Cover Story: Rock With It

Pulling back the veil with New Orleans’ Rebirth Brass Band

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The Rebirth Brass Band play Mill Valley for an epic residency at Sweetwater.

 

Sunday mornings around my sun-dappled rental cottage are always given over to soul music and the music of New Orleans—with a heavy emphasis on the thumping, bouncing, grooving music of the mighty Rebirth Brass Band.

The experience is church-like and all about the gratitude and the joy, and the music reminds me that I had some of the greatest fun I’ve ever had living in New Orleans, even as I struggled at times to find some purchase in a place that can be quite unforgiving in some ways.

I was truly blessed when I lived in NOLA to have made a friend who introduced me to the second-line culture and hooked me up with numerous living and job connections, for which I am eternally grateful.

On Sunday mornings in my house, a typical spin through YouTube will be heavy on New Orleans brass bands—the Rebirth, the Hot 8, the Soul Rebels, the TBC Brass Band—but I usually start with the mellower stuff. Louis Armstrong is always first out the gate, and especially his “St. James Infirmary Blues.”

Some mornings I’ll just let the YouTube play four or five versions of the song, a staple in New Orleans jazz clubs, which has been covered by everyone from the White Stripes to Hugh Laurie. I prefer Louis’ version.

As the Sunday morning winds on, and the caffeine takes hold, that’s when I’ll segue to the up-tempo brass-band music, which among other of its features, is perhaps the greatest music ever recorded to accompany a proper housecleaning. Come to my house on a Sunday morning, and that’s where you’ll find me: dancing along to the Rebirth Brass Band, washing the damn dishes, and getting the damn recycling out of the house. And, yes, there will be lots of sage burning, and perhaps even a pleasant conversation with Jesus.

Praise the Lord and pass the tambourine! The Rebirth Brass Band, NOLA veterans since their inception in 1983, come to Mill Valley this week for an epic six-show stand at the Sweetwater, starting on Thursday night and going through Sunday afternoon. By Tuesday, the band will be back in New Orleans for their long-standing and world-famous regular show at the Maple Leaf bar.

The Maple Leaf gig qualifies as world-famous not just because of the band’s 2012 Grammy, which they won for Best Regional Roots Music Album (it was the first year there was a Grammy category for regional music). The gig is also famous for President Obama having once said that when he left office he was glad he’d have the time to check out the Rebirth at the Maple Leaf. That’s what I’d call high praise.

Phil Frazier, a founding member and the group’s tuba player, says in a phone interview from New Orleans that he’s ready to bring the joy to the North Bay as the band gears up for the California journey from a sticky, late-summer NOLA.

The feeling is mutual for those who hunger for the NOLA cultural bounty in the Bay Area—and there are lots of us out here. I like to joke with people that West Marin and New Orleans are similar in that there’s no place like either anywhere else in America.

“Man, we just love it out there,” says Frazier, who this year earned a major New Orleans accolade when he was elected Governor of the 2018 Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. “The audience is great, the people—we have a big fan base out there.”

Indeed they do.

On Sunday afternoon I stopped in at a party that Vickisa Feinberg was hosting at her West Marin home. Feinberg does promotions at the Gallery Route One in Point Reyes Station, and she goes to New Orleans every year for the French Quarter Festival, a springtime shindig along the Mississippi that’s stacked with top-notch bands, tons of food vendors and all sorts of arts and crafts.

Feinberg has created some amazing art books from her trips, and from checking them out it’s obvious that she’s gotten the full cultural baptism beyond the low-hanging tourist draws along Bourbon Street. Some of her art graces our pages this week, including a rendering of trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, who was a founding member of the Rebirth and Mardis Gras Indian Monk Boudreaux.

The Nevilles are represented in Feinberg’s lovely art books, but so are other local luminaries who are otherwise pretty much unknown outside of their superstar NOLA status. There’s Dancing Man, a second-line legend who teaches a course in how to properly bomp to the second-line brass bands.

Feinberg has dug deep into the culture, and her art reflects it. I checked out her art in her studio barn and then got to talking with KWMR DJ Grey Shepard about music and musicians, various encounters we’ve had with New Orleans players or other rockers in our travels. One thing a person new to New Orleans comes to quickly understand is that the music culture is a very transactional experience—this is a town filled with working musicians, with an emphasis on work.

Gray and I talk about how many working musicians, whether they’re playing Django Reinhardt tunes in a coffeehouse or standing under an awning in San Rafael with a ukulele, are never going to get rich or famous. They’ll be lucky if they can pay the bills.

That sort of courage—to put your life on the line with your art, with all the risks entailed—is one of the purer forms of true courage, and it goes on all the time in New Orleans. As I rolled with the second-line flow in NOLA over several years, I learned that one can achieve a sense of total artistic emancipation—but that no one’s ever fully emancipated, thanks to capitalism. Freaking capitalism.  

The Rebirth Brass Band represent and reifiy that part of New Orleans that the nation at large holds near and dear to its heart when it reflects on the Big Easy: it’s party-time music that will get you on the dance floor pronto. But one really needs to spend time in the city to understand fully that there’s a kind of dialectical dance between the celebratory fronting and the backbeat of relentless, grinding poverty and racism that is just as much a part of the culture as the music.

In my experience, almost nothing comes easy in the Big Easy. It’s a tough and somewhat unforgiving town filled with exhibitionists and antic souls eager to write their own NOLA story—with a through line of personal weirdness, fully vindicated. It’s a town famous for the generous notion embodied in “lagniappe” or “a little something extra.” One quickly learns that there’s no lagniappe unless you first slap down some dollars. In New Orleans, everyone has a hustle.  

And then there’s the overhang of history and its rugged holdouts raging over the destruction of their beloved “heritage and traditions.” Witness last year’s massive public meltdown in New Orleans when old-guard civil rights leaders in town, and former Mayor Mitch Landrieu, succeeded in removing several statutes of heroes of the Confederacy—but not without vicious pushback. There’s a reason the O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers” is a popular cover among the brass bands of New Orleans, given the shuck-and-jive, post-plantation hypocrisies and injustices that black culture has endured for generations: “They smile in your face / All the time they want to take your place.”  

Last Sunday morning I was blasting the Rebirth’s classic “Let’s Go Get ’Em” and thinking about a long-forgotten snippet from an interview someone once did with the late Beat writer William S. Burroughs. As I recall the comment, Burroughs was talking about a car hubcap’s reflection—think about one of those dome-like hubcaps popular in decades past. He observed that when you look down into the hubcap as it reflects in the wet cobbled street, it’s a moment of eternity: You can see your own god in the reflection, your own rearview rendering as you briskly walk past the car and into the future.  

Whenever I put on the critic’s hat to think Deep Thoughts about the NOLA brass-band walking-parade tradition (and, look, I bought a lot of hats in that chapeau-friendly town), it hits me that the music both honors the past, is steeped in the past, and also chases after the future.

When it comes to the Rebirth, chasing the future has meant an embrace of hip-hop, reggae, funk and other contemporary music trends. In my humble little opinion, the greatness of the Rebirth is that the band looks into the hubcap as it charts a course to a future where dreams are no longer deferred for the African-American descendants of the great and ongoing sin, which dare not speak its name.  

After all, the Sunday second-line scene in New Orleans is literally music in forward motion—and there’s nothing like waiting on the parade on a spring day in New Orleans, watching with ear bent to the music as the parade makes its way to where you’re standing. You’ll see the colorful pendants denoting the social club that’s hosting the parade, then a vanguard of dancers—hey, there’s Dancing Man!—as men in pickup trucks hustle liquor drinks out a scratchy megaphone in a musical cadence that’s just as rhythmic as the band.

The trombone will emit its blatty punctuation mark, and then there it is, at long last, the tuba—or tubas—bouncing above everyone’s head. Before you know it, you’re engulfed in a rolling, dancing parade of laughing, joyful celebration. Everyone’s welcome.

The bottom line is that the New Orleans brass-band culture occupies a uniquely American piece of turf. It’s survivor’s music. It’s life or death music, whose nearest corollary in music is maybe punk rock—the music of defiance, of fighting back, of letting loose.  

It is music that’s literally close to the ground, that eats up the ground as it marches, and marches some more—as salvation from the poverty, the despair, the isolation, the bitterness, the fatalism and the betrayals that attend great American minority-majority cities like New Orleans.

Indeed, in a place like New Orleans, “the veil is thin” in ways that you just don’t experience anywhere else.  What that means is that on certain days, certain times of the year, certain places, the space—the veil—between our lowly corporeal lives and our version of the eternal is thin.

There’s a literal truth to the expression, sadly, when one reflects on the horrible Mother’s Day second-line shootings of 2013. But the figurative and poetic arc of the expression is one that any working stiff in the North Bay can relate to—anyone who’s been a paycheck away from abject poverty, living in the car and trying to sell a painting to make the rent.

“It’s the real deal,” Feinberg says. “It’s the real people. And speaking of veils, there is nothing in between. You get right to who they are because of the music. They are very connected. To see how they live, where they live, and how dangerous it can be there with the flooding and everything else—the resilience is amazing, and it’s a totally different way of life.”

New Orleans is the place to go if you want to experience the true cost of the dream deferred, as rendered by the American poet Langston Hughes in his poem “Harlem”:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Hughes’ theme is picked up by the Lil’ Rascals Brass Band in their 2001 second-line classic, “Roll with Me, Knock with Me.”

The song is both an homage to other brass bands and the competition among them—and a gritty description of life in the neglected streets of New Orleans. First up in the homage is, naturally, the mighty Rebirth Brass Band. It’s a fun song and one of my Sunday morning staples—and has an uncanny rhythmic arc to the Hughes poem:

Rebirth tried to get me! Rascals roll with me!

Tenth Ward tried to get me! Sixth Ward roll with me!

Who that shot D-Boy? Gotta get him, gotta get him!

Wipe your weary eyes, mama don’t cry (Mama don’t cry!)

Living in the Sixth [Ward], baby, do or die (Mama don’t cry!)

Drugs and prostitution, people will die (Mama don’t cry!)

They say they’re certain there’s no cure for AIDS, but that’s a lie (Mama don’t cry!)

Ten years from now, where will I be? (Mama don’t cry!)

Will I shine like a star, bright as the eyes can see? (Mama don’t cry!)

Will I be kicking the breeze, hanging on St. Philip Street? (Mama don’t cry!)

All I can ask the Sixth, is come on and roll with me! (Mama don’t cry!)

I tried to find the William Burroughs hubcap interview online, or a quote from it, and in my search I ended up reading dozens of Burroughs quotes and passages before giving up—but not quite.

I hovered for a long time over the following Burroughs quote, which really stood out as a kind of exemplar of what the heart and soul of the New Orleans brass band traditions are getting at: overcoming struggle through whatever means necessary and finding some sort of personal salvation through art, while retaining some personal integrity along the way. Burroughs writes, “The first and most important thing an individual can do is to become an individual again, decontrol himself, train himself as to what is going on and win back as much independent ground for himself as possible.”

Phil Frazier is on the line from New Orleans. “Oh, the struggles, yes,” he says as the Rebirth Brass Band band gears up for their trip to the North Bay.

“The struggles . . . we all have them. You know, no matter what happens,” he says, “no matter what—we still have the music.”

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