New Orleans Brings the Heat, and the Beat, to Seattle

by Isaac on 04.09.2012

Not all US cities have a reputation for rich music and nightlife. If you find yourself wandering through a city that does push the limits of noise ordinances, consider yourself lucky. This weekend, I was lucky enough to experience a flavor of sound from one such notoriously musical city. Down at the Tractor Tavern, this last Friday, I saw The Revivalists and the Rebirth Brass Band stir up a party that was a refreshing departure from the usual Seattle “Rock Sauce” that you hear in our clubs. Hailing all the way from New Orleans, these bands cooked up songs that were a rare, sweet treat of upbeat dance fuel. That’s not to say that I am going to pack up and move down to New Orleans because they’ve convinced me that it’s objectively better over there. However, these professionals put on a concert clinic!

The Rebirth Brass Band

The Revivalists

I arrived at the Tractor just in time to catch The Revivalists opening the show. First thing I noticed was the line at the door, and the “Sold Out” signs plastered on the front. Then, I heard a Saxophone playing over guitars and vocals. That’s how I knew I was a little late. No sound guy plays that kind of thing before or in between sets around here. Once inside, I was immersed in funky dancing beats and robust vocals that told me ‘these guys have been practicing.’ Their showmanship was top-notch and they were doing everything in their power to get the audience to move.

The mixed demographics that made up the audience ranged from 21 year olds and their college friends, to couples in their late 50s. I couldn’t find any particular pattern. There were people from all walks of life. Lucky for me, nobody had started dancing yet, so I slithered up close to the stage to get some pictures.

The Revivalists cooking up a beat. Pedal Steel is always cool.

The Revivalists gave an inviting blend of dance-worthy alt-funk and genuine personality that is rarely seen in live performances. When they were really grooving as a unit, the sound was nothing short of sexy. I really liked seeing sax playing along side guitars, and pedal steel. They were not making music to just look cool. They were having real fun playing for the audience and trying to elicit a positive emotional response. The band played with little or no downtime between their songs. Everything was a beautiful segue into something else and no time was wasted. The energy of their set was an expertly orchestrated roller-coaster ride. They effortlessly went from jumping and rocking to a quiet whisper and back again. All of it felt authentic; like it was coming from a real emotional state. They weren’t just playing the songs; they were expressing them.

Breaking it down.

I couldn’t shake the inner voice in my head wishing that more bands would play like this, instead of mimicking playing like this. I hate to use him as an example, but it’s the difference between Kurt Cobain singing from his heart, and somebody covering Kurt Cobain singing from his heart, especially when trying to match Kurt’s inflection perfectly. While Kurt Cobain’s singing is hypnotizing, the cover artist makes you cringe, because you know his emotion is simulated. The Revivalists don’t just go through the motions of a pre-written song. They practice a visceral art of being real, and it makes a big difference.

I felt like the crowd wasn’t giving back as much as it was getting. It was kind of heartbreaking. With my trained eyes of crowd observation, I could detect many subtle smiles cracking on the corners of peoples’ mouths, but the band was doing all the dancing. People were enjoying it. The band was doing everything in their power to get people to show it, but the crowd was either too shy or not drunk enough. It might have been my empathy affecting my imagination, but I thought I could sense some looks of disappointment from the band. Still, they played like the pros they are and kept the beat cooking with no hesitation for their whole set. The crowd did catch on and start to loosen up by the end of their set, but I felt the overall response was a little underwhelming. But hey, that’s what happens when you are an opening band.

Sax and guitar truly can get along.

On that note, I think the organizers could have used a local band to open with a short set. Yes, the show was sold out, but in terms of getting the party primed for the touring acts, it could have made a big difference. The most appropriate local band I could think of for the job would probably be Nigel Mustafa. They seem to have a similar aesthetic as The Revivalists, though with a more humorous bent.

Anyway, on to the Rebirth Brass Band. The changeover between bands was a little drawn out. The Tractor had only one sound guy working a pretty logistically difficult setup. At final count, there were 15 microphones set up on stage. All of the musicians in front needed a vocal mic and separate instrument mic for their horns. The crowd thickened up in anticipation. There was no time left over for a sound check, and the band took the stage with one mic not plugged in to anything, and the levels were less than golden. Sloppy.

Rebirth came out and launched into sounds of pure happiness! It was a smorgasbord. There was so much going on that I had to close my eyes for a while to take it in because I was getting whiplash trying to find where every sound was coming from. They would all be playing together one second, then breaking into mini solos the next, then seamlessly flowing into mini ensembles, laughing, joking with each other on stage… It was a unique experience. I was impressed from the get go, but not initially blown away. Over time, though, I realized that they weren’t slowing. That display of stamina is what slowly blew my mind. They didn’t drop the marching beat. This was either a 20 minute song, a jam, or they were just so good at changing gears that I couldn’t tell where one song ended and the next began. The energy was always peaking in the red.

I could totally imagine The Rebirth Brass Band headlining in parades (as they are known to do). Dancing to their music was a cinch, and it wasn’t dumbed down for the benefit of the beat. Rebirth’s music is technical, improvisational genius. I thought, after realizing that their songs were probably all at the same tempo, that I would eventually get used to the feel, and become bored by it. I was wrong. Part of this band’s appeal is how unpredictable their playing can be. Just as it seems like they are stuck in some kind of freestyle solo loop, they all drop their instruments and sing lyrics as an ensemble in perfect synchronicity. The only thing that remained consistent was my attention. I stopped trying to pin down the structures because the analysis was ruining my experience. They’re just too good, and they make it look so easy. The only negative thing I can say is that it was a little ridiculous that they were charging $20 for CDs on top of the concert ticket price. I saw them turn several eager fans away when offered less. I think their Grammy might have gone to their head. Still, I can’t recommend The Rebirth Brass Band enough. If you find yourself in the same town as them at any time in the future, seek them out.

I tried to take some video of their playing, but it’s hard to know when to start and stop the recording since their songs don’t start or end…ever. Still, I’ll post some of the clips below.

Overall, the show was a monumental success. The Revivalists and The Rebirth Brass Band put on an absolutely killer show. I had originally scoffed at the $25 ticket price, but this show was totally worth it. I highly recommend either of them if you ever get the chance. They represented their city like champs, and I gotta say, I’m kind of jonesin’ to take a trip down to New Orleans.

Below are some quick video clips, that I recorded, of the Rebirth Brass Band. The quality isn’t the best, especially for the sound, and it doesn’t come close to what it’s like to see this band live. Still, here you go:

Horn Solos:

Drum Solo:

General Banter and Playing:

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