Nothing shouts “It’s the End of the Year!” more than holiday music and and best-of lists. (Small dogs dressed as reindeer come in a close third.) As someone who loves both music and lists any time of the year (ditto dogs of any size), I thought it fitting to review some of my favorite folks who comprise some of New Orleans’ most celebrated genres – brass. In no particular order, here are my top five New Orleans brass bands you can catch in and around New Orleans no matter what time of year you’re in town.
1. Rebirth Brass Band – This is the brass band that needs no introduction, which has seen so many individual musicians that likewise need no introduction (Kermit Ruffins, Glen David Andrews, anyone?). Rebirth has led the changing brass band music scene in New Orleans for the last 30 years, after starting – in the great modern tradition of New Orleans musicians – in their high school marching band. In this case, Joseph S. Clark Senior High in Treme. Despite gaining national and international fame, you’ll still find them and their masses of sweating, dancing fans spilling out into Oak Street every week at their weekly Tuesday night gig at Maple Leaf Bar – because who cares if it’s a Tuesday night if Rebirth is playing? Forget school nights and “Do Whatcha Wanna.”
2. Hot 8 Brass Band – Around the world this year, millions of people came to know Katniss Everdeen, heroine of the Hunger Games, as “The Girl on Fire.” In New Orleans, we’ve known Hot 8 as a brass band on fire for almost 20 years. Hot 8 smokes. It flames. It’s hot and heavy and it struts and steps and says it like it is, no holds barred. Constantly changing, constantly pushing the envelope of what brass band music is and can be, you can find the musicians of Hot 8 incorporating Latin beats at one moment, followed by hip-hop, R&B, hot jazz and cool blues the next.
3. Soul Rebels Brass Band – I really have no idea how the Soul Rebels manage to make every single one of their shows so bust-up-full of energy, charisma, infectious musicality and soul-soaring rhythm, because I get tired just looking at their concert schedule. From New Orleans to New Zealand, Bonaroo to Great Britain, the Soul Rebels play over 200 concerts a year with pretty much every genre of famous person you can imagine: Green Day, Metallica, Cee Lo Green, Galactic (one of the hands-down best concerts I saw last year, by the by – Soul Rebels and Galactic), Trombone Shorty, Drive By Truckers, Arcade Fire, Juvenile – catch my drift? New Orleans loves Soul Rebels. The world loves Soul Rebels. You will love Soul Rebels. ‘Nuff said.
4. Dirty Dozen Brass Band – Outside of New Orleans, sometimes people don’t get the opportunities we do to remember essential cultural and historical roots of brass bands, including Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, and the pooling of neighborhood talent and sorrow to send off beloved community members with proper funeral arrangements, often referred to as “jazz funerals.” Dirty Dozen Brass Band not only remembers those roots, but formed from them, providing local New Orleans neighborhoods both funeral dirges and jubilant second lines that let family and friends celebrate lives past. I love Dirty Dozen because even as they’ve updated the sounds of NOLA brass, adding the croons of the blues, the beat of be-bop and the incorporation of chart topping covers, their music never loses the sounds of communal celebration as well as commemoration – that is the essence of living in and being New Orleans.
5. To Be Continued Brass Band – If Dirty Dozen represents the granddaddy of established New Orleans brass bands, To Be Continued Brass Band is the scrappy teenager, formed itself by promising youth. TBC formed by young men in the 7th and 9th Wards of New Orleans. Literally using taped-together instruments from their high school, Carver Senior High, TBC has become one of the most sought-after names on the NOLA music scene, best known for their nightly performances on the corner of Bourbon and Canal where many visitors encounter brass band music for the first time via the gateway to the French Quarter. Still only in their 20s, their soaring beats and toe-tapping rhythm gets locals and visitors alike dancing in the street – one of the best New Orleans’ traditions of all.