Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Queer As Funk captivates with tight horns and powerful vocals

Vancouver’s unique band of queer musicians pays loving tribute to soul-Motown roots

I’d been forewarned the sold-out event at the Fortune Sound Club would start precisely at 8:15pm. And sure enough, as my date and I mounted the stairs to the East Pender Street venue five minutes later on March 28, Queer As Funk was already stirring up the audience with the classic 1970s funk instrumental “Pass the Peas.”

As we skirted the coat-check line and stepped into the heart of the throng, we were transported. Gone was the cold and rainy Vancouver night; we were immersed in a timeless wave of funk by 10 of Vancouver’s finest (and best dressed) queer musicians.

From their powerhouse vocals, tight horn section and brash rhythms — not to mention their standing-room-only crowd — it’s easy to imagine that Queer As Funk has been building steam for a generation or two. In band years, however, they’re babies.

“It started in the spring of 2013,” says trumpet player and band manager Alison Gorman. “And it started, like most good ideas, over beer.”

A conversation between Gorman, trombonist Ellen Marple, and drummer Sir Backs about the music they love to hear and — more to the point — love to play, lit a soul-infused spark.

“We started looking at who we know and what they play.”

(Top, Connie Buna. Above, Queer As Funk fills the stage at the Fortune Sound Club. Below, Alison Gorman. Bottom, Buna and  Jocelyn Macdougall. Photos by Derek Stevens/Fubarfoto)

Gorman invited the remarkably talented and heroically cute keyboardist Luis “Babyface” Melgar to join the group.

When Backs heard Connie Buna serenade her new wife with “One and Only” at their wedding, she knew they’d found their lead singer.

They caught percussionist Sally Zori fresh from Toronto and playing with another band at a local club. “They grabbed me quick,” Zori says, a grateful yet mischievous glint in their eye.

“And we convinced Ivan Coyote to pick up their saxophone for the first time in 20 years,” Gorman boasts. Having only just met Gorman, I can already sense how difficult it would be to say no to her.

More recent additions to the band include the phenomenal guitarist Marc Van Rosi, the grounding force of bassist Pebbles Willekes, and the mighty Jocelyn Macdougall on backup vocals.

Other members have come and gone as the band’s rapid success has brought more opportunities and demanded greater commitment.

“We were starting to do a lot more overnight gigs and travelling,” Buna explains. “I don’t think anybody anticipated the kind of growth that we’ve seen.”

This draws a sly confession from Gorman. It seems that while she was initially inviting people to partake in a casual jam session on the occasional Saturday night, she was secretly plotting a bigger and funkier future for them.

“I was thinking, ‘We’re gonna have weddings, and these gigs and those gigs, and Prides,” she admits. “Little did they know that I would take all of their time in the future — including every weekend in the summer.”

Rightfully billed as “unique in the history of Vancouver’s LGBT community,” the band’s upcoming schedule includes events on the Sunshine Coast, Gabriola and Salt Spring islands, and Harrison Hot Springs, all leading up to a Pride kick-off on July 31 at The Imperial with special guests Beardoncé, the hirsute diva, and Lola Frost, the icy-hot queen of burlesque.

Back at the Fortune Sound Club, Buna is leading the band through a high-energy set list that reads like a who’s who of funk, soul and Motown legends — Otis Redding, Sam Cook, The Temptations, Isaac Hayes, Tower of Power, The Jackson 5, Tina Turner, and Stevie Wonder.

“That’s music that I listened to as a baby,” she says. “My father’s a musician, and that’s the music he’s always played.”

(Buna’s father, by the way, is hugging the front corner of the stage on the night of this show, beaming as brightly as any of the stage lights.)

“And of course that era of music has influenced so many other musicians — Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars, Mayer Hawthorne — we play them as well and we absolutely love it,” Buna adds.

Near the end of the second set, Macdougall takes lead vocals on Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools,” and the temperature in the room rises noticeably. The woman is formidable, in the best of all possible ways.

Buna then shares lead vocals with Macdougall and Van Rosi in a killer “Brickhouse–Valerie–Uptown Funk” closing medley that leaves the crowd pounding the floor for more.

The band obliges with a transcendent, all-inclusive, all-aboard “Proud Mary” of an encore.

As the concert draws to a close, I feel simultaneously exhausted and enlivened. They’re not just serious about having a good time; they’re serious about the history of this music, and hold its roots in high esteem.

“These people were creating music in a time that was pretty intense, and we honour and respect that,” Buna says. “We feel incredibly privileged and we don’t take that very lightly. How lucky we are to play this music.”

And how lucky we are to share it with them.

For a taste of their talent click here to listen to Queer As Funk perform “Soul Man”  live at the Fortune Sound Club on March 28.

To buy tickets to the band’s Vancouver Pride show on Friday, July 31 at 8pm at the Imperial, 319 Main St, click here.