Brass Knuckles

If there’s anything post-Katrina that New Orleanians have come to value, it’s stability, familiarity, and tradition. For a city nearly lost to forces of nature and foolish men, that trinity gives hope and direction, providing both a sense of history and a legacy worth preserving. Crescent City icons the Dirty Dozen Brass Band have kept these concepts deep within their grooves for more than three decades, but the musical tradition is much older.

“This whole brass-band thing came about `when` military groups came back with these instruments and gave ’em to the slaves, who didn’t have formal training,” bari-sax player Roger Lewis says. “They just started playing them. … The music took on that sound of that era. Any musician can play traditional music, but the feeling is totally different. There’s just something about New Orleans and the way the music feels. … The music is imbedded in the people, in the culture, because of the trials and tribulations they went through. That feeling carried on, imbedded in the culture and the music.”

Anchored by Kirk Joseph’s incendiary sousaphone, the group revitalizes the somewhat hoary New Orleans custom of brass bands by blending classic Second Line musicianship with contemporary R&B, funk, rock, and the occasional freestyle rap. Dixieland trumpet flourishes soar above tuba lines nimble enough to keep pace with Jaco; whirling organs recall church spirituals while smooth vocals find common ground with tight horn hits that would make Stax singles weak in the knees. This mishmash of culture and influence might sound contrived coming from any other city, but in New Orleans, where virtually all of those traditions have been adapted and synthesized from the myriad local cultures, such cross-pollination is more a defining concept than an awkward attempt at fusion.

“It’s like a musical gumbo,” Lewis says. “You got some avant garde, you got your rhythm and blues, you got some rock ’n’ roll, some gospel, bebop. You got every kind of music all in this big pot, and you add some seasoning, add some soul, and basically you come out with a Dirty Dozen.”

Along with its wildly eclectic treatment of original material, Dirty Dozen works in copious covers, ranging from the super-traditional (“John the Revelator,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”) to the recontextualizing of a modern classic: In 2006, Dirty Dozen reworked Marvin Gaye’s seminal What’s Going On as a post-Katrina statement with guest spots from artists such as Chuck D, G. Love, and Bettye LaVette.

Their willingness to cut a wide stylistic swath allows Dirty Dozen to conjure up an equally broad range of emotions. 2004’s Funeral for a Friend, an homage to departed founding member Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, proves the players can superbly capture that evocative voicing that only a brass band can achieve — mourning a tragedy while rejoicing in remembrance. Lewis thinks the emotional content contributes both to Dirty Dozen’s success, and limits its potential audience, noting that, for some, “it’s a little too real. It’s not plastic, it’s the real deal. It’s people music.”

But Dirty Dozen Brass Band is also a party-starting tour-de-force. When the drums kick, the sousaphone lays down a backbeat, and the triumphant horns blare, it’s as if the sound summons a festival spirit from the very air, drawing people from their homes and into the streets. Though the sight of a brass band marching through the French Quarter, revelers in tow, might look like a tourism ploy, it sounds like a real and thriving force when Dirty Dozen Brass Band find a groove.

“All we can do is take the music from the city and bring it to the rest of the world,” Lewis says,“’cause we represent New Orleans.” •


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