Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles with Jennifer Hartswick & Nick Cassarino 9.21.18

Star Theater
Portland, Oregon

Words by James Sissler
Photos by Jason Charme Photography

It felt like a Sunday morning Friday night as a motley congregation filled the pews of Portland’s Star Theater to witness the gospel of Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles. The organ stood shining center stage like a pulpit awaiting its preacher, flanked on one side by drums and amplifiers and on the other by a keyboard rig that dwarfed the band leader’s simple Hammond B-3 and Moog synthesizer. The crowd was surprisingly slow to build, though rich with anticipation, but it was not the night to show up late, with the acclaimed and adored Jennifer Hartswick opening the show accompanied by the Nth Power’s Nick Cassarino (that is, unless maybe you had tickets for their after party show at Jack London Review).

Known in part for her show-stopping trumpet and vocal features with Phish side-project Trey Anastasio Band, Jennifer Hartswick wasted no time proving that she deserves to be given center stage, even if it went to the organ this time (see photos). The duo’s set drew mostly from Hartswick’s new solo release, Nexus, featuring songs that showcased both the singer’s smooth and soulful, yet dynamic and versatile voice, and her equally tasteful trumpet playing. Her performance was expectedly breathtaking, enough to win over anyone who didn’t already know her coming in, while Nick Cassarino made new fans with his ability to faithfully interpret the laid back, but sultry sounds of the record on only an acoustic guitar. Managing to convey percussive grooves, dreamy, ethereal soundscapes and everything in between, all with equal mastery and a smile on his face, the guitarist inspired reactions from the crowd not just with his virtuosic playing, but also with his impressive, bluesy pipes on “Do I Move You?” Another high point came when he plucked a walking bassline and comped at the same time while his partner improvised a flawless scat solo.

By the end of the opening set, the musical bar had been set very high and the other bar was busy serving the excited congregants that had filled in the club’s remaining space. Then, after a short intermission, The Funk Apostles at last emerged with their charismatic leader, who immediately put on his preacher voice and welcomed everybody (“How many bodies?”) as he invoked the funk spirits with an inspired, gospel-style organ solo. The heavy church vibe quickly gave way to a driving four-on-the-floor funk groove as The Funk Apostles came in with “Testify,” the band’s first tune of the night. The group’s energy was explosive right off the bat. Backup singers Tiffany Stevenson and Denise Renee and their animated frontman (who also sings) did a great job using their bodies to show the audience how the music should be felt—and it felt good.

Lacking horns, the band’s sound depends on its rhythm section to lay down grooves that can stand on their own feet. The solid foundation of Sharay Reed’s bass, which was loud enough to feel as well as hear, is supported by TaRon Lockett’s gospel style drumming and Adam Agati’s percussive guitar playing. Nicholas Semrad meanwhile adds different voices and textures with his array of keyboards, but of course the crowd’s focus is primarily drawn to the frontman, who plays the main melodies overtop the rhythm section whether they are organ lines or vocal hooks.

Perhaps what is most striking about The Funk Apostles’ sound is how little funk there actually is. Soul, R&B, gospel, jazz, hip-hop, and even pop all shine through the music at least as much, which is refreshing, particularly because the band seems to draw an audience for much of whom these styles would otherwise remain unfamiliar. It is surprising also how little the group highlights Cory Henry’s organ playing. Unlike an instrumentalist like Derek Trucks, who embellishes almost every song he plays with a guitar solo in his signature style, the band leader seems reluctant to embrace the role of soloist, taking no more of the spotlight than the members of his band. Gracious as this may be, those wishing to see the gifted organist really show his stuff may be left wanting—after all, people buy Tedeschi Trucks tickets because they want to hear a sublime guitar solo in every song. Instead, he leans into the charismatic preacher role, engaging the audience in call and response and leading claps and sing-alongs with refrains like “I believe that love will find a way,” and “Life’s gotta keep on rollin’.” He even paused a couple of times throughout the show to rap about the power of love and music. There was no mention of Jesus, but the worship vibe was strong.

The rest of the set included originals off the band’s new release, The Art of Love, a cover of the Beegees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” which ended strong with Cory Henry playing a blistering lead with one hand while shaking a tambourine with the other, and a soulful rendition of CCR’s “Proud Mary.” The night ended on a high note, with outstanding vocal solos from Tiffany Stevenson and Denise Renee before an electric finish that had the crowd jumping up and down in unison. After an encore that included Robert Randolph’s “Send me a sign” and Cory Henry’s signature feel-good singalong “NaaNaaNaa,” the band left the stage and the elated congregation shuffled out into the streets. Some, including Cory Henry himself, made their way over to Jack London Review for cocktails and a late show ironically featuring the night’s openers, Jennifer Hartswick and Nick Cassarino.

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