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