Why you should care
Because it takes true musicianship to turn a familiar tune into something utterly new — and get you on the dance floor.
If you’re down in New Orleans around midnight on a Thursday, do this: Head uptown to Magazine Street, to the divey corner bar on a quiet block, Le Bon Temps Roulé. Make your way past the nasty-tempered, long-haired doorman, through the barroom of clacking pool balls, past the crowded bar topped with tepid and free raw oysters and into a smoky room lit only by multi-colored Christmas lights. Beneath an oversized painting of an alligator, you’ll catch some of the hottest brass band music in the world. As the Soul Rebels Brass Band turns it up, the mixed crowd closes in, sometimes drunkenly stumbling into the trombone. But while bumping the musicians is a faux pas, no one can really blame them if they’re having a good time: this music is intended to make you move.
“People go nuts,” confirms Erion Williams, the band’s 31-year-old, saxophone-playing frontman. It’s because the Soul Rebels are serving up some of the freshest brass band music in years. And for those of you who think you don’t like brass music: they’ve got their horns aimed at ya. The real genius of the band’s cover songs is in the way they lure in the brass nonbeliever. “I get the crowd to recognize that cover,” says Williams, “and then I’m going to hit you with this song that you don’t know — an original song.” Original songs like “504,” a smooth ode to their city, intertwined with hits to “crank that party atmosphere.”
You struggle to remember why the song didn’t ever sound like that.
New Orleans brass band music is old news, its rich history stretching back to the 1800s, and the Soul Rebels’ eight young members come out of that old tradition. “We all played in either high school or university marching bands … we come from that high-steppin’ world.” As high schoolers, their band was an offshoot of the esteemed Olympia Brass Band, and the young musicians were looking to keep the sound cool by blending modern genres like funk and hip-hop with the traditional sound. It was 1991 when one of New Orleans’ own Neville Brothers — Cyril — gave the band their name. As Williams tells it, Neville said, “Man y’all just remind me of some soul rebels.” The name stuck.
Catch the Soul Rebels live in New Orleans and on tour.
Williams joined the group in 2005, when he happened to show up one night right as the sax player was storming out, fired on the spot. “They just turned to me and asked, ‘Man, do you have your horn?’” Ten years later, next generation New Orleans music royalty, Trombone Shorty — a high school classmate of some of the Rebels — is a fan himself. On a recent Thursday he cuddled up with his boo in the front row, grooving to the band’s soundblast. This winter the band opened for his tour.
Hearing their killer covers — filling all corners with the swell of the horns to meet the song’s climax, before dropping it all back into the capable thumps of the sousaphone and drums — makes you struggle to remember why the song didn’t ever sound like that.
The band has been spreading their brass gospel far and wide in 2014, from Brazil to China. “We’re building momentum,” says Williams, and they’ve got plans to burn up the road on the tails of a new album they hope to drop in 2015. Still, seeing the Soul Rebels in New Orleans is a special treat. Williams laughs, “New Orleans is our biggest critic, you know. So when we play at home, it’s always turnt up.”