The Dirty Dozen Brass Band | 11.04.03 | Cat's Cradle | Carrboro, NC

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band is here to party. The rollicking Nawleans troubadours brought their traveling circus to Chapel Hill and left a crowd of sweaty danced-out music freaks in their wake. The kings of Louisiana brass band R&B have been bringing music to the masses since 1975, but they've enjoyed a major rejuvenation of late, not because their timeless music has changed or evolved so much as the rest of the world has finally caught on to what they're doing.

Addison Groove Project
But before the funky am-brass-adors took the stage, the jazz-fusion exploits of Addison Groove Project had a chance to sweep up the audience. The young 5-piece from Wellesley, MA has generated a big buzz over the past few years, and it was a great opportunity to finally check them out live. They didn't disappoint, blending tasty double-saxophone melodies over funky guitar lines. The keyboardist's deft left hand provided the bass, and the fatback drums kept the foundation from crumbling during the more daring excursions. They definitely won over this North Carolina crowd, which kept growing and growing until it was finally time for the main event.

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band is in reality very clean, only eight people, and not actually made of brass. They are however a band in every sense of the word: each piece of the unit blends together to create a seamless musical onslaught that never lets up until the encore echoes fade. For almost three decades they've brought the rhythmic swinging past together with a modern energy, spreading and enhancing the brass band tradition around the world. Many young fans first heard of them through their numerous and ongoing collaborations with Widespread Panic, a match up that has introduced their sound to a huge new audience while covering the madcap punch of a Panic show in a canopy of honey-dripped horns.

The lead singer and shining effervescent personality of the band is E.T., the trumpet player known in earthbound form as Efram Townes. Of the eight band members, all but two are horn players. The brass includes Gregory Davis on trumpet, Sammie Williams on trombone, Roger Lewis on baritone and soprano sax, Kevin Harris on tenor sax, and Julius McKee on sousaphone. Jamie McLean provides the super-funky guitar lucks, and Terence Higgins holds the whole thing down on drums. They also had a guest keyboardist sitting in for the evening.

Dirty Dozen Brass Band
Early in the show, E.T. referenced their recent Halloween appearances with Widespread Panic in New York City, asking the crowd, "Anybody just gettin' back from Madison Square Garden?" Receiving only scattered yelps, he continued, "That's OK, everybody can't be everywhere. That's why music comes to your town." They launched into a free-flowing dance party where the energy never let up, bouncing between originals and classic covers. They tore through both "Fire on the Bayou" and "Africa" by funky brethren The Meters on their way to Bob Marley's "Lively Up Yourself." E.T.'s trumpet fluttered above the brass reggae stomp, as the band seemed to reach out at will and grab different genres to pull into their sphere. Swing, jazz, R&B, reggae, rock, pop, all of it was distilled through their New Orleans traditionalist filter, reemerging through the fingers of these world-wise master players as the finest gumbo in town.

The classic gospel song "I'll Fly Away" was enhanced by a crowd sing-along, but the audience really got involved with the Dirty Dozen's cover of Bill Withers' funky staple "Use Me." As E.T.'s circular breathing made a believer out of any remaining trumpet skeptics, a number of young women joined the band on stage to dance and twirl through their physical manifestations of the funky grooves. Things kept on rolling as Jamie McLean got a chance to display his neo-metal guitar chops in a fierce solo during a cover of Parliament/Funkadelic's "Red Hot Mama."

Dirty Dozen Brass Band
It's interesting to note that there were no bass players on stage all night. Addison Groove Project covered the low end with keyboards, while the Dirty Dozen had a sousaphone. For those of you keeping score at home, a sousaphone is basically a tuba of a different shape. Legend has it that the instrument was invented by renowned marching band composer John Philip Sousa, but according to a 1922 interview, Sousa says he had some help. Dissatisfied with the tone of the tuba, he suggested to the J.W. Pepper Co. (now. J.W. Pepper & Son) that they point the bell up rather than out. The company manufactured the instrument and named it a "sousaphone" in tribute to their conceptual patron. The tone the instrument provides in the context of a Dirty Dozen show is a thick, round sound blasting forth from the back of the stage. In adept hands, the sousaphone produces a flurry of notes while always maintaining a delicious depth of tone.

Coming back out for the encore, the band issued a challenge: "I wanna see how loose you can really get. In New Orleans we get really loose, let it all hang out." They proved their point with a positively blistering rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Superstitious." The Dirty Dozen laid into it with everything they had. Their sound is such an upbeat, unrelentingly joyous occasion that the whole room seemed to buck and jump together with each bump in the music. Indeed, they stirred up the audience to the point where one encore simply wasn't enough. The crowd kept cheering until they returned for a swaggering version of the traditional "When the Saints Go Marching In." The dancing girls returned to the stage, this time with more of their friends, and the line between entertainer and entertained blurred even further.

The band finally bid us goodnight, and as they dragged themselves off to the dressing room, the crowd erupted into an a capella version of "Ain’t Nothin' But a Party," one of the Dirty Dozen's most beloved songs. Singing their own music back to the band at the end of the night, the crowd showed that the love goes both ways, and for at least one night, we all got to live in New Orleans.

Words by: Paul Kerr
Images by: Ken Micks
JamBase | North Carolina
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[Published on: 12/17/03]

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