The ReBirth Brass Band brings funky tuba to J Street
Nowadays, when your band hails from New Orleans and its name begins with the word “rebirth,” audiences must expect a lot from you. When you’re the ReBirth Brass Band, it’s not a problem. “If anything, it’s like they’re more glad to see us, that we’re still doin’ what we’re doin’,” said the band’s founder and leader, Philip Frazier, on the phone from Louisiana last week. “They’re proud to see that we’re still going strong.”
Long before Hurricane Katrina all but obliterated the cradle of American music, the ReBirth was already firmly, rompingly, booty-shakingly under way. And now it’s here—at Harlow’s on Sunday—to remind you that there still is a good way of tearing the roof off a place.
“Everybody’s like, ‘We gotta keep this music alive,’” Frazier said. “People really appreciate the music to begin with. But when they wasn’t getting it, they realized they was missin’ it. We just did [New Orleans music hall] Tipitina’s, and whew! It was wild!”
Frazier speaks in a savory, syncopated N’awlins style (it’s more than just an accent), with what sounds like locally grown intuition about how to stay light even in the heaviest circumstances. If someone were to ask, “What does this expression mean, ‘Big Easy’?” a few minutes with Frazier would be a good answer.
Actually, not getting bogged down is among his best strengths as a bandleader. This matters, especially, because his instrument is the tuba, often regarded as a bloated, lumbering thing and by duty the bedrock of the nine-piece band’s big, fat sound. But Frazier will tell you he counts the punchy-funk sax idol Maceo Parker (the hit-man when James Brown said, “Hit me!”) among his strongest influences, and it shows. He’ll tell you, not immodestly, that his “sousa-funk,” assembled with help from the “mean backbeat” of younger brother Keith on bass drum, lends the band its “life force,” and you’ll know right away what he’s talking about.
By being tight as a duck’s ass but loose as a goose, the ReBirth is everything you’d hope for in a brass band. It’s also something more, as tracks like “Talk That Shit Now,” “Rockin’ on Your Stinkin’ Ass,” “Whop!” and the popular “Shake Them Titties/Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” medley may suggest. Digging deep into the raucous, sprawling vamps of both original and standard-fare tunes, the band serves up what its members like to call a stylistic gumbo of R&B, rap, soul, trad jazz, reggae and giddy free-form what-have-you. The what-have-you tends to be a crowd favorite.
Insouciantly summarizing the birth of the ReBirth, in 1983, Frazier made the whole enterprise sound, well, easy. “I put the band together in high school,” he said. “Then it was just a matter of gettin’ out and playing in fronna people, gettin’ in the studio and recordin’, and there we go, we off and runnin’.” Well, OK then.
“Around here, you see brass bands all over the place,” he recalled. “But back in the early ’80s, it was kinda fadin’ out. Then hip-hop just started coming out, so we were hearin’ that. And we could tell it was a good way to get the younger generation involved. So we started writing hipper tunes.”
You can imagine this strategy as an ill-conceived invitation to disaster, some desperate, demographically calculated attempt to curry market favor. But for the ReBirth Brass Band, it was more like a bunch of hungry musicians hearing something new and saying, “That’s hot; let’s use it.”
If Frazier’s suggestion of “the younger generation” sounds nonspecific, it’s because more young people discover the band every year and because the music often makes old people feel younger than they are. “We get all ages now,” he confirmed. The band has toured Europe, Africa, Japan, all the jazz festivals you’ve ever heard of and, of course, all the joints in New Orleans.
So, what’s in store for Sacramento? Rollin’, kickin’ it, funkin’ it up—the usual. “I’d tell ’em they better git up on their feet ’cause we’re comin’ with the hurricane sound from New Orleans!” Frazier advised.