Words by: Eric Podolsky
Big Sam's Funky Nation :: 03.07.09 :: Boom Boom Room :: San Francisco, CA
Anyone intimately familiar with the New Orleans funk scene can agree with the fact that the city's best and funkiest bands usually follow a universal rule: keep it simple. The best New Orleans music has no high-handed concepts, and isn't put on a pedestal and presented as art. No, the best New Orleans music comes from the gut, swinging from the hip. Big Sam's Funky Nation knows this as well as anyone, and pulls no punches when it comes to bringing a straight raw party, as they clearly showed on a rowdy Saturday night at the Boom Boom Room.
From the first notes of the evening, it was clear that all the band asked of the audience was for us to shake our thangs. This was unapologetic party music, designed to help us leave any worries at the door and focus on the more pressing matter of getting down. With Big Sam Williams at the helm, fueling the fire with vocals and huge blasts of trombone, the Funky Nation hit us with their blend of boisterous funk rock. Comprised of Casey Robinson (guitar), Eric Vogel (bass), Adam Matasar (keys) and the monstrous MILK (drums), the band pounded its way through a first set heavy in call-and-response numbers. As Sam's trombone was the only horn in the group on this night, the focus was all on the band, which did most of the heavy lifting behind Sam, who assumed the role of a George Clinton-esque MC between his solos, riling the crowd with take-you-higher P-Funk/Sly Stone chants and band intros. With this format, the first set saw more shred-tastic heavy rock numbers than horn-driven funk.
To some, such a focus on rock may have been a bit surprising, as Big Sam grew up in New Orleans cutting his teeth as a member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and playing in second lines. But, as Sam mentioned to me before the show, the cross-breeding of New Orleans music has been encouraged and welcomed for years now, with the Dirty Dozen blazing the trail of innovation.
"A while back, the Dozen flipped the strip. They were like, 'Look, we want to add a full drum set,' which changed everything. Then, they were like, 'Now we're gonna add a tuba who sounds like he's a bass player. Now we're gonna add an organ.' It's not a real brass band anymore but they're still doin' it. Then, they added a guitar and it started goin' into that funk and rock element. So, they're definitely the innovators of a bunch of brass bands with that."
| Big Sam by Dino Perrucci|
"I played with the Soul Rebels before I played with the Dozen, and now the Soul Rebels have a guitar player. It's like that Dave Chappelle skit. You want to get the white audience you gotta have a guitar. You want to get the black people you gotta have drums. Most of the brass bands are tryin' to use the guitar sound now. Right now they have guys on the second line parades playing banjo with the brass bands! It's pretty hip right now. It's about time for some crossbreeding. I don't think it's gonna damage or hurt the music at all."
One thing was certain: this was not traditional New Orleans brass music. The second set started after 1:00 a.m., which thinned the crowd a bit but allowed for more dancing space and inspired a looser, less forced set where the band really got down to business. With Sam less worried about getting us to put our hands in the air, the music found its pocket and the room started to really move. The band busted "Hard To Handle," pounding it out with the elephantine force of a brass band. Sam kept the energy high, leading the band through random party numbers like Bell Biv DeVoe's "Poison" and DJ Kool's "Let Me Clear My Throat." One of the highlights was a mammoth drum solo by MILK, who rocked and pounded the skins like Bonham before busting into a sweaty funk groove.
By now, things were really moving and the band kept it going with their own take on "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." Come 2 a.m., the funk was getting deeper and that New Orleans swagger started to really work its way into the grooves. Then came the Meters' "Cabbage Alley," which ignited a full-blown gospel rave-up. Sam's guttural trombone blasts on top of Matasar's huge, warm organ flourishes combined to bring us up and up, taking us straight to church. With our feet a-stompin' and hands a-clappin', the band brought us back home with climactic Hammond-driven versions of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "I'll Fly Away," leaving us sweaty and thoroughly raved-up.
There is nothing complicated about Big Sam's Funky Nation. Their music is in-your-face and unapologetic, like a good, raunchy trombone solo should be. Like much New Orleans music, it's a party for party's sake ("ain't nothin' but a party, y'all") and doesn't strive to be anything else. It's simple soul food to get us through the week, and this show was exactly that.
Funky Nation tour dates available here.
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