He landed his ongoing role in a late-night TV house band through a chance meeting in St. Paul. His gigs this summer in front of sold-out crowds at Madison Square Garden and Red Rocks Amphitheater can be traced back to another lucky encounter in Minneapolis.
Now if Cory Wong could be lucky enough to have more people in St. Paul and Minneapolis actually know who he is.
“Everything that’s happened this year organically grew out of the things I’ve learned and done back home,” the funky R&B/jazz/rock guitarist said by phone two weeks ago from Rome.
Wong, 34, went straight from a West Coast tour in October to a three-week European tour. His brand of mostly instrumental, throwback R&B and funk music does well overseas. And his newly released second album,“Motivational Music for the Syncopated Soul,” is loaded with the stuff — equal parts Chic, Atlanta Rhythm Section and Prince.
Returning home for his first First Avenue headlining show Friday, the Fridley native had slogged his way through the Twin Cities music scene for more than a decade.
He performed under his own name while playing on numerous local albums and serving time on stage in several groups, including Sonny Knight & the Lakers and the fabled Dr. Mambo’s Combo, resident jam band at Bunker’s in Minneapolis. It was during one of his Combo stints that Wong got his first lucky break; too bad it involved a little bad luck for the band’s regular guitarist, Billy Franze.
“It’s the most Minnesota story ever: Billy suffered a bowling injury, so I got to fill in for him at Bunker’s,” Wong recalled with a bit of warped glee.
During one of those fill-in nights in 2016, the Prince-loving members of the oddball Michigan soul/funk jam band Vulfpeck — who famously funded a tour by issuing a royalties-maximizing album of silence via Spotify in 2014 — stopped in while on tour to hear the Combo, anchored by Prince’s NPG rhythm section of bassist Sonny Thompson and drummer Michael Bland.
The Vulfpeck guys were so impressed with Wong’s adeptness at winging it through classic funk and R&B tunes, he was invited to sit in with them at other gigs. He soon joined Vulfpeck full time, just in time for the group to develop an internet-driven fan base that led to the packed gigs at Red Rocks and MSG.
“Those are a couple of bucket list items crossed off right there,” said Wong, who also played Red Rocks with his own band in July, opening for Colorado’s String Cheese Incident.
Another odd thing about Vulfpeck, though: They play a limited number of gigs — just six this year. Wong didn’t sound confident there would be more next year.
“The idea is to treat each show like it’s a real event, and I think it works,” he explained. “It stays really fun for us this way, and it leaves us all plenty of time and creative energy to do other projects.”
Case in point: Wong was freed up to join the “Late Night With Stephen Colbert” band on relatively short notice for a week in May. He has served on the show several times since then and will be back the week of Dec. 9-14.
That “Late Night” gig came after he joined Colbert’s bandleader Jon Batiste on stage at the Fitzgerald Theater in March, when Batiste filled in for Chris Thile as host of the public radio show “Live From Here.” Both Batiste and Thile are among the all-star instrumentalists who’ve joined in at Vulfpeck shows, including Charlie Hunter and Dave Koz.
“Jon and I just instantly hit it off, not only personally but musically,” he said. “And I wouldn’t say that about too many other musicians. It really felt like an instant connection, like we knew exactly what and how to play together.”
No surprise that Batiste is a featured guest on Wong’s new album, as is Hunter and Nashville-based, Minnesota-raised soul-pop tunesmith Caleb Hawley. The latter will open Friday’s First Avenue show, and regular Vulfpeck guest singer Antwaun Stanley will join Wong’s band.
While “Motivational Music” is largely an instrumental record, it does boast one tongue-in-cheek track with Wong taking the mic. It’s titled “Today I’m Gonna Get Myself a Real Job” and fantasizes about quitting the music biz and not having to worry about “ticket sales or critics or Spotify statistics.”
“I wanted to get someone else to sing it, but everyone I sent it to said, ‘This is so you; you’ve gotta do it,’ ” Wong said.
The McNally Smith College of Music grad would have good reason to keep more conventional work hours: He and his wife, Pam, have three kids at home in Shoreview, ranging in age from 2 months to 9 years.
“There’ve been some growing pains,” Wong admitted, “but luckily my wife and I have been together since teenagers. She’s been with me for this whole ride, and we’ve made all the decisions along the way together.”
Fortunately, Wong said, he hasn’t had to make any tough decisions when it comes to the kind of music that led to this year’s array of success.
“All these wild things that are happening stem from the kind of playing I’ve always enjoyed most, which is being able to just plug in with good musicians, wing it as needed and not overthink it,” he said.
“What I did at Madison Square Garden is essentially the same kinds of things I do when I’m back home playing First Ave or Icehouse or wherever.”
A lot has changed, in other words, but Wong hasn’t.