Neal Francis at Wise Hall

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Neal Francis is a time traveler. When he and his band take to the stage you feel transported to a bygone era, and that transportation is one hell of a ride. On July 6th, Neal Francis brought Vancouver’s Wise Hall on this journey, and everyone in attendance was along for the ride. Starting with an incredible opening jam session, the stage was set for what the evening would entail, good vibes and, of course, dancing. “I am so smitten with this city,” Francis told the crowd. This being his third time in our neck of the woods, he has built a strong connection to it, and by the crowd’s reaction, the feeling is reciprocated.

The joy, and sheer danceability is a direct result of the incredible talent around whom Neal Francis has situated himself. Mike Starr on bass dances around the fretboard, keeping everything tight and rhythmic. It goes without saying that funk without these moving bass lines, is not worth anyone’s time. Add to that Collin O’Brien’s impeccable drumming, you have a rhythm section that simply forces you to move. He has the aggressiveness of a much heavier drummer, but the free flowing, surprising, and danceable rhythms required to allow Neal’s music to move. On top of all this is Kellen Boersma’s guitar playing. It is tight, funky, and when the shredding is needed, the shredding delights. He allows his guitar work to do everything that is needed by the moment of the song. Is simple atmosphere needed? Check! Is a ripping improvised solo needed? Also check! Listening to this crew play is like staring at an optical illusion, when you home in on one aspect of the sound, a world of delight is unleashed, an image unto itself is experienced. When you step back to listen to the whole however an even richer, fuller image is produced.

All of this would be a moot point, however, if Francis got lost in the endless talent of his backing band. Luckily, this is not the case. Though his understated stage banter may lead you to believe that he only has a chill setting, his performance is far from chill. The passion with which he imbues every song is palpable. His beaming smile, though obscured by his signature locks, is clear throughout the entire performance. He backs this charisma with his great soulful vocals and songwriting. All of this was what had the Wise Hall moving throughout the performance. His is an infectious energy and all in attendance were impacted. Listening to the crowd, I could hear a cry to “Turn up the keys!” If you’ve never seen Neal Francis before, you know this cry is one for the main event. His work on all manner of keys is extraordinary. Not only does Neal play with an astonishing virtuosity, improvising solos that flex his dexterity, but he also plays with the sound, manipulating his arsenal of keys to express the needed mood and emotion of each moment. Thursday evening was no exception, and his keys work brought all of his songwriting to life.

Throughout the night, each song, and the extended improvisations in between, brought the house to a state of joy and most importantly, to dance. In a city that can be known for its “no fun” vibes, to see an out of towner enliven a captive audience is a treat. Clearly, a part of Neal Francis’ heart will always be stuck in Vancouver, and knowing his fondness for our city means there will be many more explosive, funk filled nights to come from our favourite Chicagoan ensemble.

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