Review and Photos: Robert Walter’s 20th Congress and Kung Fu’s Colorado Run – Fort Collins and Denver

Kung Fu and Robert Walter’s 20th Congress @ The Aggie & Cervantes – January 24 and 25

Photos and Words: Mike Sherry

Robert Walter’s 20th Congress resumed session this past weekend on Colorado’s front range, joined by Kung Fu (having skied down from dates in Aspen, Breckenridge and Boulder), in a double-showcase of talents both sublime and ridiculous. On Thursday night The Aggie in Fort Collins got an extra treat on the bill as bassist Garrett Sayers of The Motet led his trio through a spunky, jazzy opening set. Friday’s show featured Jet Edison kicking off an evening that would stretch to nearly 3AM.

[All Photos by Mike Sherry]

Never a band in need of a warm-up number, Kung Fu took the stage and the funk by the horns with the greasy Do The Right Thing. Keeping a steady increase on the heat, the sultry vibe of Snaggle boiled to a kettle of frenetic notes blasted from all directions in a jumping Scapegoat Blues. As the band grooved through (let’s just get “Zappa-esque” out of the way) Letters From Bobby Portugal, guitarist Tim Palmieri showed why his style is so difficult to pin down yet so easy to love: tasteful, sustained phrasings washing into bright flourishes and not simply climaxing at the highest fret but then a peaceful return to terra firma.

But nobody was grounded for long. Robert Walter presented his newly sworn-in 20th Congress: incumbent Cochemea Gastelum on sax, Simon Lott on drums and Greyboy Allstars vet Chris Stillwell holding down the bottom end. The quartet eased into the jazzy Sweetie Pie with nonchalance and poise, how else to follow scorching heat but with the epitome of cool? But things only picked up as Robert introduced Dog Party (“…what your dogs do when you’re not at home.”) and the brand-new Hunk, a choice cut of Nawlins funk.

While taper recordings will testify to Thursday’s goodness, the next night in Denver was simply another animal, one where you only have a split second to wonder if its had its shots before the bite. A venomous Ventriloquist set a decidedly aggressive tone from Kung Fu, whipping the packed Cervantes crowd into a head-banging mass before sadistically slashing the tempo to sub-half-time. Even with a full hour and a half set this time, the band let the floodgates open wide, unleashing a juggernaut Gung Ho early, and psyche-funkic Steppin’ In It hot on its heels. S’all Good seemingly provided a bit of breathing space, with a smoke-screen groove for comic, almost doppler-delay attacks by Rob Somerville on sax, “echoed” by Palmieri.

Todd Stoops’ signature keyboard flurries dazzled the crowd, perhaps moreso on Rattlesnake than any other, with its complex twists and relentless dueling-melodies. And while Stoops’ left hand may often be delivering some swampy, flatulent bass tones, it’s never without the precise underpinning of Chris DeAngelis on Fender 5-string. It’s always clear this is a strong vocal band, especially when Rob grabs the mic, but the Cervantes audience was treated to an added bonus of Denverite Emily Clark’s voice backing up the old favorite God Make Me Funky. Emily then took a vivacious lead vocal on Stevie Wonder’s I Wish, as Joey Porter of The Motet was welcomed for a keyboard tradeoff with Stoops.

Once more, while the bar seemed phenomenally high as the 20th Congress went onstage, with just a few bars of Corry’s Snail And Slug Death the room was hopping to a Crescent City pulse. While many of Robert Walter’s new songs – slated to be released on a new album this spring – were on the setlist again, a packed dance floor pushed exponentially higher energy into and out of the band. Simon Lott punished his minimalist kit, meshing into Stillwell’s thumping bass. And while Robert is one of my favorite organists that can keep the bottom end happening in say, a trio with Will Bernard and Stanton Moore, when Chris is laying down slick bass lines it gives Robert free reign to get wild and junky. He even took a dive into a Parliament tease that the band locked into, flashing a manic grin to his group as the approximation-from-memory lick became spot on. That’s always the visual takeaway from a Robert Walter show – the expressions and reactions among the band when improv gets pushed from the roots of “play.” It’s expression as honest and mirthful as the encore title Goodnight Sweet Heart implies.

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