After being somewhat perturbed at the Hot 8 Brass Band performance the other evening which had been marred by the comedian, I was thrilled at the opportunity to see them again at the SXSW Hackathon Championships, not having to share the stage with anyone else. There was a still a smaller crowd than there should have been for this concert, but at least those that were there began to get a little more lively and involved as the Hot 8 played. After all, it’s impossible to resist the grooves of New Orleans-style brass band music.
When walking back toward the parking garage where I had parked my car in downtown Charlotte, I suddenly heard the unmistakable sounds of a brass band playing somewhere nearby. The band turned out to be The Brass Connection, a well-known Charlotte street band that on this particular Friday night had set up at the corner of 5th and Tryon streets in front of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, drawing a decent crowd of people coming from the Charlotte Bobcats game, despite the chilly weather. Unlike New Orleans brass bands, the Brass Connection takes a DC-oriented go-go approach to brass band music, with a set drummer and a timbale player rather than the separate snare and bass drums so often seen in New Orleans, and their repertoire consists of unique takes on R & B hits like Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison.” After they played about four songs or so, they ended their performance, took down their instruments and walked away.
A cryptic message posted on saxophonist Kebbi Williams’ Facebook profile suggested that the Castleberry Hill neighborhood was going to be the location of “musical mayhem” at the hands of the Wolfpack on Saturday at midnight. And just what exactly is the Wolfpack? Judging from YouTube videos and what I could gather online, in one sense the Wolfpack is a musical flash mob consisting of a fairly large number of wind instruments. The Wolfpack seems to have taken over neighborhoods, MARTA stations and night clubs, and often the locations of their upcoming escapades are revealed to social media through an indirect message such as the one that brought me out to Castleberry Hill on this particular night. But the Wolfpack is also something else. As a large marching band of tubas, trombones, trumpets and saxophones (it is unclear to me whether marching percussionists ever take part), the Wolfpack also resembles an Atlanta take on the New Orleans brass band tradition, not that the music played by the Atlanta Wolfpack much resembles that of the New Orleans bands, but rather that the bands seem to fill the same community functions in both cities. At any rate, I got my car from the hotel and drove out to the Castleberry Hill neighborhood where a one-day art event called Flux Night had been going on all evening. Fortunately, I had no problem finding parking, and I gradually walked up to Elliott Street, where a crowd of several hundred young people were gathered in front of a bar called the Elliott Street Pub. I had to walk under some sort of art installation that functioned as an arch, and soon encountered a group of four or so drummers who were bashing away on as many drum sets. One electric guitarist seemed to be playing with them, and on the opposite side of the street was a man juggling flaming batons, and I gradually began to notice that a group of people were attacking an SUV with pickaxes and sledgehammers. Apparently, the SUV had been acquired from a junkyard for the purpose of being torn up, and was thus part of a performance art piece that was being done. If there was a theme to all of this, it seemed to be chaos. Perhaps these artists were into Dadaism, or maybe Futurism.
In the event, I suddenly heard the low bass of tubas from the other end of Elliott Street, and soon a large brass band was marching into this cauldron of confusion. Although it was somewhat hard to hear due to all the yelling and laughing and SUV-bashing, they seemed to be playing a kind of crunk, Atlanta hip-hop groove. Gradually the drummers on the sets nearby began to line up with what the Wolfpack was playing, as did the guitarists. Much of the crowd shifted its attention away from the battered SUV and toward the musicians that were playing just outside the pub’s door. When the musicians had played in this manner for awhile, the music began to break down into free jazz, centered around the drummers, guitarist and a trumpet player (was that Russell Gunn?) and a saxophonist. Soon that came to an end as well, and all the musicians were walking through the crowd, under the big art archway at the corner and were headed away from the area, all too soon.
Although the city of New Orleans put a stop to the tradition of brass bands playing in the first block of Bourbon Street near Canal, brass band music can still be heard in and around Jackson Square on some afternoons, played by a band known as the Jackson Square All-Stars. This band is geared to the out-of-town visitors, and therefore doesn’t play the hood-infused youthful style that used to prevail at Bourbon and Canal, but a lot of the members of this band are young musicians from the city’s best brass bands, including the TBC.
The final blocks of the Money Wasters second-line on Basin Street below Claiborne brought out the most enthusiastic dancers. There were already large crowds in front of Kermit Ruffin’s Treme Speakeasy, which was the ending point for the second-line, but like the end of all good things, the people were reluctant to go home.
A good example of how the Southern Komfort Brass Band fuses New Orleans’ tradition with that of Mississippi is this cover of R. L. Burnside’s “Coal Black Mattie” at their gig at Underground 119 in downtown Jackson on 4/19/13