Review: Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley’s world premiere of Funk: Evolution of a Revolution at Abu Dhabi’s NYUAD

There are few people in the world more qualified to tell the story of funk than Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley, who collectively clocked eight years leading James Brown's seminal bands in the transformative period between 1965 and 1975.

Fred Wesley (left) and Pee Wee Ellis (right) perform Funk: Evolution of a Revolution at NYUAD on April 16. Delores Johnson / The National
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There are few people in the world more qualified to tell the story of funk than Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley. Collectively, they racked up eight years leading James Brown’s seminal bands in the form’s transformative period between 1965 and 1975.

The horn players pay tribute to that heady heyday, and fill in the blanks to bring us bang up to date, in brand new show Funk: Evolution of a Revolution.

Developed during a two-week residency at New York University Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island campus, when the grand unveiling came on Saturday, April 16, the vibe was more block party than tenterhook-locked world premiere.

There was surprise as the band kicked off with Mark Ronson's Bruno Mars vehicle Uptown Funk, but that was cut short after a tantalising verse.

“That shows you where funk evolved to,” Wesley, 72, told the crowd, “now we’re going to show you where funk came from.”

With that, we were launched into a steaming vamp through Cold Sweat, the watershed 1967 Brown tune credited with kick-starting funk on record, which was co-written by Ellis. The saxophonist, who turns 75 on April 21, recalled writing the tune one night on the tour bus.

Democratically, next the band leapt on trombonist Wesley's Doing it to Death, before humbly moving on to pay tribute to fellow forefathers.

The nine-piece band — including five horn players — were supported by a compelling cast of guest backing vocalists, who gave singer Fred Ross plenty of time off, taking turns under the spotlight.

Long-term collaborator Carleen Anderson — the daughter of Vicki Anderson, who sang in Brown’s band — channelled her considerable vocal chops into reviving the spirit of Mavis Staple and Chaka Khan.

Diminutive US rapper Add-2 demonstrated funk's backbone in hip-hop with the genre's first hit song, The Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight.

The UAE's very own Hamdan Al-Abri — who is spotted weekly leading award-winning Abri & Funk Radius — more than held his own on Stevie Wonder's Superstition and David Bowie's Fame.

Presented as a “multimedia concert”, this scattershot setlist was punctuated by video collages paying tribute to influential musicians who did not make the cut: The Meters, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Parliament-Funkadelic, The Ohio Players, Michael Jackson and many more. The effect was somewhere between that of a celebratory concert and an educational history lecture.

While perhaps lacking the energy they displayed in previous decades, Ellis and Wesley turned in some notable solo work, stretching out on Herbie Hancock's funk-jazz standard Chameleon. Presiding over the evening from a pair of high stools, Ellis even stood up for a spell of spirited blowing over his funk staple The Chicken, made famous by late, great jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius.

Perhaps the most interesting crossover was a brief stint behind the decks from NYC DJ stalwart Nickodemus, who in just eight minutes traced funk’s global offsprings from Brazil to Ethiopia, India to Nigeria and beyond, and touched on the glitz of disco and breakdance street culture.

The message: funk transcends both culture and class.

The plan now is to take the show on the road. Things are still at an early stage. Full band rehearsals began just a few days before the gig — this showed at times — and some of the multimedia may need polishing. But it was a joy to see such an important project in the UAE, and there is a sense of pride in knowing it was born here.

The mood was one of unity and celebration — nowhere was that more clear than when a pair of birthday cakes were brought out for Ellis and musical director/bassist Brian Hardgroove, who turned 56 on the night.

“If I’d known I was going to last this long, I would have taken care of myself,” quipped Ellis.

The performance marks the start of a frantic season-closing sprint of live music at NYUAD's Arts Centre, with Meredith Monk performing on April 24 and 25, Joey Alexander on April 27, Alfredo Rodríguez on April 28 and Amir ElSaffar on April 30 and May 3. Register for free tickets at