Western New Yorkers of a certain age may recall the chant “Junction West, the baddest group from east to west,” a rallying cry to get up and move – at proms and school dances where the R&B/disco ensemble played in the ’70s and early ’80s.
On Friday night, the current incarnation of the band played The Tralf, turning 200 square feet of club space into one sweaty dance floor of freestyle bumping and hustling.
Back in the day, tribute band co-founders Joey James and the late Harry Stewart shared leader duties, performing as equal partners with shining personalities and disco harmonies (and jumpsuits). James now leads the band, and shares the front spotlight with Maria Angelova, an impressive presence in towering stiletto heels and who also offers soaring vocals.
The three-hour show began with the band members hitting the state with The Hitmen Horns. Usually a brassy quartet, Hitmen Horns (trumpeter Paul Wos, saxmen Al Monti and Harry Fackelman, and trombonist Bob Meier) has recently added a second trumpeter, Jim Bohm. These two musical outfits have partnered for about a dozen years and each musician is a virtuosic player. Every disco hit on the playlist was infectiously symphonic with driving bass lines and the punch of the horns.
Harry Stewart’s daughter, Elle Stewart, and his nephew Ronnie Stewart joined the musicians for what was announced as “a special feature.” The duo tenderly sang “The Prayer,” a song famously performed by Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli. Elle, with a broken ankle, made her way on crutches to a stool onstage. It was a somber and graceful opener.
Then James and Angelova bound onto the stage.
“I’ll get the frog out of my throat now, let’s get this party started,” James said.
Between synchronized dance spins, James introduced his longtime band mates the first of three times: Teddy Reinhardt on drums, Kevin Dellapenta on keyboards and backing vocals, guitarist/vocalist Frank Grizanti, and bassist Jack Kulp.
As if he needed any introduction for the adoring crowd largely made up of long-time fans and family members, James stated “I’m Joey, I’ve been around a while. We’re going to rock your world, we’re here to dance.”
Earth Wind & Fire’s 1976 “Sing a Song,” bursting with positive lyrics and a funky loping beat, got everyone at The Tralf with a dancing agenda to get up and groove. It was a perfect opener for a set that hit all the revered disco smashes.
James went cordless, mingling with the dancers during The Trammps’ “Disco Inferno,” hopping back on stage to pound his congas for the remainder of the tune before it melted into Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.” James encouraged dancers to “work that turkey off” from Thanksgiving dinner the night before.
The dance floor expanded, with dancers spilling over into nearby tables and groups of friends stopping to take snapshots of each other, beaming and paused in disco poses.
At the end of “Dance to the Music,” a Sly and the Family Stone rager and perfect Hitmen Horns showcase, James proudly shouted “My band! My boys! My girl!” before the set was slowed down with Angelova highlighted on the Whitney Houston hit, “Saving All My Love for You.”
Absolute stellar moments were the ensemble’s renditions of Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music,” “Lady Marmalade” (made all the richer with the addition of cowbell), and “Vehicle” by Ides of March. Played during the second set the latter was introduced as a favored song of Stewart’s, and was dedicated to his memory.
The second set took a few songs to get to rollicking level, but when it did the band maintained a high thumping disco level of fun and funk. Again the horns stood out on Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish.” Chic’s “Good Times” got added textural richness with Dellapenta’s keyboard work.
Another of the “next generation of Junction Westerners,” Ariana Incao, daughter of longtime Junction West sound engineer Peter Incao, joined the band onstage for Tower of Power’s 1973 “What Is Hip.” A woman near the stage hollered “We need more cowbell!” as the band began the song’s funk flow.
Incao again played on “Vehicle,” and the show’s closer, “Long Train Running,” by The Doobie Brothers. “Nobody parties like Buffalo,” said James and no one in the club could disagree.