words by Brittany Nader
photos by Margaret JaNicki
“Soul ain’t nothing but a feeling,” says Brent Wesley, a.k.a. Wesley Bright, a.k.a. the front man of the Akron-based Northern Soul powerhouse that is Wesley Bright and the Hi-Lites.
The dynamic, vociferous ringleader says he never practices, and yet, a few moments spent with the tight and adept septet makes such a statement pretty unbelievable. From the crisp, dapper suits to the skilled orchestration, the ensemble has proven they’re studied performers through and through. But still, they leave no doubt that soul music is about the heart and that it stirs feet as much as it stirs emotions, which is how they’ve wowed so many crowds. They light fires under people. It might even be unsafe—certainly unwise—to sit through a Wesley Bright and the Hi-Lites performance, as the audience rises to dance, sparked out of their seats by a hot, sonic roar and the kind of showmanship you might have feared had been lost if you weren’t witnessing it firsthand.
Though the group hasn’t finished recording its full-length album, they have gained widespread attention from their awe-inspiring live performances and YouTube music videos. The band’s following continues to grow, building up the soul dance revolution, a mission The Hi-Lites evangelize with each fiery, authentic note.
“I’m very picky, particular, about doing it the way is used to be done,” Wesley says. “I try to take the blueprints of the old soul bands and reinvent it using [the qualities] that make the seven of us unique.”
Wesley is critical of his work in the group because he says he wants to deliver the very best experience for both his band mates and the crowd time and time again. However, there’s more room for humor now as they work through each show because the discipline and dynamic of the group allows each musician to perform at the top of his game, bringing a livelier and more jovial feeling to the stage. Wesley says the laid-back rhythm section and continuous groove has helped the band stay authentic to the sound they aspire to while attracting the attention and adoration of those they perform for.
Church and family, Wesley says, have kept the rhythmic heartbeat of the Northern soul outfit strong. As the front man, Wesley’s ability to command the stage has its roots in gospel music coupled with his love and respect for performers like Arthur Conley, Joe Tex and James Brown, whose ability to work a crowd was almost magical.
Drummer Nick Frisch, bassist Bob Basone, guitarist Jimmy Parsons and horn players Max Brady, Nathan Davis and Matt Garrett on trombone, saxophone and trumpet, respectively, mix their take on the tight, dance-y Motown sound with vocals that could’ve been borrowed from the grittier Stax (maybe even the overlooked James Carr), channeled through Wesley’s family roots in Georgia. The result is a controlled chaos—passionate but methodic; meticulousness with an inclination toward breezy, lively performances. This is how they’ve shaken-up venues around Ohio and across the country. They even played in Canada, opening for R&B legend Otis Clay. Though far from their Rubber City home, the group had no trouble demonstrating its power to move an audience.
“That’s when I realized we had something special,” Wesley says. “People treated us like we were this phenomenon and asked us for our autographs. We felt like The Beatles or something.”
Wesley Bright and The Hi-Lites have become something of a staple in Cleveland, frequently gracing The Beachland Ballroom. Wesley says they try to hold back on some gig offers as to not overstay their welcome in the area. But with such fun, interactive, call-and-response performances, it’s difficult to imagine that happening any time soon. As the uninitiated will witness at Porch Rokr, when the band headlines the Highland Square event, Wesley Bright and the Hi-Lites bring people together in a way few others can—and makes them dance.
Wesley Bright and the Hi-Lites will perform next at the Highland Square Porch Rokr Festival. Check out the Northern soul dance phenomenon headlining the event at 7 pm on Saturday, Aug. 29.