A Funky Knuckles performance is an explosive, loud, funk-soaked live experience like nothing you’ll see anywhere else. If you’ve seen them before, you understand what we mean. If you haven’t, and you live in or around the state of Arkansas, you’ll have multiple opportunities to catch a show this week.
The Dallas-based seven piece are on the road for their Super Awesome Tour in support of their 2016 release “New Birth.” They’ll make several stops in the area, beginning Thursday at Stage Eighteen, Friday at 1884 Lounge at Minglewood Hall in Memphis and Saturday at Stickyz Rock’n’Roll Chicken Shack.
Funky Knuckles bassist and founder Wes Stephenson was kind enough to speak with FayetteSound ahead of the performances this week. The band formed several years ago as a trio, when bassist Wes Stephenson, vocalist and keyboardist Caleb Sean McCampbell and drummer Cedric Moore, got together and jammed out jazz standards and Stevie Wonder numbers during a weekly residency at a jazz club in Dallas called Tini Bar. The trio also played with one another in church and began writing and arranging their own music. It was then, Stephenson said, that they enjoyed making music and improvising together, that being in a formal group “seemed like the logical thing to do.” The band has since acy bits roster to include Frank Moka on percussion, Phill Aelony on guitar, Ben Bohorquez on saxophone and Evan Weiss on trumpet.
As individuals, the band’s members have enough accolades and talent to make any musician envious, with several members either having played with or worked with some of the biggest acts in music. McCampbell has co-produced records for artists such as Beyonce, Talib Kweli and others in the band have worked with acts like the Polyphonic Spree and Erykah Badu, to name a few.
Stephenson laughs about the band’s impressive bio, but said the band is influenced a bit by working with those artists, but are more so inspired by working with each other.
“The truth is all of us have played with so many incredible artists, but most of the time it has been a one-off here and there,” Stephenson said. “… In all honesty it sounds cooler than it actually is. I’m a nerd though. As far as influence and our compositions go, I think we all just listen to a very broad range of music, and as a result it comes out one way or another in the things that we do.”
The band recently signed with GroundUp Records and are writing and making preparations for their fourth album and follow-up to “New Birth.” Each of the previous three efforts have been different and have displayed the band’s immense talent and has expanded on its vast, genre-crossing sound — taking a blend of soul, funk, jazz and R&B to the next level.
Stephenson said the group continually pushes itself to expand its boundaries even further, whether it is sonically, compositionally or creatively, in an effort to make each record better than the last. He said each member contributes to writing, and while everyone is involved in other projects when the band isn’t together, a lot of individual writing and tracking is done by each member prior to gathering to rehearse and record for a new album.
Like most every Funky Knuckles record, you might expect the songs will leave each musician room to explore and get funky. Stephenson said he credits artists like Bernard Wright and Joe Henderson as leading influencers on the band’s writing and improvisational styles. It’s the band’s freedom to experiment, while maintaining a cohesive sound, that is the key ingredient to the Funky Knuckles’ sound.
“That’s definitely part of the vision,” Stephenson said. “Some of the tunes have very specific roles for certain people and instruments in particular, and there are passages that have a looser concept in the same passage. Sometimes the whole song is composed but we can take liberties with our composed part. Some songs are very loose and have been composed to be more of a vehicle for exploration as opposed to a strict composition.”
Not only are they talented, Funky Knuckles exudes fun, which Stephenson said is the best aspect of being in the band.
“First and foremost,we’re all really good friends,” he said. “All of my friends happen to be really good at music and so that makes it that much more rewarding. We keep each other sharp and push each other to be and do better in more ways than just music.”
Stephenson said the band is playing some festivals this summer and are trying to get back to Europe and Japan.
Tickets for this weekend’s shows can be purchased at www.thefunkyknuckles.com.
Justin co-founded FayetteSound in 2016 and ShindigMusic! in the summer of 2017. He is a Pearl Jam enthusiast and avid collector of music from all genres in all formats, with a particular preference for vinyl. He's the spouse of artist Stacy, of Stacy Bee Art fame.